Over at his blog, Little by Little(hales), my long-time friend Bret Littlehales recently posted a paean to painter Norman Rockwell. Bret and I have known each other since high school and, in that time, he's compiled an enviable list of accomplishments. He's a formidable photographer and an accomplished blues harp player. (You can read about his recently released CD here.)
Bret's not too shabby a writer, either. I'd been to see the Rockwell exhibit at the Museum of American Art at about the same time he did, but reading his comments on Rockwell's technique, I realized how much I'd missed. Of course, I was with my 9-year-old, and before we went to see Rockwell's paintings he'd had to endure the exhibit of photographs by Allen Ginsberg at the National Gallery of Art.
I suppose I don't really have to tell you which exhibit my son liked best.
I agree with Bret that Rockwell's technique was extraordinary. Rockwell seems always to have done work for hire, however, and I've always wondered what he might have done had he invested that technique in some pure product of his heart. Interestingly, the work in the exhibit comes from the collections of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, two Hollywood craftsmen as concerned--as was Rockwell--with creating striking images as with keeping people coming back for more.
But that doesn't explain my growing sense of unease as I walked from painting to painting. I was halfway through the exhibit before I asked myself, "But where are the black people?" As it happened, I was in front of a magazine illustration from the '20s or '30s featuring two boys, one of them black. It was, I think, the only depiction of African-Americans in the show.
Of course, Rockwell began his career in 1913 (he was just 19!), a time when black Americans rarely appeared in popular art as anything other than caricatures. And it's true that he did include images of black men and women in his later work. One of his most famous, and most moving, paintings is of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her way to integrating a New Orleans elementary school. It's about as far from the coon stereotype hanging in the Museum of American Art as you can get.
Maybe it's just my growing sense of paranoia--justifable, I submit, given the latest assault by Newt Gingrich on President Obama or given nutcases like the one my friend Eileen Pollack interviewed for a piece about the militia movement. An IT professional, he's presumably smart enough to know better, yet he believes "President Obama is going to make an end run around the Second Amendment by requiring every bullet in America to be inscribed with a traceable serial number"--but I found it significant that the Rockwell exhibit was packed and that virtually all of the visitors were white.
I suspect many found Rockwell's paintings comforting. And how could they not, in the confusing, polyglot nation that is America in 2010? In contrast, Rockwell showed us an America as American as, well, apple pie. In his country of barefoot boys and pig-tailed girls, honest, thick-fingered workingmen don't fear speaking their minds at town meetings, and tough, road-weary truckers are decent enough to be moved by a grandmother and her grandson saying grace in a diner.
It's hard not to be moved, too. And, in the end, if it's true Norman Rockwell didn't really show us as we truly are, it's also true that he showed us as we, deep inside our secret hearts, want to be--a nation of values, a people of possibilities. A few good movies from the 1930s and '40s do something similar: The Best Years of Our Lives, say, and, less successfully, Since you Went Away. We could do worse than to remember and celebrate that, amidst the idiocy and the name-calling of this fractured, fractious political season.