Norman Rockwell at the Guggenheim, for the Shallow and Jug-Stupid

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

In 1949,
the writer Russell Lynes suggested in the pages of Harper’s that
American culture was divided along lines of taste rather than class. "It
isn’t wealth or family that makes prestige these days," he said, giving
voice to the usual surge of postwar American egalitarianism. "It’s
high thinking." Famously titled "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,"
the subject of Lynes’ article was picked up by the editors of Life
magazine and digested into a chart-like photograph for its readers. Featuring
three classes of men standing in front of three types of pictures, the illustration
placed one man, a relaxed, highbrow type in a Brooks Brothers suit, before a
Picasso portrait. The second, a stocky, blue-collar type, stared up at a saucy
calendar pinup. The third, the image of the anxious American middlebrow, was
made to stand, stiff-necked as a chicken, before that great icon of humorless,
corny Middle American virtue: Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Truth
is, he might just as well have been looking at a painting by Norman Rockwell.

have always wanted everybody to like my work," Rockwell told his son Tom
in his aptly titled autobiography My Adventures as an Illustrator, "I
could never be satisfied with just the approval of the critics (and boy, I’ve
certainly had to be satisfied without it) or a small group of kindred souls.
So I have painted pictures that didn’t disturb anybody, that I knew everyone
would understand and like." Everyone, that is–as Rockwell painfully
acknowledged–except an American arts establishment weaned on vanguardism,
innovation and a medullar opposition to mass culture.

Born in
a shabby-Caucasian corner of New York to troubled, distant parents, Rockwell
witnessed the fleeting image of impressionism from the picture window of Manhattan
museums, came of age during the golden age of Picasso and cubism, observed futurism,
dada and surrealism from afar, enjoyed brand-name fame during the rise of abstract
expressionism and ended a 47-year career at The Saturday Evening Post
precisely as pop and minimalism ushered in four more decades of difficult, elitist

through nothing less than the birth and development of modernism, it might be
reasonable to expect Rockwell to have shared, however reluctantly, in the era’s
excitement. He was, instead, after a few failed efforts and a trip to Paris,
stubbornly impervious. Rockwell was an artist of meager imagination and limited
talent who gained popular renown by unstintingly providing postwar Americans
with exactly the kind of entertainment they wanted–a creative vision just
shallow and jug-stupid enough to meet the age’s groundswell of unchecked
commercialism on its own terms.

the Rembrandt of Punkin Crick, as Robert Hughes memorably dubbed him, was arguably
the most famous of a century of American print illustrators that includes folks
as varied as Maxfield Parrish, Frederic Remington, Playboy’s Varga
and others who have over the years churned out memorable commercial images,
like Joe Camel and the Coppertone Girl. A born ad man if ever there was one,
Rockwell’s fame was inseparable from the phenomenon of mechanical reproduction;
his work, in fact, depended on it, as it was never really intended to be seen
in the flesh. Rockwell shilled for more than 150 companies in his lifetime,
from Jell-O to, quite fittingly, Hallmark Cards, helping to kick off mass culture
as we know it in the form of large-scale color magazine illustrations.

But his
biggest client appears to have been the U.S. government, for whom he stumped
uncritically until nearly the end of his career, and for whom he worked mostly
for free, except in the case of truly laughable chestnuts like the Four Freedoms,
published by the Office of War Information–"The War That Refreshes:
The Four Delicious Freedoms," was how it was mocked by Francis Brennan,
the head of the wartime graphics bureau. Rockwell made of his 317 covers for
The Saturday Evening Post heartwarming, sentimental propaganda for an
impossibly counterfeit American Arcadia.

As robust
as anything filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, but putting on a happy face, Rockwell’s
pictures were the perfect illustration of the dangerously triumphalist ideology
of American exceptionalism, with full emphasis placed on the wholesome and the
waspy. Made up of vignettes from the sort of guileless American pastorale Rockwell
cherished but never lived, his cartoonily exaggerated paintings of "Boys
batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps;
old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand," etc., entered the
consciousness of viewers like retinal cotton candy, demanding no real thinking
and only a dumb smile in return.

The private
life of Norman Normal, though, was another, far more ordinary affair. Depressed
by the nagging suspicion of empty success, Rockwell sought and underwent psychotherapy.
His first marriage ended in divorce. A second wife was hospitalized for alcoholism.
In the end, even Rockwell saw the gaping maw that opened up between real life
and what one might call the short, happy life of a winning ideology. "I
really believed," he said in 1970, "that the war against Hitler would
bring the Four Freedoms to everyone. But I couldn’t paint that today.
I just don’t believe it. I was doing this best-possible-world, Santa-down-the-chimney,
lovely-kids-adoring-their-kindly-grandpa-sort-of-thing. And I liked it, but
now I’m sick of it."

In the end,
not even Rockwell himself could stand the banality, mawkishness and corrosive
fiction built into his visual narratives. So what, one might ask, is the Guggenheim
doing today hosting a retrospective of almost 400 of his works? The show, certainly,
is not much to look at. The paintings are flat, coarsely compressed and have
no surface to speak of (they were, after all, designed to be pictures, not paintings).
Accompanied by a catalog penned by well-known writers who incredibly call Rockwell
"an American master" and bald-facedly compare his work favorably with
that of Vermeer, Daumier, Hals, Rubens and Michelangelo, it is possible to hazard
a guess.

the opportunity to achieve a bit of tasty and elusive critical eclat, figures
like the plainly blithering Thomas Hoving ("Rockwell didn’t sugarcoat"
and was "never hokey or saccharine"), cagey Robert Rosenblum ("If
it had already become respectable to scrutinize and admire… Victorian genre
paintings, why couldn’t the same standards apply here?") and ubiquitous
baby boomer Dave Hickey (Rockwell is "the last great poet of American childhood,
the Vermeer of this nation’s domestic history") dusted off their air
cannons and let go with warm salvos that might buoy up the Dow but not Rockwell’s
deservedly miserable reputation. These critics, Typhoid Marys of the revisionist
epidemic, arrived at the coat-changing party too late, missing the 20th century’s
last bogus intellectual strategy by almost two years.

Miss this
show and ignore the catalog. Rarely have the ambitions of a museum, an artist
and his critical supporters ever resulted in such a transparently opportunistic

Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," through March 3, 2002, at
the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Ave. (89th St.), 423-3500.