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29 December 2010

Goodbye Mr. Rockwell

I have never been a big fan of Norman Rockwell.  His paintings always struck me as superficial and as portraying an aggrandized America that I cannot stand.  I've always been much more of an Edward Hopper person because his paintings, to me, capture the historical moment while revealing simultaneously the beauty and desolation of contemporary America.

However,  having recently taken in the Rockwell special exhibit at the Museum of American Art in Washington, I've changed my mind... about Rockwell, that is.
"Tender Years: New Calendar" 1957

Edward Hopper, "Nighthawks" 1942
The title of the exhibit is "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg." It was the Lucas and Spielberg connection that drew me in and invited me to reconsider my views on Rockwell, literally.  I'm a great admirer of both of these film makers, especially Lucas. Certainly, I've enjoyed very much his Star Wars films and, over the years, really have come to appreciated the various influences underpinning that franchise, such as Kurosawa and Eastern religion and philosophy. However, it is Lucas's American Graffiti has always especially struck me as capturing extraordinarily well -- like a Hopper painting -- the historical moment, along with the beauty and desolation of contemporary America.

"American Graffiti" 1973
Never had I thought of American Graffiti as belonging to the same genre as a Rockwell painting. I was wrong. In the 12-minute documentary accompanying the exhibit, Lucas and Spielberg talk about Rockwell as a teller of the American story, just as they are with film.  Lucas, in fact, refers to American Graffiti at least twice. They discuss Rockwell's process -- auditioning models, choosing the clothing and other props, taking multiple photos to determine the correct staging, etc. -- and how it was similar to their work as film makers.  Moreover, the stories Rockwell was telling were, like American Graffiti or Schindler's List, hardly superficial.  The paintings, when really examined, convey complex, everyday human emotions. Almost all of the paintings display relationships that everyone can relate to: Husbands and wives, media and celebrity, teacher and student, youngsters playing marbles or dancing with each other awkwardly at a party. Rockwell was a master at telling American stories with great sensitivity while allowing lots of room for interpretation by the "listener." Much of the humor undergirding many of the paintings is of the sweet, sympathetic sort. Even sentimental, dare I say it.

"Pardon Me (Children Danding at a Party)" 1918
But, so what. A Rockwell painting makes you smile because, as with any good story, you relate to the feelings the characters are experiencing and you kind of feel sorry for them and for yourself. The feelings evoked by the paintings makes you feel totally normal -- that it's okay, for example, to have stepped on a girl's toes and become embarrassed when you were 12 years old and trying to dance and be cool; that it's okay that you took that lousy job as waitress or coat-and-hat-checker in Hollywood or Manhattan while you waited, in vain, to make it big in the movies or on Broadway. We all make mistakes. We're all suckers. We all have imaginations and dreams. We, men, are always stricken dumb by beautiful women. We, women, always want to look and feel beautiful.

"The Flirts" 1941
And then there is the nostalgia. Rockwell captured a period of American history, from the late 1910s to the mid-1960s in which our country transformed into an industrial, military, economic, social, and political powerhouse. Some of the paintings convey that explicitly but most of them don't.  The paintings stop just prior to the American loss of innocence that began in the late 1960s and that we have been struggling with as a nation ever since. The period covered by the paintings was, at least for White Americans, one characterized by widespread neighborly trust and moral simplicity. Indeed, I'd even go so far as to say that, even within communities of color at that time, there was also a surplus of neighborly trust and certainly the same type of moral simplicity. That surplus and simplicity has evaporated and, instead, we are faced with a trust deficit and moral complexity of enormous proportions.  The problem lies not with the moral complexity -- in that sense, our society has advanced markedly -- but, rather, with the deficit of trust.

As I was reflecting on my newfound appreciation of Rockwell I thought of my mother who died this past October at 79. She, and my father who passed away in 1992, were a part of the so-called Greatest Generation.  It was this generation that, along with the generation preceding it, created the trust-surplus society. And sadly, it was also this generation that, along with the generation following it, created the trust-deficit society.  

That "greatest" generation is almost gone now. We Boomers, Lucas and Spielberg included, are now   on the front lines of society, joined by the older Xers. Perhaps we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again, at least somewhat.  In the meantime, let us, together, bid goodbye to Mr. Rockwell and his stories of an America that was and will not be again.