Monday, July 19, 2010

So predictable, so predictable...

Way back, when I first announced the Rockwell exhibition now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum I wrote:

Now for some easy predictions: the high brow elitist critics will all unite in one front and all hate this show. The public, being far more progressive and democratic in their acceptance of what is art (without silly obsolete notions of "high" art and all other art, and without ingrained notions of "illustration" versus "high art") will line up to see the exhibition and continue to love Rockwell as they have for decades.
Boom! Then the first shot came across the bow of the exhibition a few weeks later when the Washington Post's chief art critic, Blake Gopnik wrote in an otherwise quite good and interesting article on the future of photography that "It's not that art museums never show "low" painting. The Corcoran has shown Norman Rockwell..."

Gopnik exposed his hand way back in that piece about how he (and most other art critics, I think) feel about the work of Norman Rockwell. It is the classic and antiquated and uniquely American traditional cliche-ridden critical view of Rockwell and his work; it's their key example as offerings of a critical perspective of high art and low art.

Separate everything; label everything, put everything and everyone in a box with a label: high art, low art, fine art, illustration, Hispanics, Latinos, Scots-Irish, Jewish-American, Cuban-American...

The problem is that the world has moved on since that critical perspective of Rockwell was a mandatory regulation to be obeyed by art critics in years past. And thanks to other sources of information, and thanks to the spectacular popularity of the Rockwellian legacy, that dog doesn't hunt anymore, and people like Blake Gopnik just don't get it that when they write in such "traditional" party line ways; it doesn't stick anymore.

Today, anything and everything can be art, and to the horror of the old-fashioned critical cabal, Rockwell has managed to sneak in museums as a key "fine art" figure, perhaps one of the most important, historical fine arts figures in 20th century American art.

And so it was no surprise that on July 4, Blake Gopnik, in his WaPo review of the show wrote that:
Norman Rockwell is often championed as the great painter of American virtues. Yet the one virtue most nearly absent from his work is courage. He doesn't challenge any of us, or himself, to think new thoughts or try new acts or look with fresh eyes. From the docile realism of his style to the received ideas of his subjects, Rockwell reliably keeps us right in the middle of our comfort zone.

That's what made him one of the most important painters in U.S. history, and the most popular. He had almost preternatural social intuitions, along with brilliant skills as a visual salesman. Over his seven-decade career, that coupling let him figure out what middle-class white Americans most wanted to feel about themselves, then sell it back to them in paint.
Gopnik then goes back to an antiquated anti-Rockwell weapon: that he painted a "homogenized vision of the country," in other words, Rockwell is a white bread painter who only painted... ahhh white America.

Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With

Norman Rockwell. The Problem We All Live With. 1963.

But there's a huge fly in that old ointment; in fact a lot of flies. Because Rockwell's popularity continued to grow after his death, countless documentaries about his life, coupled with mega retrospective exhibitions, showed us that Rockwell, along with the many in rest of the country, discovered his social activism and conscience in the early 1960s. In fact, historians point to his marriage to Molly Punderson (a retired school teacher) in 1961 as the key event that lit his social conscience on fire. Punderson's influence on Rockwell's painting activism has been well-documented and had a huge influence on what the painter painted over the next 17 years. Together with Rockwell's close friends Erik Erickson and Robert Coles, both of whom were strong advocates of the civil rights movement, Punderson's profound influence over Rockwell's artistic involvement in the Civil Rights movement yielded Rockwellian paintings that don't fit the mold that Gopnik wants us to believe, because it would destroy his entire flawed argument.

Gopnik does a drive-by shooting of this subject (he has to) when he erroneously reports that "toward the end of his career, Rockwell got Look magazine to publish a few heroic scenes from the civil rights movement -- at just the moment when such subjects had moved into the mainstream of American thought." Note the way in which the above is written to minimize this huge contribution by Rockwell to American art history.

I say huge because Rockwell didn't do this "towards the end of his career" (he painted for another 15 years) but in 1963, just precisely at the moment when the civil rights movement needed it and the same year that Dr. King's march on Washington took place (not years later).

