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Salute to Norman Rockwell

By Richard N. Gregg




Modern theoreticians have long excluded from the ranks of "fine art" that genre of narrative, didactic, or occasional paintings of which Norman Rockwell is so clearly a contemporary master. Each generation develops its own sense of aesthetic value, and most critics become preoccupied with the latest style. Caught up, for example, in the intricate egotisms of Abstract Expressionism, in which self-dramatization and personal revelation had the force of moral imperative, the professional critic gave little serious thought to such obviously sentimental crowd-pleasers as Rockwell's "Four Freedoms," whose impact meanwhile ricocheted around the world through reproductions.

This is not to suggest that the works of Rockwell and de Kooning be subjected to identical standards of judgment. It is, however, to suggest that Rockwell may be taken quite seriously within the American tradition of genre painting, and that genre painting itself may have some decisive influence upon the next direction taken in the visual arts.

The Rockwell reappraisal generated by the 1968 Danenberg Gallery show in New York, and affirmed so recently (1972) by The Brooklyn Museum exhibition may ease the predicament in which the arbiters of aesthetic theory now find themselves. Abstract Expressionism's call for "subject matter that is tragic and timeless" was answered, as Harold Rosenberg points out, with the "hail of hamburgers, Coca-Cola bottles, and comic strips" that was Pop Art. And this cerebral satire sobered into the excessive ratiocination of the Minimalist movement only to find its logical extension in the final aesthetic bankruptcy of the Conceptualists -- whose fear of personal expressiveness was such that they substituted for paintings mere verbal propositions stuck to the gallery wall. The time of subjectless expression may have passed.

Hovering behind and perhaps above all this have been sixty long years of strong, steady, consistent public demand for the work of Norman Rockwell. Today that work is being celebrated in some of the most serious art museums of our nation.

As artists and theoreticians now regroup, it may be, for better or worse, with a greater appreciation for the power of genre painting in this country. The Photorealists have reintroduced subject, and even use some of Rockwell's photographic projection techniques, but their extreme frigidity has generated displeasure. At least one critic predicts "a return to the practice of art for reasons of individual feeling and insight rather than to demonstrate theories of 'object-ness.' "

It may be that in this most fractured of times such genre work as Rockwell's may have a healing effect, provide a "medicine of cherries," as does his own painting of a grandfather being amazed with a young man's inventiveness (see cover).

Rockwell himself would protest such inflated claims. "I'm an illustrator," he insists, "not an artist." Although he received commissions in the same sense as did William Sidney Mount, Eastman Johnson, and Winslow Homer, Rockwell was obliged to accomplish this work under the intense pressure of modern rapid-fire publication deadlines. Serious concern for the future preservation of his canvases was precluded in his weekly race to finish in time to turn it over to the photographer, the paint not yet dry (see 27).

The fact that most of these commissions were for the covers of popular magazines was of course a determining factor in his selection of subject matter. Rockwell explains the limitations: "The cover must please a vast number of people (no matter how: by amusing, edifying, praising; but it must please); it must not require an explanation or caption to be understood; it must have an instantaneous impact (people won't bother to puzzle out a cover's meaning). "

While some artists would be stifled, Rockwell has made a virtue of necessity and internalized this precept to a remarkable degree: "I cannot really convince myself that any painting is good unless it is popular. If the public dislikes one of my Post covers, I can't help disliking it myself or, at least doubting it. I am never sure whether or not a painting is good until I have heard the public's opinion of it."

Fortunately, America is well pleased. All intricate aesthetic questions aside, Rockwell has consistently offered to popular American culture a fresh, immediately understandable vision of ourselves to which we may aspire or with which we may relax in reassuring recognition. His very dependency upon our positive reinforcement honors us, and reinforces our conviction that he is not false to his subject. He painted a selectively positive vision of the everyday life he lived, consistently using friends, relatives, and neighbors as his models.

More specially, Rockwell knew what not to paint. When paintings reflecting a nostalgia for 19th century rural America paled before the emerging crises of the depression, communism, fascism and war, Rockwell knew enough to leave Tom Sawyer behind. In his place, however, were no looming gas ovens, no endless bread lines, no violent union struggles, no glorification of killing. . . no matter to what end. What propaganda he indulged in was simply propaganda to be good, to obey the golden rule and his images provided us with the enabling stamina.

Viewers who grew up with Rockwell, and now have children and grandchildren of their own, look back through Rockwell's painted children to recall that sweeter time of their youth when the common culture reflected the American pastoral ideal and consciously reinforced the striving, the yearnings, and the wild idealism of adolescence.

Children of a later generation, who grew up in an age of alienation and lived through a war which fragmented rather than unified this nation, look with wonder and a touch of wistfulness at images of harmony, unabashed idealism, and unselfconscious joy.

For these visions, Norman Rockwell, we salute you.


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