Norman Rockwell Reconsidered

By essay

Triple Self-Portrait by Norman Rockwell, 1959

A recent Vanity fair article on Norman Rockwell suggests he might come to new relevance given our current economic and cultural hangover. Like many artists, he sought to materialize an idealized vision that didn’t quite exist. A recent book (Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, by Ron Schick) shows his photographic studies compared to his finished works to shed some light on what exactly he was adding. The fact that it’s optimistic and mundane seems to have put it at odds with our ‘traditional’ understanding of art and artists for the past 150 years, usually more driven towards the extreme, difficult, painful, stylized, elite, dramatic, and fantastical (or preferably all of the above).

However it’s hard to find what is so bad about a kid from NYC with an average-to-shitty upbringing longing for an ideal America. It is likely similar to what inspired many of us (and some of the most patriotic art in a long time) in the last presidential election. The ideals Rockwell depicted weren’t in a physical, materialist or even intellectual or creative sense — the usual realms worthy of celebration. His subjects were not so slick or conventionally beautiful and were often of average or modest means. He created scenes with ordinary and flawed humans longing to connect, stand up for what’s right, or simply get along. They do not appear particularly moralist, reactionary, or sanitized. There’s always the grit lurking in the background — not condemned or celebrated — simply existing, and perhaps also inspired by what’s in focus. Any moral or political content tended towards the liberal-universal side. Sure it was all tinged with fantasy and idealism, freely admitted by the artist himself. But it seems more plausible and more inspiring than, say, the equally fictional artworld-friendly concoction of J.T. Leroy.

It seems his past unacceptability in art culture is more about the preference for romanticizing neurosis than any inherent qualities of his work. For a culture long obsessed with the idea of authenticity, perhaps Norman can help turn creative discussion and responsibility back onto what an artist chooses to depict rather than their autobiography/persona. Maybe this will keep the latter from getting cannibalized by the former and require work to stand on it’s own.

Art can convey a range of emotions and visions. I recall being moved by his illustrations. This was before art school, when I was too young to know better. It’s strange if works have to be sufficiently obscured, complicated, intellectualized, and uncomfortable to be taken seriously. The aspects of society that have long been seen as subversive, hidden, and somehow more ‘real’ (sex, drugs, violence, drama, political dissent…) are actually quite ubiquitous in media and culture today and now seem more like escape than reality. In post-subculture America, it is unlikely that constant depictions of our vices, failings, and unsavory aspects will get us anywhere. Either we can feel superior to our flawed compatriots or we get even more comfortable with our already powerful addictions. In such a climate, optimistic moral idealism seems positively avant-garde!

originally published at

Update: Resurgences

Ruby Bridges visits with President Barack Obama and her portrait in the White House, 2011 YouTube.

For Freedoms project launches with photos based on Rockwell’s FDR-inspired Four Freedoms paintings, updated with more diversity.

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