Monday, September 30, 2013

But Is It Art?

He was scorned by the art world, particularly critics, but praised by William de Kooning and collected by Andy Warhol. He studied at the Art Students League in New York City. For years he was a patient and close friend of the psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson. He joined the cause for nuclear disarmament and civil rights movement. His painting of a 6-year-old Black girl breaking the color line accompanied by U.S. Marshalls against a wall of KKK epithets became an iconic image of the school integration struggle. We share a first name and one other curious event.

In 1957 both Norman Rockwell and I attended a college extension course, albeit in far different parts of the country, called Discovering Modern Poetry. He married his teacher. My class was under the auspices of UCLA and held at Peggy’s house. I remembered her when we reconnected 23 years later and began my life part II. But I digress.

He was a frail man raised at a time when Teddy Roosevelt promoted the robust, athletic type as a male ideal. His work often showed older men and boys caught in embarrassing moments, projections of how he saw himself. He had three wives but was probably a closeted gay man. Few of his paintings depicted women at all.

At age 22, in 1916, Rockwell’s illustration made the cover of America’s most popular magazine. There were two weeklies with the word Saturday in their title. One was the Saturday Review of Literature. Readers of that literary magazine most probably looked down on the Saturday Evening Post which employed Rockwell until 1963. The Post was vigorously anti-New Deal and isolationist until it wasn’t supportable. 

During the war Norman Rockwell offered his Four Freedoms posters to the War Department and was turned down. After they appeared on the cover of the Post the government swallowed its pride and embraced the work reprinting them by the hundreds of thousands. Rockwell also created Rosie the Riveter in 1943, the iconography of the time.

Along with Edward Hopper, who captured urban desolation, and Grant Wood whose, American Gothic, spoke of rural life in facetious tones, Rockwell’s work largely depicts a vanishing Americana of small-town New England. He ranks as a first-class draftsman but was he an illustrator or an artist? Now that I’ve posed the question I want to discredit it.

Is it art, might also be asked about work hanging in many contemporary galleries. If art is defined as that which confounds, agitates and shifts perception then Rockwell could be consigned to the category of illustrator. He was not only dismissed by the Modernists but regarded as the bourgeois antithesis of what they were all about. While the New York School veered toward reduction and negative space Rockwell’s canvases were almost cluttered.

But I abhor categories. Blurring the lines between is more fun. I’m all for inclusion. It can be argued that much of minimalist art is elitist, soulless and opaque. At least Norman Rockwell knew how to connect. His genre work offered immediate recognition. The first half of the 20th century was a time when immigrant America had to invent itself and he found the populist links and rituals. His genius was to create a human drama in the moment. Even if we never found our real selves in the scene, our idealized self would know the way around. And perhaps his homey representations were not as benign as at first glance.

One of his most famous pictures is Thanksgiving dinner as the representation of Freedom from Want. Those gathered around the table are not looking at either Grandma or the turkey. None are bowed in prayer giving thanks and one central figure has a look on his face as if he is only begrudgingly present. This could have been Rockwell himself. He was estranged from his own nuclear family as he took vacations with his male model and friends. Rockwell is less a realist than a fabulist.

Perhaps Rockwell can be compared to Robert Frost. In their separate art forms each took a path less traveled by avant-guarde movements. Their words and images will endure as Yankee-bred artists whose narratives welcome the reader and viewer and are deceptively familiar but demand repeated visits. Is it Art? I say, Yes, make room for him.