March 23rd, 2006

Pictorial propaganda: Part II–Norman Rockwell and Soviet art

[Part I here.]

Now, who doesn’t like Norman Rockwell?

Yeah, he’s corny as all get out. But breathes there the man (or woman) with soul so dead who wouldn’t be touched by this picture, and a host of others by Rockwell?:

rockwell_girl_at_the_mirror.jpg

Well, there are some who indeed seem to be untouched by it and its brethren. But there may be an even greater number who actually are touched by it, at least for a moment—but then their sense of their own cultural, personal, and political sophistication kicks in and will not allow that feeling to stand, because they distrust it.

An excellent example of the sort of thing to which I’m referring is this article by Jerry Saltz, appearing in the Village Voice of November 2001 (shortly after 9/11). It is a review of a Rockwell exhibit that was mounted by Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum, entitled: “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People.”

That title, of course, is no accident; as I wrote yesterday, Rockwell’s paintings were indeed a sort of advertisement and even propaganda for America, geared to the American public itself.

Reviewer Saltz finds the entire concept of an art museum honoring Rockwell somewhat offensive:

When it comes to the claims being made for Norman Rockwell, my advice is just say no. A cadre of museum directors, curators, national critics, art historians, and suddenly populist art theorists want you to love him.

At one point, Saltz quotes an explicit reference to the inspiration Rockwell’s work might be able to offer the American people, post-9/11—the propaganda aspect, that is:

Thomas Krens opines that Rockwell’s “nostalgic images of American life” might “offer comfort and inspiration . . . during such a difficult moment in U.S. history.”

But Saltz says such comfort should be resisted. His reasons are not just artistically elitist (that Rockwell is an inferior illustrator, not a true artist), although that reason is certainly part of his objection. An additional reason he cites is a political one; and, in fact, the two objections seem to be fused in his mind [emphasis mine in the following quotes]:

At its best, this show proves that Rockwell is what he’s always been: a top-notch illustrator who can grab your heart and wring it…At worst, it shows the Guggenheim further trashing the reputation won for it by generations of artists, and only underlines Rockwell’s reputation as merely the maker of what he himself called “feel-good” “story-pictures.” …

For the art world to fall for this simple vision now—especially now—is, as Flash Art American editor Massimiliano Giorni put it, “like confessing in public that deep down inside we are, after all, right-wing.” He adds, “We all like stability and the cheesy beauty of a little day in the greatest country in the world—our beloved America. But it’s simply reactionary. It scares me.“…

Loving Rockwell is shunning complexity…Much is made of Rockwell’s popularity, “virtue,” and ability to create a world. But Rockwell’s world is cardboard compared to someone like Brueghel’s…As for populism, an exhibition devoted to The Simpsons would be less sentimental, more visual, and have twice the virtue of this affair. And an empty room with piped-in music by Hank Williams and Sonny Boy Williamson—both Rockwell’s contemporaries—would take you deeper and tell you more about America than this show.

Rockwell’s America is not Saltz’s America. It’s an America that Saltz (along with Giorni, whom he quotes approvingly) seems to find dangerous, right-wing, reactionary, and all-too simplistic.

What’s going on here? For one thing, we see in Saltz a familiar dislike for a vision that’s not “nuanced” enough; a distancing from populist tastes and an assertion of cultural superiority through complexity. What might this “complexity” be that Saltz and those who agree with him so crave?

It’s partly emotional: Rockwell’s world is not dark enough. It deals mostly with the light (although I’d have Saltz study that “Freedom from Fear” painting again if he thinks Rockwell always ignores the dark). But the emotional merges with the political; it seems that Saltz also understands and perceives the propagandist undertones of Rockwell’s art, and this quality is a good part of what offends him and others, since it simplifies America and makes it seem too “good.”

Saltz seems to actually be afraid of Rockwell’s ability to speak to certain values that are quintessentially American, and to unequivocally affirm them in a way that is not complex. Why might this be?

My impression is that, in addition to wishing for constant nuance, Saltz and others have lost the ability to make a clear distinction between propaganda that inflames hatred (such as, to use just one example, this) and the work of those such as Rockwell, propaganda that embraces human values and explicitly rejects that hatred—as long as such art is in praise of America. Both “dark” propaganda and “light” are lumped together and detested as though they are one and the same, in the same way that patriotism and love of nation is often considered a suspicious emotion, guilty until proven innocent.

In a similar manner, there is a kneejerk distrust of art that is seen as sentimental, and not just for esthetic or elitist reasons, but for political ones. And there is some validity to that, I think: there is a history of totalitarian governments using such art to manipulate their populaces.

Here, for example, is a lengthy article on Soviet art, comparing it to the works of—none other than Rockwell himself!:

It does not take an experienced connoisseur to notice the uncanny similarity between the widely popular art of Norman Rockwell and certain artworks of Socialist realism. Similarly, some of the official art created in the Soviet Union during Rockwell’s most successful years could easily pass as emblematic of the Saturday Evening Post covers depicting that era.

This can be a confusing realization given that these images originated from the two very polarized ideological standpoints of that time. Is this a mere coincidence of style, or are these two forms of expression somehow more deeply bound?

I see what the author is getting at, although I think the similarity is strictly superficial. Take a look at this Soviet-era genre painting, entitled “Low Marks Again”:

This painting—which is far more charming than most Soviet-era pictures, which tended to feature Lenin and a flag, as I recall—does bear a superficial resemblance to Rockwell’s work: the genre family scene, the dog trying to comfort the boy but failing, the mother’s concern, the flatness of the drawing style. Yes indeed, it’s all quite a bit Rockwellian.

But not really. To me, it looks as though the heart has somehow been cut out of the picture, a painting which ends up being not even of greeting card quality. In short, it seems dead. It gives off the flavor of textbook illustration more than anything else.

It’s as though the artist were painting under some sort of compulsion, with an assignment and rules to follow—which, of course, he or she probably was. The totalitarian nature of the government has somehow oozed out in the art and could not be disguised. Despite all efforts at cuteness and light, the picture is heavy.

Rockwell was painting for the commercial market, but he was artistically free and made his own choices. In fact, the famous “Four Freedoms” paintings were his own concept, and they glow with life and love. All of these facts are somehow present and reflected in the paintings themselves. As propaganda, they were doubly effective for that—because the artist, and most of the viewers, believed them to be essentially true. Despite superficial similarities to Soviet genre art, Rockwell’s paintings manage to express the vast differences between American and Soviet society, between an artist who is free and one whose work is dictated, between an artist who believes in the truth of his work and one who doubts.

Well, I’m not finished yet. Tune in tomorrow for Part III (the finale), about kitsch and its relation to pictorial propaganda….

69 Responses to “Pictorial propaganda: Part II–Norman Rockwell and Soviet art”

  1. Parklife Says:

    I’m not sure as to how many levels of wrongness you have achieved. Really, it’s staggering. Fantastic that you can define art in a five word sentence. Well, then you contradicted yourself after that. Let me get this straight.. Rockwell.. not an artist? Photographers… not artists? But, Saltz, an art critic, he’s an artist?

    It becomes increasingly difficult to read your writing when you contradict yourself so much. You continuously dig your art whole deeper and deeper. I’m not even sure what the point of your post was. Are you trying to prove to that Rockwell is relevant, or that people like him? Or something else?

    I can make you a list of artists worth checking out if you like. It shouldn’t take that long.

  2. Ymarsakar Says:

    What I mean, is simply that there is a difference between creating something new into being and simply redecorating something already created. Art, means to create something. Norman, at his heart, does not create the human emotions or human ideals or human principles or human virtues. Norman, simply creates an clearer vision of those virtues so that people who otherwise cannot express their ideas can instantly recognize it on canvas.

    It is the key difference why people call Norman an illustrator as opposed to an artist. Because many artists see his work as not a new creation, but simply as a redecoration of something that already exists.

    They don’t call photographers, artists, either. Simply because, even though they create photos of beauty, they don’t create the beauty itself. I don’t really agree with that of course, not in the philosophical sense, but I do understand that others differ in their outlooks.