Only Nixon could have gone to China and only Rockwell could have convinced America's leading magazine at the time, Look, to carry his artwork about the Civil Rights movement. And indeed it was Rockwell who convinced Look magazine (not the other way around) to publish his historical paintings celebrating the emerging civil rights movement in America. It was Rockwell who put a painting of a little black girl being escorted to school in a magazine laying on the breakfast tables of millions of American homes, and it was Rockwell who painted lynchings in the South, and "New Kids in the Neighborhood". He did this while no other major white painter that I know of, even remotely addressed the civil rights movement in such depth and historical candor as early as he did.

Gopnik also selects words carefully and tells us that "The Saturday Evening Post, for instance, for which Rockwell painted 323 covers, forbade him to depict blacks except in subservient roles." That was true, and a gross sign of the times. But what Gopnik doesn't tell you, is that Rockwell quit the Saturday Evening Post and moved over to Look precisely because of artistic freedom issues and his desire to paint the events in America which interested him, such as the emerging Civil Rights movement.

Norman Rockwell Southern Justice, 1963

Norman Rockwell. Southern Justice. 1963.

This powerful painting depicts the murder of three Civil Rights workers who were killed for their work to register African American voters in the South.

But to admit that would seriously undermine the main critical argument against Rockwell. You see... Gopnik's greatest sin as a critic is simple: His is a critical perspective of unending clichés. The reason we so easily recognize the flawed points of anti-Rockwellism in his writing is because they reflect the standard critical image we already know from countless other critics' reports. His negative viewpoints are so familiar because they are the stories that we've been told by art critics a thousand times before.

But now they fail to stick with all of us. On Saturday, July 10th, David Apatoff, from McLean, VA responded to Gopnik's article and writes in the Post:
Norman Rockwell's work is no longer a cliché ["Afraid to make waves," Arts & Style, July 4]. He has been replaced by a new cliché: dogmatic, postmodernist art critics who believe that anything may qualify as legitimate art (including a belch or scribble) as long as it is not a painting by Norman Rockwell. When Blake Gopnik dismissed technical skill and traditional technique in his quest for "new acts," he failed to realize just how much of a tired stereotype he has become.

The taint of Rockwell's commercial sponsors has dissipated over the years, so the artist can now be viewed more objectively by those with an open mind to do so. If Gopnik had some of the "courage" that he claims Rockwell lacked, he would see beyond his personal grudges with Rockwell's content and recognize a contemporary art scene that is self-indulgent, decadent and listing toward irrelevance. Time for "new acts," indeed.
And he's not alone, as Carl Eifert of Alexandria adds:
Those days of the late '30s and early '40s were times that Blake Gopnik obviously does not understand. His America is about "equal room for Latino socialists, disgruntled lesbian spinsters, foul-mouthed Jewish comics" and, we are to understand, critics like him.
Eifert's point is a good one, Gopnik is judging Rockwell's earlier work with the sensibilities of 2010, and failing to put it in the context of the harsh realities of the 30's, 40's and 50's.

Rockwell new Kids in the Neighborhood

Norman Rockwell. New Kids in the Neighborhood. 1967.

And what is also clear to me, is that if Rockwell were alive today, he would be probably painting Latino socialists (whatever that is, is he talking about the Castro brothers or Hugo Chavez?), disgruntled (and happy) lesbian spinsters, foul-mouthed Jewish comics, but probably not Blake.

And what is also clear, given the mounting evidence of growing Rockwell intrusion into the sacred and forbidden halls of fine art museums, and even his tiny advancements in being grudgingly accepted by the artcriticsphere as one of the key American artists of the 20th century, is that decades and centuries from now, when Gopnik's and this post and most other critics' writings will be a dusty memory in the archives of the Internets, the Rockwellian Empire will continue to rock and the Jetsons and their kids will continue to line up outside museums to see Rockwell's artwork.

Read 163 comments on Blake's article here.

Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg is on through Jan. 2 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at Eighth and G streets NW. Call 202-633-7970 or visit