    The abhorence artists have for depicting or using reality is integrated in the artistic belief that they must create something that does not currently exist. Therefore, they are always looking for the new thing. What is real, has already been created and thus is real. It appeals little to the artists. And no, not just abstract artists either.

    But, Saltz will not be in your camp.

    of course he isn’t, Saltz is an artist, and for an artist reality isn’t the point. For illustrators like Norman, reality is the point. That’s the difference.

  3. Parklife Says:

    The only way to portray life would be to live. I don’t think any artist tries to portray all aspects of life, at least not in the same piece of work. What do you mean by, “it is not art in the sense that many mean art as”? I think everybody can see the topics that Rockwell is getting at.

    Rockwell made his art for a magazine. They still feature his covers. That should tell you plenty. There are plenty of realist artists in the world today. Just peek into photography or (super) realism.

    “One thing that Marxists developed was a tactic to destroy Christianity and convert people to atheism.”
    With respect to Piss Christ, I think you’re missing the point. At least well-respected critics would disagree with you. Might want to watch out when you bring up Marx in relation to art, there are multiple meanings there. Just a suggestion.

    “It is the abhorrence of artists to emphasize reality”
    Could anything be further from the truth? Are you talking about the abstract artists? Contemporary artists? If people do not like these artists.. who are these people? If you area suggesting that people should like Rockwell because he was a “realist” who emphasized wonderful aspects of life, go ahead. But, Saltz will not be in your camp.

    I think your trying to generalize too much.

  4. Ymarsakar Says:

    One thing that Marxists developed was a tactic to destroy Christianity and convert people to atheism. What this really meant was that the religion of people became the state.

    Because life is so complex, Park, artists are not capable of portraying it as it should be portrayed. Norman doesn’t portray art, he illustrates human moments and it is not art in the sense that many mean art as. It is not an attempt to “create”, but an ability to “reemphasize”.

    Much as a writer cannot create “patriotism” because patriotism was already invented. The writer, however, can phrase the justification for patriotism in flowery words that are persuasive and would stay in men’s minds.

    It is the abhorrence of artists to emphasize reality, that many people dislike and disagree with. It is not part of any wish for “simplicity” as you termed it.

  5. douglas Says:

    Set the artists free from censorship! Cut all government funding for art, then you’ll have no problem with ‘censorship’.

  6. Parklife Says:

    TalkinKamel, with all due respect, because you do not like an artist does not make them a phony. While the jury may still be out on Serrano’s place in history, the thoughts on Rauschenberg are quite clear. And, if you like it or not, Saltz comparing Rauschenberg to Picasso is a “big deal” (with apologies to Meissonier).

    You constantly harp on the need to abandon this adolescent idea of “beauty of evil” work when your reply is Norman Rockwell. How many hundreds of years have paintings like these been idolized? Its nice that you casually dismiss the concept. But, it really drives home the multiple layers a work can have. Feel free to enjoy the simple pleasures of life with a Kinkade or Rockwell. But, one day, you may feel that life is more complex than just large Thanksgiving dinners (just how heavy is that turkey) and White folks praying. Further, there is a long (and detailed recent) history of people clamoring for what they can not have.

    “pretty much unshockable at this point”. Really? You would be shocked to see what people, even art critics, are shocked at these days. There will always be some line “not to cross”. Ask other Young British Artists, like the Chapman brothers, what they think about shock value.

    This is all to say that contemporary work can be “beautiful”. There are countless artist that are working to show this for gallery goers. There can be multiple layers to these works as well. Further, what does the word “beauty” mean? Anyway, something to think about.

    Where exactly are the “Marxist politics” in Piss Christ? Are you not of the impression that the photo is just a crucifix in a jar of urine? Never mind that it was a dime-store crucifix or a jar of cow blood mixed with the artist’s urine. Or the historical context of Goya. Or that the work was not “funded by the NEA”, never mind the facts. There are many misconceptions about the work. A quick search on the web will provide you with a well-thought defense of Piss Christ. Please don’t fall into the mindless mind-trap of listening, exclusively, to people that agree with you.

    One nagging question is how this work fits into the concept of free speech and our governments role in it. They spend $75 million+/- to promote “freedom” in Iran when the arts receive only a small fraction of this. Our art institutions are increasingly hampered by commercial sponsorship. Would not $75 million+/-, and no strings, serve very well to set Americans free from censorship in.. oh.. say… America?

  7. TalkinKamel Says:

    Parklife, as I said at the end of my post—I’d hope it would leave us trying to explore the real beauty of goodness—or, at least, the beauty of the world, and of people, as they are; not continually trying to shock the bourgeousie (trust me, after the 20th Century, they’re pretty much unshockable at this point), not continually preaching Marxist politics to the masses and not induldging in silly 19th Centuryisms about the “Beauty of Evil,” and the daringness of being decadent, blah, blah, blah. That sort of stuff should have gone out with great-grandma’s old bottle of smelling sals, and her copy of “Fleurs du Mal”.

    The image of the purple fingered Iraqis is a good one—but I’ll bet you could think of a lot more, if you really set your mind to it. I suspect art, if it is going to survive, is going to have to be taken away from phonies like Serrano and Rauschenberg, and the snippy art critics that idolize them, and somehow returned to the people.

  8. Parklife Says:

    TalkinKamel, where does that leave us? Personally, I would like to see more conservative artists in the spotlight. I would love to hear some ideas on images you (or others) have to express convervative thoughts.

    The only images I can think of would be of the voters in Iraq, ink-stained fingers and all.

    Here is a story on the lefty-righty thing in England.
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,585-2102721_2,00.html

  9. SB Says:

    I just wish they would paint more pictures of naked ladies.

    Long Live the Bourgeoisie!

    *burp*

  10. TalkinKamel Says:

    Yes, I know, Bezuhov—the whole concept of finding “Beauty in evil” to me has a definite 19th Century ring: you know, Beardsley drawings, the decadent movement, “Salome”, a little discreet dabbling in witchcraft, vis-a-vis Alistair Crowley, “The Picture of Dorian Grey”, “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”, “The Love That Dare Not Speak its Name”, women daringly smoking cigarettes while wearing velvet robes and talking about “free love”; basically, a band of 19th Century aesthetes, trying to be naughty and exotic.

    You’d think World Wars I and II would have knocked this nonsense out of the art world, but no such luck. It’s still presenting endless shows about beauty + evil + liberation + throw-off-society’s-constraints, as if it all actually meant something, and as if it were all fresh and new. It seems blissfully unaware that the great mass of humanity has often encountered real evil, up close and personal, so to speak, and finds no beauty in it at all.

    Really, I wish the art world would try examinging the beauty of good, a truly revolutionary concept in this day and age. . .

  11. Bezuhov Says:

    The thing I don’t get is how ideas like “finding beauty in evil” still count as transgressive. Sure, the first time you hear the two juxtoposed, its different, but the eleventy-billionth art show in a row with the same damn theme would seem to suggest that if I want to be transgressive, maybe I need to look for the beauty in good, if anyone even remembers what that is…

  12. douglas Says:

    “Unique in the sense that the general population and most artists cant reproduce this idea.
    If it’s in virtually every museum, I’d think therefore most artists could do it, but for whatever reason choose not to. As for whether there should be a problem with finding beauty in evil, that depends on if there is a lesson, or moral to be found. How about Hieronymus Bosch? Picasso’s Guernica? Perhaps they aren’t really finding ‘beauty’ in evil, but are beautiful in their understanding of evil. I don’t see it in Serrano. I suppose when I mentioned Speer and Wagner, it was different, they produced (arguably) beautifull crafted works, but they were tainted by the ideology they were attached to. It’s easier to detach Wagner’s ideology from his art, since it is music, but Speer is more difficult. Oddly, the 9-11 light tower memorial (http://archives.cnn.com/2002/US/03/11/nation.remembers/) was an odd echo of Speer (http://www.brynmawr.edu/emeritus/gather/Lane/images/018.jpg)…

    “As for your trip to MOCA. That sounds great. JMB is not for everybody. I’ve had poor experiences when attending large/popular exhibitions too. Why did you attetend the show in the show in the first place?”
    It seems an odd question to me. I try, when I can, to go to the museum to see whatever is there. How can I know what I like if I haven’t seen it yet? Seeing art in print is only half seeing- scale, texture and other things are just not adaquately represented in print. What exactly would be the point of ONLY going to shows of things I already knew I liked?

  13. SB Says:

    *burp*

  14. Bezuhov Says:

    “You’ll feel much better.”

    You might. As for me, my life is richer for the art geeks in it.

    ;-)

  15. Bezuhov Says:

    “Do those works qualify as beautiful? Propaganda? Or just Goya’s take on the world?”

    I don’t know. To me beauty requires a certain serendipity, something unexpectedly apt, order inexplicably emerging. The second law defied.

    The events depicted by Goya merely affirm its iron grip. Perhaps the depiction might be beautiful, but the event depicted?

    This art representing Goya’s take on the world was clearly effective (and justified) propaganda.

  16. TalkinKamel Says:

    I think what Serrano’s actually saying is, “DAMN I’M CLEVER! I’VE GOT ALL THESE IDIOTS GIVING ME FAME AND MONEY, JUST CUZ I PEED IN A BOTTLE AND STUCK A CRUCIFIX IN IT! HEY, BEATS WORKIN’!”

    Starting to talk like an art geek? Go read a good book, or have a beer. Take a walk. Watch something refreshingly lowbrow and free and meaning, like an old Warner Brothers cartoon. You’ll feel much better.

  17. SB Says:

    Sorry for the double post – forgot one thing before…

    Serrano was a photographer. Piss Christ was a photograph. Like all visual artists, photographers usually have other things in mind than simply depicting a specific subject. That’s why they take pictures of sand, bits of wood, rotten fruit, traffic signs, house trailers, and other mundane or objectively ugly objects. It’s the visual stuff they’re interested in – light, color, texture, etc. They find visual beauty everywhere.

    That being said, I’m not really qualified to comment on the visual aspects of Piss Christ. If he hadn’t used the word “Piss” in the title, I would have thought the crucifix was submerged in honey or amber or something. So the fact that he called it “Piss Christ” must mean that he did intend to make some kind of statement about the religious icon.

    In the context of all the other “Piss” things, it looks like maybe he’s contrasting these symbols of high Western culture with something else that’s sort of a biological lowest common denominator. Or maybe saying that the exalted ideas they represent originated within our ucky biological selves. Or maybe he’s just saying “piss on Western culture in general and the Church of Rome in particular.” I think that’s the way most of us tend to interpret the photographs – and why Piss Christ pissed so many people off.

    Dammit, I’m starting to talk like an art geek. Somebody help me…

  18. SB Says:

    Re: Beauty in Evil…

    How about Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ series? Technically brilliant depictions and of some of the most horrific atrocities you can imagine. Do those works qualify as beautiful? Propaganda? Or just Goya’s take on the world?

    What if Goya had painted candid portraits of French soldiers, maybe like Winslow Homer did with Union troops in the Civil War? Would they be art or propaganda?

  19. TalkinKamel Says:

    . . . Of course, it’s always possible that with “Piss Discus Thrower” and “Piss this” and “Piss that” Serrano is telling the world he has no talent? He can’t draw, he can’t sculpt, so he performs a perfectly naturally bodily function (something even the unartistic among us can do) passes it off as “art” and gets big bucks and recognition—as well as the childish pleasure of induldging in a temper tantrum at the culture he can’t live up to—a kinda “Piss on everything!” attitude.

    I mean, please don’t tell me about “the beautiful colors” and such all; any butcher, baker, candlestick maker, et al probably produces equally beautiful (if not more so) “art” simply peeing into a jar!. . .

    Like you, Bezuhov, I find the idea of “the beauty of evil” problematic. In fact, I find it downright laughable. If nothing else, the 20th Century should have taught us the danger of being sucked in by gorgeous images, torchlight parades and beautiful “idealistic” ideologies that inevitably lead to wars, gulags, death camps, torture chambers and other unlovely things. Evil, as demonstrated by the past Century, is downright ugly—when it’s not spewing idiocy as ridiculous as Serrano’s “art”.

    Howzabout artists celebrating the beauty of real goodness? Or is that idea just too kitschy and Norman Rockwellish for the modern art world? (Yes, unfortunately it is).

    Parklife, I’m afraid you just don’t get it; in Islam, most art: depictions of the human figure, music, sculpture, the movies, theatre, etc. are considered haram—unclean, and it is forbidden to depict the prophet Mohammed in any way, shape or form.

    Moslems have also shown themselves to be extremely—ahem!—touchy about any criticism of their culture, as poor old Theo Van Gogh found out. Rushdie, as I understand, still has to remain in hiding, because his life is in danger, even after all these years.

    There’s no misunderstanding here; Islam has made its position quite clear. The only question is, what is the West going to do? Are we all going to start censoring ourselves? Will we punish offending artists according to Shari’a law, or, maybe, just dicourage artistic expression altogether? Or are we going to tell Islam to butt out of our culture?

    Ymarsarkar, no offense, and my reading skills may be temporarily dulled to the onset of a bad cold—but he was rambling, as he confessed himself, and sometimes one just doesn’t feel it’s worth it (especially when one’s sick) to try and pick through endless ramble-bumble to discover what a poster’s actually getting at.

  20. Parklife Says:

    “He has this unique ability to find the beauty in evil.”

    douglas,
    I think you’re taking a wider view of this statement than I. Just about every museum today features work with this quality. Unique in the sense that the general population and most artists cant reproduce this idea. By no means am I suggesting that it cant and hasn’t been done before. Sensation featured an entire show of artists with this ability. Today, I’m off to see more of the beauty of evil. And, no, Serrano is not the featured artist.

    As for your trip to MOCA. That sounds great. JMB is not for everybody. I’ve had poor experiences when attending large/popular exhibitions too. Why did you attetend the show in the show in the first place?

  21. Bezuhov Says:

    Parklife,

    Glad you stopped by – hope you stick around. Could be interesting.

    Does anyone find anything problematic with finding beauty in evil? What about evil that decides for us that beauty is unnecessary?

    As for Piss Christ, if it did actually lead to the question being raised of how exactly Christianity came to be a “soft target”, then I might consider it effective propaganda, if not art.

  22. douglas Says:

    Parklife said…
    “Oh I love it! Its a bashing Sensation! Sadly, I think its safe to say that most of us missed the Basquiat show in LA last summer.”

    Well, you might be surprised to know that the fellow who brought up Basquiat here (me) DID go to the show at MOCA, and thought it was lousy. Basquiat scribbled the same things over and and over again, with no technical expertise or craft, and because he juxtaposed ‘street’ sensabilities with a few elitist catch phrases and political statements, and because he was a kind of neo-noble savage to the NYC art world, he was exalted. I couldn’t spend more than one minute looking at any of his works after about three, since it was the same thing over and over again, and even on the first three, I found nothing appealing. I can’t say I saw anyone else looking like they were really interested in them either.

    Re: Serrano:“He has this unique ability to find the beauty in evil.”
    Really?! Hardly unique. There is a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Musée de l’Art Brut, which is exclusively of artworks by the criminally insane and eccentrics. It is actually a fascinating, and disturbing place, but primarily as a collection. I don’t think most pieces there would stand well on their own. It’s still a far sight better than Basquiat. Anyway, ever heard of Albert Speer’s architecture, the music of Wagner, talk about beauty in evil.

    As a footnote, it’s interesting to note that several of the worst dictators in history were/are either failed artists, or have used their power to get their ‘art’ produced… Hitler was a painter, Mussolini a playwright, Kim Jong Il a great singer, Saddams plays…

  23. Parklife Says:

    I suppose to sum up my feelings on Rockwell:
    If you enjoy his art, Great!
    But, Saltz is not wrong for bashing him
    There are plenty of folks that love Rockwell, just not Saltz. (it wouldn’t be considered, by some, kitsch otherwise)

    As for Serrano, he does produce beautiful work. Even Piss Christ is renowned for its colors. He has this unique ability to find the beauty in evil. Im not sure about those other object submerged in urine. I remember reading about a group that dunked a beer can as sort of a play on Piss Christ.

    Serrano seems to get away with producing something like Piss Christ because he is, and grew up as, a Christian. If Islam was to be attacked in art, I suspect, it is going to happen by an Islamic artist making such a work in an Islamic county. Under the current condition, as TalkinKamel points out, that does not seem likely.
    Although Rushdie wrote Satanic Verses. I’m guessing that some would still like him dead.

    As for the cartoon: Islamic countries seem to be firmly entrenched in a very different culture than our own. I just wish the discussion revolved around open and honest communication, including mutual respect, of how the west and Islam could better understand each other. . I, clearly, do not know the best way to facilitate this.

    While it is clearly not fair, Christianity has been under attack for hundreds of years. After reading that Piss Christ had been physically attacked (twice), I shudder to imagine what would have happened to the 1600s version of Serrano.

    Jean-Michel Basquiat (JMB) was an interesting guy. There is even a bio-pic on his life by another famous artist. I suppose JMB was all about the street. That is where he came from, producing Graffiti art, and eventually died of cocaine. His art brought a different way to view the world (kind of like how exciting it is the first time it snows each year), mostly created by his personal experiences. His culture, time and place are all visible in his work. That for me is what I have enjoyed in the very few works I have seen of his. (I’ll post some of the information from the museum websites that featured his work this summer on my blog).

    SB, you make a great pint about stating your view and learning about the subject. I really appreciate not being lambasted for my alternate view in this discussion.

    Ta-Da!

  24. Ymarsakar Says:

    I must ask (for the hundredth time) when and how art’s highest purpose became to “challenge us and question things?”

    Philosophically, some things are destined to be what is, while other things are destined to be what should exist, art is the latter.

    I don’t know—you’d need someone like Dr. Sanity, or Sigmund, Carl & Alfred to figure out the whys of it.

    No, you don’t. Just google manic depressive disorder, or manic bipolar disorder. Most creative artists, which includes writers, have a mild form of manic-depressive cycles. It’s one reason why writer’s bloc is a problem, not only does it inhibit creativity but it also depresses the author. So either the artist is on crack all day long, or he is contemplating suicide. Sorta like Mozart, the more creative you are, the more “unbalanced” psychologically you are likely to be. Creativity and madness have always been linked.

    I recall that a lot of poets were smoking something. The Xanadu Poem was really good, and one of the few poems I didn’t have to read twice over to understand the meaning of one line. But the poet died before finishing it.

    So either you are on a roll and happy, or you are stuck and contemplating suicide, or you die early. Or in the case of Mozart, it is all of the above.

    The rest of us can only reply “Yeah, we know – get over it.” And the artist goes on howling while we try to solve the problem.

    Indeed.

    Artists are not engineers. Artists try and find out how something feels, engineers try and find out how something can be fixed.

    Because he “feels” stuff? Somebody throw me a bone here…

    Cause he is certifiably insane. You can’t argue with that, you know.

    There are countless things we should all be doing to further humanity than conversing on a blog.

    Blogs are the only means the American people can defend against the propaganda of liars, Nazis, David Dukes, and terroist media apparati. There are no countless ways to defend against propaganda, available here. Humanity will be furthered by the technology of blogs and the internet.

    But what about the “Elite” forces in the military. They must be fantastic with all they do.

    There are smart geniuses in our school, the people we all knew that got A’s on test and only put in 1/10th of the effort of the rest of us. You could say that geniuses belong to an “elite”, but that is different from the military elite. The military elite is just as smart as those geniuses you met once long ago, the difference is that the military elite earned their superior status. Geniuses didn’t earn their status, they were born with it. They inherited that money, they didn’t earn it themselves.

    That’s the difference.

    Collectors like Saatchi and organizations like Sotheby’s may be the closest example we have to an open market.

    I wouldn’t call government funding art, an “open market”, but I suppose other people have other philosophies on what open means.

    Nobody wants to see people die (in wars or protests).

    Speak for yourself. I’ll throw a party when America executes all those terroists we’re holding, feeding, and giving Geneva privileges to.

    Nobody wants to see people die in wars? Get real. The terroists are cooking up the human steaks right now, just waiting for someone to grap an american outside America.

    Unfortunately, your style is so rambly, it’s hard to follow what you’re getting at. Can you rein it in at all?

    I can understand him. And no, he can’t rein it in. All you can do in these situations is to develop either better reading comprehension (Which takes years and 750 on verbal sat pre change), or ask specific questions about spots you don’t get.

    About the propaganda aspect, I tend to think that most artists don’t lower themselves to propagandizing against the masses. They would see it as quite uncouth to appeal to sentimentality or human emotions of happy sappy people.

    People at the movies love happy endings. Hollywood never liked happy endings, unless the happy ending was for one of their star actors that is.

    As neo mentioned in Part III, they didn’t like Norman cause he was appealing to base emotions of happy sappy endings. his critics believed that this wasn’t real art, that instead, this “appeal to common interests” was devaluing the aesthics of beauty in art.

    Neo, as I, would differ on that conclusion, the conclusion that beauty derives from fewer people appreciating a work.

  25. rickl Says:

    grackle 3:16

    (No, that’s not a Bible verse.)

    Wow. As I said, I’m not a student of art. I hadn’t heard that. It’s a real shame that Rockwell’s paintings won’t last through the centuries, but his retort “Let future generations paint their own masterpieces”, if anything, actually increased my admiration for him. He was clearly more interested in his craft than in securing his “legacy”.

  26. SB Says:

    Parklife:

    Wish I had your equanimity. Actually, I wish a lot of people had your equanimity.

    As far as elites go, let’s just agree that some elites are assholes and some are not. I have known U.S. Marines and police officers whose contempt for civilians (including their own families) was truly shocking. They work side-by-side with others who would literally die to protect us from harm. It could also be that in some areas – like the arts – the elite just do their thing while the snobs tend to be non-performing hangers-on – those who desperately need to be part of “the scene.” I don’t know. Maybe Parklife could shed some light…

    As to doing more valuable things than blogging: this is a discussion. I’m trying to state my view and, by reading the differing views of others, learn about the subject. Tempers may flare and we don’t really seem to come to any conclusions in the end – but at least we’re trying. Some of us may vote differently because of what we read here; others may even be in a position to effect some sort of direct change. What can I learn from a Basqiat painting? (That’s a serious question – I really would like to know). And when Basqiat made his “statement,” do you think he was interested in learning anything from his viewers’ reactions? The answer to that, I guess, is that an artist’s job isn’t to have a conversation, it’s to start a conversation. Which is an example of artists taking it upon themselves to set the peoples’ agenda, which I’m not sure is not an elitist thing to do.

    Seems to be working, though – at least on this blog.

    (Aside: I just did a quick Google image search for Andres Serrano. For the record, it appears he also did a Piss Thinker and a Piss Discus Thrower. Don’t know if he did a Piss Anything Else. In this context, was Piss Christ really a comment on Christianity or was it part of some wider idea? Also for the record, in addition to his weird stuff it looks like Serrano did some very powerful, beautiful studies of people from many different walks of life. I don’t know whether they’re intended to be ironic or to make any sort of overt statement. But they are nice to look at. Good enough for Wal-Mart, anyway…)

    Anyway, back to pictorial propaganda. There seems to be some unanimity of belief or at least opinion among “elite” artists and their admirers regarding the United States, war, religion, politics, etc. If this is true (arguments to the contrary welcome), is it fair for us to consider these artists to be part of a political bloc and the works expressing their beliefs to be de facto propaganda for that bloc? Or is it only propaganda if it offends us?

    Sorry for babbling. Just curious.

  27. TalkinKamel Says:

    Unfortunately, your style is so rambly, it’s hard to follow what you’re getting at. Can you rein it in at all?

    What were the real issues that weren’t discussed in the cartoon controversy? It seems to me that they were stated quite clearly. The writer of a childrens book about Mohammed couldn’t find an illustrator, because every artist he contacted was unwilling to draw a picture of the prophet, for fear of Islamic wrath. The paper then commissioned the Mohammed cartoons, to show how far fear and self-censorship concerning all things Islamic had gone in their society. The Moslem world then showed that they weren’t going to give an inch on any criticism of Islam, depiction of the prophet, etc. In short, when it comes to Islam, freedom of speech is being severely limited. It seems pretty clear to me.

    Yeah, it’s nice if people can sit down and just talk things out nicely, but in this case the stakes are high, and it’s a pretty clear issue of freedom of speech vs. a religion that isn’t going to put up with ANY depiction of their prophet, or criticism; to them Mohammed is holy, and you will respect him—or else. Another Serrano who’d grown weary of organized religion, and created a “Piss Mohammed” work of art, would probably find himself dead—like Theo Van Gogh (remember him?)

    I’m not a bit surprised, by the way, that Saltz loves Rauschenberg. The two seem made for each other.

  28. Parklife Says:

    Sorry about the rambling, comes with the typing. First and foremost, if you like art, you should enjoy it to the fullest. Whatever that means to you. I hardly take criticism of the art that I “enjoy” personally. It is great to hear other opinions (positive and negative). From Piss Christ to Rockwell, its all great in my book. They all have their place firmly entrenched in art history. I just don’t see the lasting impact of Rockwell.

    As for, “the artist goes on howling while we try to solve the problem”. There are countless things we should all be doing to further humanity than conversing on a blog.

    But what about the “Elite” forces in the military. They must be fantastic with all they do. I couldn’t imagine the training and expertise they have.

    With all due respect, I don’t think artist or art critics (esp. Saltz) care about the masses. They continue to produce work they enjoy. People can view/read their work or not (see below).

    I think that contemporary artists (and others in art related fields) are very aware of the Capitalistic nature of the art world. Sensation, the show that featured Piss Christ, is a great example of this. Collectors like Saatchi and organizations like Sotheby’s may be the closest example we have to an open market. I saw a “movie” the other day that was specifically designed for marketing to corporations. At least that’s what the artist wanted to do. Somebody has to pay the artist!

    I think its important to remember that Serrano (if my poor memory serves correctly, he dropped out of art school) snapped Piss Christ almost twenty years ago. Serrano just was tired of organized religion, that’s his opinion. Many think differently. In my book, its hard to say that either group is wrong to think or feel the way they do. Serrano doesn’t have a better or worse handle on dismal reality than any of us. We all search for something different in viewing art and come to many different conclusions. There is more to his art than the shock value.

    There are so many topics here. I am far too rambly to focus on just one.

    PS. As for the cartoons: I have lots of thoughts and opinions on that topic. The bottom line is that I wish people would/could sit down and work things out. Nobody wants to see people die (in wars or protests). Its just sad, I mean really sad, that with todays means of transportation and communication, the real issues were never discussed.

    For what its worth Saltz loves Rauschenberg.

  29. Daniel in Brookline Says:

    re Saltz, I was reminded of this:

    “You are not superior just because you see the world in an odious light.”
    – Vicomte de Chateaubriand

    There is no inherent virtue in being unhappy… and there is nothing inherently shameful about seeing beauty in the world around you.

    respectfully,
    Daniel in Brookline

  30. TalkinKamel Says:

    SB

    I suspect in most cases, it’s because the artist thinks of the masses—-that’s us—as mindless philistines, who shop at Wal-Mart (or whatever the hated store of the day is) eat at McDonald’s (or whatever the hated lower class restaurant of the moment is) like wine and art parties and prefer “mere” illustrators, such as Norman Rockwell, Wyeth, et al, to great artistes like themselves. The artist is here to show us better things, and, gosh darn it all, we just don’t listen to them!

    I think too that a lot of modern art schools have been infected with Marxist thinking, which sees the people, “the proletariat”, as mere mindless masses, to be controlled by those who know what’s good for them.

    Also, for the ones who produce stuff like “Piss Christ”, I think there’s a childish pleasure being what they think of as rebellious and iconoclastic—within safe limits, as you’ll notice they never, ever do this sort of thing with an Islamic subject. They might like to think of themselves as superior rebels, but they actually usually pick soft targets.

  31. SB Says:

    Elite: A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status.

    The pejorative use of the term probably comes from the observation that with many members of such groups or classes, elite = self-appointed insufferable snob who takes his expertise in a narrowly-defined area of endeavor as license to piss on the hoi polloi.

    That point aside, I think the idea that art has done its job if it shocks us out of our complacency or forces us to accept unpleasant facts is nonsense. Most people are quite aware of the unpleasantries artists think they’re revealing to us, and if we appear complacent it’s because we’ve found other ways of dealing with the shit that life hands us. The artist beats his breast and shouts, “Oh, the injustice; Oh, the humanity!” The rest of us can only reply “Yeah, we know – get over it.” And the artist goes on howling while we try to solve the problem.

    I could re-state my original question this way: What makes Piss Christ Guy think he has a better handle on Dismal Reality than I do? Because he went to art school? Because he “feels” stuff? Somebody throw me a bone here…

  32. TmjUtah Says:

    “virtue”….

    Needed scare quotes? What a window that is.

  33. TalkinKamel Says:

    Actually, Parklife, telling us we can not, and should not, enjoy Rockwell, art/wine parties, Wal-Mart, seems to be exactly what you ARE telling us—when I can make out anything at all from your confused, giggly, rambling post. You also seem to think that any criticism of modern artists, or “art” such as “Piss Christ” is somehow a personal slam agains you.

    P.S. What’s your stand on the Danish cartoons? Should cartoonists be free to lampoon whatever they like, even if it’s the Prophet Mohammed?

  34. Parklife Says:

    Oh I love it! Its a bashing Sensation! Sadly, I think its safe to say that most of us missed the Basquiat show in LA last summer.

    You dont like Piss Chirst or Chis Ofili? Good. I’ll mark that in my book. I actually have developed some sick fascination with hearing objections to these works. I’ve been tipped off that Malken has some great comments on this. Personally, those works had their time and place.

    Nobody is saying, well.. at least I’m not saying, that you cant enjoy Rockwell. Go ahead.. Head on down Wal-Mart and check out some of his work. Perhaps stop by the wine isle and pick up a bottle of Chardonnay. But, if you want to enjoy art and the art of Rockwell, please do it. Love him for art’s sake. (I’m only half kidding about the Wal-Mart thing, seems they love to buy art. They may even have a museum soon!)

    Just as some may love him, others, like Saltz, may not share your enthusiasm. Thats fine too. Saltz has different experiences than most. And you have more than a right to think differently than him. It all seems to boil down to taste. And, we each enjoy different flavors. Such is life.

    Some love to criticize the “elites” (I never feel like I fully understand what that means.), and many have done so here. Please do and please don’t feel like outsiders to art.

    Ps. I love art and wine festivals.

  35. Tom Grey Says:

    The Soviet work is “in the same ballpark” as Rockwell, although not as good. It displays common people, with normal emotion, at a normal occurance.

    The Soviet work is less good in two ways.
    1) Technically. It might well be better than Rockwell’s worst, earliest(?), most forgetable, but certainly less good than almost every S. E. Post cover.
    2) Thematically. As mentioned, there is sadness, as Rockwell could paint, but no comfort — as Rockwell virtually demanded, somehow, in his work.

    The lack of comfort is part of what Saltz demands in art (for art’s sake!).

    It’s also a mark of atheist art, all too often. The half-empty glass, or 1/4 empty, or 1/10 empty — but never “full enough” to enjoy.

    The comfort in Rockwell comes from the comfort in belief in God. Belief in God usually goes along with opposition to sexual freedom and promiscuity, and even laws/ policies/ customs against it. Anybody who favors an anti-religious society should, logically, fear any art which provides comfort.

    Had the Soviet citizens been happy to get good grades, it would easily have been a possible “low quality” Rockwell.

    [Neo, I hope you have to courage to look at your own beliefs and those of your liberal friends, especially with respect to comfort and promiscuity.]

    By the way, we just got the acceptance letter for my 10 year old for studying in the Talented Math gymnazium (8 year high school); they take only the top 30 in a hard qualifying test, he was #25 — our family was happy. Pumpkin Pie pieces were had by all (no good pumpkin in Slovakia).

  36. TalkinKamel Says:

    Bezuhov, you are right; a supportive twinkle in the mother’s eye, the piece of cake she might be cutting (a treat to comfort the kid, perhaps, the dog sitting by with a ball in its mouth, urging him to play—these would all be present, putting in the proper “Rockwell” touch. The Soviet painting is all high, maudlin seriousness.

    Also, it’s impossible for me to believe that Rockwell would have treated a bad report card with the deadly seriousness this Russian picture does—which is one of the reasons I find the painting so nauseating. You can practically hear the Comissar of Art’s voice droning on in the background, “LITTLE IVAN HAS GOTTEN BAD GRADES AGAIN! LITTLE IVAN DOES NOT UNDERSTAND THAT IN THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC IT IS NECESSARY TO STUDY HARD! ONCE AGAIN, LITTLE IVAN HAS LET DOWN STALIN, THE FATHER OF HIS PEOPLE! CHILDREN MUST LOVE STALIN! THEY MUST GET GOOD GRADES!” Gaaaah! Makes me feel like throwing something at that painting!

    Rockwell would have treated a bad report card as a joke. He treated serious things seriously—but he knew what was important, and what isn’t.

    Maybe that’s one of the marks of a real artist.

  37. TalkinKamel Says:

    Look at the sort of “art” the cultured elites support these days, and demand the rest of us support too! “Piss Christ” (a crucifix dunked in a bottle of urine), a painting of the Virgin Mary daubed with elephant dung, the weird and ugly stick figures of Basquiat (and thanks for mentioning him as an example of hideousness, Doug); these are the sort of works the pulitzer prize winning elites love. They become highly indignant if underlings, or right-wing evangelicals dare to criticize them or, worse, remain indifferent to their wonderfulness; if the public refuses to become “moved”, “afflicted”, or “changed” by these artworks, then the public, according to the elites, is lacking in sensitivity, and most obtuse.

    By the way—the whole “afflicting the comfortable” art world meme doesn’t apply to Islam, which, alone among religions, must be according proper “sensitivity” and “respect”—unlike those awful born-again Christians, who don’t appreciate art! Artistic expression is fine, but, really, those Danish cartoons went over the line! Anyway, those Danes are just cartoonists—not REAL artists, like, say, Basquiat!

    (I’m terrible at links, but I invite one and all of you to get on your favorite search engine and look up the great Basquiat).

    Ymarsakar, I believe you are onto something; I do think that many modern art critics, writers, et al find a dark, despairing view of the universe somehow comforting. Why this should be, I don’t know—you’d need someone like Dr. Sanity, or Sigmund, Carl & Alfred to figure out the whys of it. But I believe many of them find hopelessness somehow comforting, reassuring, SAFE! Maybe, because if life really is evil, if the world really is horrible, and nothing can be done about anything, you are relieved from actually having to DO anything, ever. You are relieved of all responsibility, and are free to become merely a passive onlooker on life, beating your breast from time to time, but able to do whatever you like, since it’s all the same in the end.

    Of course, elites haven’t

  38. David Says:

    sb’s question reminded me of a post by Brian Micklethwait and an essay “Against the Dehumanization of Art” by novelist Mark Helprin, both of which I discuss here.

  39. SB Says:

    Not being an art major, I must ask (for the hundredth time) when and how art’s highest purpose became to “challenge us and question things?” Sounds like regurgitated art theory to me.

    How subversive is the Book of Kells, a Russian icon, or the Sistine Chapel? Are we required to dismiss those “pieces” to make room for some flavor-of-the-month “installation” that conforms to the art establishment’s theories about what makes art “good?”

    And anyway, how do we know Rockwell wasn’t trying to subvert the dominant paradigms of the art world of his day? In that sense, I’d say his paintings do challenge us and question things – just not the way the culture vultures want them to.

  40. ELC Says:

    I love Rockwell. I have several book collections of his paintings.

    A cadre of museum directors, curators, national critics, art historians, and suddenly populist art theorists want you to love him. Maybe I’m mistaken here, but wasn’t Rockwell dismissed for decades by the critics, because… well… all the critics dismissed him? So now this guy wants to dismiss the critics because they’re not dissing Rockwell anymore?

    Picking up on what Richard Aubrey said — “Rockwell’s” America certainly did/does exist. It’s not America, but it’s been a family here, a town there, a business here, a church there.

    Rockwell was not painting America in all its diversity nor Americans in all theirs. Who on Earth could ever have done that in one lifetime?

    Moreover, he wasn’t painting America, period. He painted specfic moments in the lives of specific individuals in specific situations in specific places.

    Anybody who complains that Rockwell should have chosen a wider variety of specifics is not doing much more, I think, than expressing his own hubris. And, perhaps, rebelling against the idea that “Rockwell’s” America has/does indeed exist, in the particular if not in the general.

  41. Nikolaides Says:

    Those who object to Rockwell on the ground that he depicted an America that “does not exist” seem to me to be missing the point. It’s like objecting to the fourth verse of “America the Beautiful” because it, too, describes a place that does not, and never will, exist:

    O beautiful for patriot dream
    That sees beyond the years
    Thine alabaster cities gleam
    Undimmed by human tears!

    See the word “dream”?

    If aspirational dreams are forbidden as subjects of true art because they do not depict reality — if art cannot transcend reality but must always be held down and moored by what is, rather than what could be — then art is good for nothing at all. And as for the poster who critizes Rockwell on the ground that he does not “challenge” us, what could be more challenging to a society than to paint such realistic dream-visions of what a society, at its best, might attain?

    Take, for instance, that picture of the little girl walking to school. It challenges the viewer, in the most uncompromising of terms: “You, there, in the audience, watching this child: which are you — one of the tomato-throwers or one of her guards?”

  42. Jamie Young Says:

    I agree with Joan, above – this is an excellent series. I’m not an American, so I wasn’t particularly aware of Rockwell, but there is no denying the extraordinary emotional punch of his work, and I will certainly look out for it now. Would it be meaningful to do a compare-and-contrast of Rockwell and Edward Hopper?

  43. grackle Says:

    I read somewhere years ago that Rockwell used lakes, inks & dyes. They are more vivid than watercolors, acrylics or oils & are frequently used in illustration because they reproduce well but they are fugitive & not light-fast; in a few years Rockwell’s originals will begin to fade. When asked about it, Rockwell said something to the effect of “Let future generations paint their own masterpieces.”

    One problem with Rockwell for the critics is that Rockwell’s works are obviously good, so obvious that the average viewer can see it. This detracts from the modern art critic’s jealously guarded power to arbitrate between artist & public. And in modern criticism popularity is despised. Thus the critics like Saltz vigilantly & vehemently defend the corner into which they’ve painted themselves.

    Despite Saltz’s condescension it is evident to even the casual & unschooled observer that Rockwell’s work has nuance & layers of meaning. One of the particulars of Rockwell’s genius is that his art, although accessible, is also subtle. He’s like Mark Twain in that his art can be approached in a variety of ways.

    Like they did with Twain, with Rockwell the critics confuse sentiment with sentimentality, sentiment being the honest presentation of emotion based in reality & sentimentality being that which cloys under thoughtful examination & imbues the viewer with a feeling of being cynically manipulated.

    One must always keep in mind that being cynically manipulated is different than being expertly manipulated. Think of the difference between Robert Frost & Hallmark cards, between Twain & Tarkington, between any painting by Repin & “Low Marks Again.” As with Twain, future critics will discover Rockwell’s true worth.

    After experiencing great art the viewer turns away changed & a sincere contemplation of Rockwell’s work will always move the unbiased observer. Rockwell resides with artists like John Singer Sargent & Andrew Wyeth in my personal pantheon of the underrated.

  44. douglas Says:

    I always laugh when elitist lefties call stuff like Rockwell ‘reactionary’. What exactly is it a reaction to? It’s reflective. It’s the sniping lefties with lots of complaints but no solutions that are reactionary. Without us to criticize, they have nothing. Just look at the ‘art’ they love.
    There is modern art that is sublime in it’s simplicity (Judd, Serra), but the political one-liners that are heaped praise by these dolts are just, well, crap.

    Rockwell forever! Basquiat never!

  45. fred Says:

    I agree with gocotharn’s comment, on the Soviet era painting, that “[t]he title: ‘Low marks again’, could easily be a political commentary about the Soviet system and government.”
    I think a small change to the painting’s title might better reflect the boy’s mood and the repression of Soviet life: Low, Marx again!

  46. Bezuhov Says:

    I do think you may be reading a bit much into the Soviet piece. If the mother had a supportively rueful twinkle in her eye (perhaps remembering her own report cards), it could pass for Rockwell.

    Such things (supportive parents) do exist, and I fail to see why dipicting them should disqualify a work as art.

  47. Bezuhov Says:

    From Loyal’s own bio:

    “I am often insane, but I have my lucid moments, in which I’m merely stupid.”

    Well, you’ve already mastered Socrates’ admonition to know thyself. If you’d like to remedy the situation, stick around. Our host displays the sort of character that might just inspire you. She does me.

  48. Ymarsakar Says:

    No, the truth is that the right wingers are with the Democrats, in collusion and in alliance. Good riddance I say.

  49. Harry Mallory Says:

    Royal Headache”
    “I thought you right-wingers turned on Rockwell when he painted ‘The Problem We All Live With’.”

    Ah, yes. Because as you know, all “right-wingers” are closet racist bigots.

  50. Rick Ballard Says:

    Pointing to a Pulitzer as affirmation of anything but holding the most PC of ideas is a giggle in itself.

    Unconscious self-parody is wondrous to behold.

  51. David Says:

    I analyze some reactions very similar to Saltz’s in my post An Incident at the Movies.

  52. Ymarsakar Says:

    Honestly, Rockwell appeals to an “Art and Wine” festival crowd. While a metallic bronze statue really hit the heart. The beauty of a pluralist society in full swing.

    This is the inverted beliefs of someone who is part of the Art and Wine crowd. The beauty of a metallic bronze statue, *snorts*.

  53. rickl Says:

    I’ve always liked Rockwell, and in my opinion he just might be the greatest of all American artists. I like Vermeer too, and Rockwell seems to have a lot in common with Vermeer. They certainly seem to have had a similar mindset: depicting ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people–and doing it extraordinarily well.

    I’m not an “expert” in art, but I know what I like. :)

    I find it quite interesting, though, that some people seem to have an almost visceral hatred of him.

    Will Norman Rockwell still be remembered in the year 2300? I’d bet my house on it. Will Andres Serrano? Not a chance.

  54. Steve Says:

    I won’t use the “P” word here because I think it is being used so vaguely that it can mean anything at this point.

    I wouldn’t compare the Soviet painting and Rockwell in any serious way. The Soviet painting depicts a bummer situation: a little boy got bad grades, and is disgraced, shamed, and humiliated before his mother and sister, while his little brother gloats. The dog jumps on him uncomprehendingly. Why would anyone paint that, to begin with?
    Answer: to “inspire” Soviet children to get good grades.

    But that’s the kind of thing Saltz considers more real. If, for example, the Soviet guy had painted Ronald Reagan with Aids, or the boy being molested by a priest, I’ll bet you Saltz would be praising its “authenticity” to the skies.

    But this gets back to what I was saying yesterday. Saltz is one of those people who thinks that art has to do something to you: just pleasure or warm emotion is not enough. But normal people, when they have free time, will look at, listen to, or read what pleases them or inspires their emotions or challenges their intellect. They are averse to the art that they should imbibe because “it is good for you.” And they are similarly averse, once they grow up anyway, to having some critic tell them what they should like. And rightly so.

    There is nothing redeeming in the Soviet painting. It is didactic. It depicts humiliation, with the lesson: this little boy has let his family down. You will notice there’s no father here: he’s the man of the house.

    Actually, the painting reminds me of a classic composition by Repin, see here, which I consider a great painting.

    Rockwell wouldn’t paint something like the failing grade painting, anyway. When he painted people who were upset, he invariably put the pet in the role of doleful eyed comforter: not an uncomprehending dumb animal.

    But if the Soviet painting is didactic, what about Rockwell’s stuff? The girl looking in the mirror. What’s the “message” there, or is it just something indefinable about being a girl at a certain age? What’s the agenda of the famous painting of the doctor semi-seriously checking the heart of a little girl’s doll? The agitprop behind “Shuffleton’s Barber Shop”, which is a masterpiece?

    For a long time I allowed myself to be buffeted by critics. But eventually I got tired of people telling me that this book or that piece of music was reactionary, racist, trivial. Critics of this type usually have no aesthetic sense. They just have a zeal to tell everyone else what to do.

    The best, critics, say, Edmund Wilson or Francis Tovey, tell you about what they know, and what they like. Instead of pointing their finger at you and telling you what you should and should not enjoy, they show you what there is to appreciate in the things they do like. The best critics also have uncommon powers of communication, and, in the rare case of someone like Macaulay, can take a discussion of someone else’s art and use it to riff on something entirely their own. The best critics, on occasion, will skewer someone who’s art is bad (Macaulay’s take down of Robert Montgomery is the model, Mark Twain on Cooper is another), but even then they are specific, witty, and original. I find Saltz to be none of the above.

    Beware the tyranny of those who will tell what you may or may not enjoy.

  55. Loyal Achates Says:

    I thought you right-wingers turned on Rockwell when he painted ‘The Problem We All Live With’.

  56. Parklife Says:

    That was awsome.
    Saltz is a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year. You just took him appart on Rockwell. Wow. Thats what I love about blogs. The comments about how bad Saltz, priceless!

    Honestly, Rockwell appeals to an “Art and Wine” festival crowd. While a metallic bronze statue really hit the heart. The beauty of a pluralist society in full swing.

    Rockwell is today’s Thomas Kinkade. He is not a “Vermeer, Daumier, Homer, Hogarth, Hals, Toulouse-Lautrec, or Warhol.” Rockwell is simple, easy and brain candy for the masses.

    For me, the Saltz review was right on. Tee-ing off on Rockwell is a bit overdone. Imagine Barry Bonds in a ‘roid rage facing Little League pitching. Oh, and dont worry about having to ban Rockwell. By 2200, nobody will know who he was. Rockwell doesn’t challenge us or question anything. Next. ‘Click’.

  57. Ymarsakar Says:

    A lot of people don’t like art because it doesn’t look nice to them, and they don’t relate to it.

    Norman’s work appeals to the human soul. That is something that metallic bronze statues do not do.

  58. Sissy Willis Says:

    “The flatness of the drawing style”? I must beg to differ with you, big time, as one who studied illustration under Norman Baer, a disciple of Howard Pyle, the father of American Illustration. Visually speaking, there is a world of difference between the genuine flatness of the Soviet work and the painterly nuance of Rockwell’s art, whose anecdotal sentimentality often distracts from the brilliance of his artistic craft.

  59. Bezuhov Says:

    I thought it interesting that the word “comfort” came up, as it is one that comes up often for folks like Saltz.

    As far as I can tell, our professions have been corrupted by the widespread idea that morality requires “afflicting the comfortable (somehow most never get around to the comforting the afflicted part)”.

    Lacking a moral language to understand the instinctive cruelty we’ve each inherited in our genes, and with that cruelty reinforced by this admonition to “afflict the comfortable”, our artists/writers/thinkers get caught in a vicious spiral of distrust and, ultimately, despair.

    My take is that life itself tends to handle the affliction business pretty well on its own (see 9/11, Katrina, et. al.) and perhaps we’d do better to focus on the “comforting the afflicted” part until we’ve got that down.

  60. Ymarsakar Says:

    But it’s simply reactionary. It scares me.

    I’m scared this proto-reactionary person will appease our enemies, and kill all of us in the doing.

    It’s partly emotional: Rockwell’s world is not dark enough. It deals mostly with the light (although I’d have Saltz study that “Freedom from Fear” painting again if he thinks Rockwell always ignores the dark).

    An advocator for albinism came on Fox News. She said that Hollywood stereotypes against albinism, and that it is a form of both discrimination and racism. She asks only that Hollywood extend the same courtesy that they do to blacks, in not portraying dark dark black people as evil, to albinism. Movies quoted as containing villains of albinism is Da Vinci Code, and lots of others.

    I tend to think that they want a world that is dark, depressing, and full of despair. Because only the despairing individuals can be controlled by the elite through punishment and reward. Since they can’t use black skin color to portrayal evil, they use real white skin, albinism, to portray evil.

    Saltz seems to actually be afraid of Rockwell’s ability to speak to certain values that are quintessentially American, and to unequivocally affirm them in a way that is not complex. Why might this be?

    Speaking truth to power always scares the propagandists, when the convenient option of assassination is not available to rectify the problem.

    But not really. To me, it looks as though the heart has somehow been cut out of the picture, a painting which ends up being not even of greeting card quality.

    It looks to me to send the message that you must suffer for social redemption and the nation, which is embodied in the dictator which is called Stalin, man of steel. The Soviets made a virtue of suffering, a grotesque distortion of human values and dignity. Socialism will accomplish the same, in the end, it just takes longer.

    Yes, I remember that picture well. And I agree that he showed evil but emphasized the triumph of good within the human spirit, and within the US itself.

    I remember what that guy on spaceballs said. Good cannot triumph over evil, because good at its heart is weak.

    Rockwell constructs an America that doesn’t exist. You yourself admit this – but don’t want to call that propaganda.

    Here we have both a mental dysfunction, a logical derailment, as well as a statement of personal bias about America. Nice compression stack.

    By 2200, children will look at the pictures of Norman and ask, “Where are the other mothers and fathers?”

    Which might cause the future to ban Norman’s pictures, since they will have quite a bit of control over the internet by then. If society and history are any example.

  61. Vanderleun Says:

    Reading through the Saltz article I have to say that we inhabit different universes when we look at Rockwells. I’ve been to the studio and museum in New England and, regardless of the paintings’ “messages” never found them to be technically “washed out, and have little space, limited color, and no surface.” This is,frankly, utter crap without a shred of factual truth to it. If one the one hand Saltz has Rockwell as “a top-notch illustrator who can grab your heart and wring it” and then to claim those technical flaws….well, just how does Saltz think Rockwell is mananging to wring the heart. Hard to do with Crayolas.

    Then we see the hauling in of the ever popular “Flash Art” mouthpiece and it is clear what is really going on.

    What we have here is a case of terminal New York Artitus. And it yields what it always yields post Clement Greenberg, a dead soul.

    It is little wonder that Staltz, being a dead soul, can see the life in the Rockwells.

    As for Rockwell being or not being a Vermeer… well, neither was Vermeer at the beginning. It takes several centuries of looking to make a Vermeer a Vermeer. We’ll just have to check back in in 2206.

  62. Richard Aubrey Says:

    I’m not sure how anybody can say this America that Rockwell paints doesn’t exist.
    My grandfather actually sang in a double quartet, practiced in a barbershop from time to time.
    My grandmother, having all her sons home from WW II, gazed at them fondly, I imagine.
    Boys, not scheduled to death with soccer, got themselves into various near-Tom Sawyer kinds of trouble, as I did.
    Girls, hitting that age, do gaze wistfully at themselves in the mirror.
    I have seen, not a woman and child, but a three men in one restaurant, two in another, bow in prayer before starting to eat.
    The cover having to do with the young black girl and the marshalls covers the dark, but the big, knuckly hands of the marshalls and the implication that the state, and consequently the American people which is made patent by the armbands, are determined to protect this kid.
    Or, if you insist this doesn’t exist as an actuality, why not allow it to be something to which we might aspire?

    Thing is, to believe this means you’re an uncultured redneck. Horrors.
    So, even if it does exist, you have to insist it doesn’t, or you wouldn’t be able to claim intellectual superiority.

  63. gcotharn Says:

    I am lately struck, more than ever, by the strength of many American’s desperate unhappiness, and by the depth of their frustration that other Americans are happy. They are shouting out: “Only stupid persons can be happy! Wise up, and be unhappy!”

    Ben-David says Rockwell’s America doesn’t exist. In a sense, maybe so. But, to me, Rockwell’s America exists in moments:
    ~~of happiness; or – if one prefers,
    ~~of peace and harmony with natural order; or
    ~~of closeness to God.

    If one believes(as I do) humans never permanently “make it” to a place of constant goodness and happiness – but rather that life is an ongoing process of being in a good place, then falling short of the good place, then returning to the good place – then one recognizes the sublime moments of wonder depicted by Rockwell.

    Re: the Soviet era painting

    It is so deadening – so oppressively lifeless – that one suspects it must have been an intentional effect by the artists. The title: “Low marks again”, could easily be a political commentary about the Soviet system and government. One can imagine the artist: forced to paint a certain picture(possibly even forced to paint a deliberate imitation of a Rockwell picture – so close is the stylistic resemblance) fighting back against his artistic oppression in the only way he could.

    I hate to pick on ben-david, yet his comments about the Soviet picture are enlightening. ben-david sees no difference between the Soviet picture and the Rockwell pictures – when there is all the difference in the world. Whatever you want to call “it” in the Rockwell pictures – they are infused: light, love, God, soul, transcendence. The Rockwell pictures are infused with eternity. The Rockwells are infused with what art must communicate, because literature maybe cannot. To not sense what that is, is a tragedy.

  64. Joan Says:

    I have nothing substantive to add to the discussion. I just wanted to say how much I am enjoying this series, and that I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s installment. Thank you!

  65. douglas Says:

    “Rockwell constructs an America that doesn’t exist.”
    When artists actually create worlds that DO exist, they aren’t artists anymore, they’re documentarians. I agree with Neo, the ‘heart’ is missing in the Russian illustration. What you dismiss as “nuance-level cultural differences” are exactly what made living in the USSR different from living in the USA. Just ask my in-laws who had it relatively good in Hungary, but my Father-in-law was a journalist and traveled, and saw the dismal existence that the USSR was. Art is all about nuance, isn’t it?

    Here’s some interesting propaganda for you- Dr. Seuss political cartoons from WWII:
    http://nickiegoomba.blogspot.com/2005/08/world-war-ii-cartoons-from-dr-seuss.html
    I’d venture a guess that these critics of Rockwell would embrace an exhibit of Seuss, a ‘mere’ cartoonist…

  66. Ben-David Says:

    Neo – I don’t see any appreciable difference between the Soviet genre painting and Rockwell’s work – nothing that couldn’t be explained by nuance-level cultural differences.

    Setting aside the valid deflation of intellectual/aesthetic snobbery – I think these past 2 posts have circled around a deeper issue: the different nature of “propaganda” and the “artist” in a democracy vs. other regimes.

    For all their snootiness and self-hatred, the intellectual fakirs have a point: Rockwell constructs an America that doesn’t exist. You yourself admit this – but don’t want to call that propaganda.

    When does commercially-motivated airbrushing of reality merit being called propaganda? Is it a “soft” form of cultural (rather than political) propaganda?

    This is the point at which leftists intellectuals have inserted themselves into public discourse – finding “oppressive” programmatic messages everywhere in mass media. To those who hate our culture, there is no such thing as art – even commercially motivated art – that innocently reflects its cultural moment: everything from Donna Reed to the Aunt Jemima logo is propaganda.

    Obviously, Rockwell’s creative freedom – and the freedom of his audience to access alternative artistic viewpoints – makes a big difference in this evaluation. It’s the greatest contrast with Soviet works which are stylistically indestinguishable, but that we quite easily call propaganda.

  67. neo-neocon Says:

    Yes, I remember that picture well. And I agree that he showed evil but emphasized the triumph of good within the human spirit, and within the US itself.

  68. Snarkatron Says:

    Ah, but Rockwell *did* show the dark side. He just focused on the good shining through. He did an illustration featuring a young girl confidently walking to school, books in hand — past a wall with the marks of thrown tomatoes, a partial racial epithet visible, and four large men escorting her wearing armbands that say “U.S. Marshall” — because she is black. The frame is focused on the little girl so you do not see the marshalls’ faces. Her face is serene. But you can feel the ugliness those men are protecting her from so she *can* feel serene.

  69. Norman Rockwell is kitsch Says:

    “People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.” — Pablo Picasso

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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