S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 6 December 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
Norman Conquest

 

[Bishop is a lonely kid]

Visitors react with "shock,

vomiting, confusion, panic, and

euphoria." No, it's not the dung

Madonnas and the pickled sows

over at the Brooklyn Museum. A

Norman Rockwell retrospective is

barreling through the Heartland

with more righteous horsepower

than a Springsteen tour bus, and

it's sure to make American skin

crawl or goose bump in a way no

twitty British art turk could

ever hope to. The shock to the

system is not of the New, but of

the Normal: Like it or not, you

recognize every image. It's one

thing to dismiss Rockwell's

images as "icky" in

reproduction. In the flesh,

they're hard to ignore.

 

"Even the most brittle cynics

melt in the presence of all that

wholesomeness," the

vernacular-crazed architect of

the Rockwell Museum, Robert A.

M. Stern, has said. "They drop

the Armani shield, and they

rediscover that this is part of

our culture." Decades of

repetition, imitation, and

parody of Rockwell's idioms are

probably enough to explain the

déjà vu uncanniness

of experiencing Rockwell Live.

While his rehabilitation is long

overdue, it's pretty amusing to

watch everyone from PBS to The New

Yorker's unpronounceable

poet-critic Peter Schjeldahl to

the wholesomely titillating A&F

magalog fall all over themselves

to praise illustration's Great

Pretender. The word is that it's

finally safe to fess up that you

like Rockwell. As if it were

dangerous before.

 

[Have yourself a Rolo]

Yes, "the time has come to take

Norman Rockwell seriously," says

The New York Times, which once

derided him as the Rembrandt of

Punkin' Crick. (Now he's

upgraded to "Mr.

Thanksgiving."). But taking

Rockwell seriously may prove

more of a kiss of death than

the previous derision. These

recent converts sound one of two

notes. Either they simply

enthuse in the endearingly

pathetic tones of the last

person on Earth to rediscover

'70s music. Or else they admit a

grudging respect, but not for

the same reasons as the hoi

polloi — thus parading their

catholicity of taste while

retaining an air of elite

selectivity.

 

Longtime fans have always clung

to patriotism and universality

as the key to Rockwell's appeal,

while a few critics continue to

assail his heavy hand with the

whitewash regarding the

"gritty" realities of American

Life. Rockwell's name has always

been a useful shorthand for all

manner of national

self-delusion. Slate columnist

Jacob Weisberg has implied that

Rockwell without air quotes is

like Filler without drug

references. Still others have

made analogies to Soviet or even

Nazi political imagery (Norman

Riefenstahl?). This

interpretation fails to

acknowledge that actual

propaganda aims to deceive and

incite, while Rockwell's

undisguised aim was to offer a

frankly idealized fantasy to

which Americans could aspire.

 

[But watch out for the gas]

The titles of the exhibition's

four organizing sections — Inventing

America, Drawing on the Past,

Celebrating the Commonplace,

and Honoring the

America Spirit — seem

custom-made to lend fodder to

all of these groups. Whatever

the history of one's attitude

toward Rockwell, few still

underestimate the pervasiveness

of his influence on mainstream

pop culture. (Consider Toy

Story, Steven Spielberg,

Hallmark, and just about any

sitcom set in a household.) That

is not the reason, however, that

Rockwell's body of work will

continue to grow in importance

over time.

 

Rockwell was nothing if not a

skilled tradesman, treating his

work literally as a 9-to-5 job.

Though truly inventive as a

stage director of aw-shucks

tableaux, he was famously

unwilling to paint from his

imagination. Every detail

required a real-world model.

Residents of Stockbridge, the

ridiculously idyllic village

where Rockwell lived his last 25

years, trot out one hoary tale

after another of Rockwell

rummaging around town for weeks

in search of just the right old

boot to put on the end of a

fishing line. Every gray-haired

resident recalls being

Shanghaied — Little

Leaguers, Girl Scouts,

schoolmarms, firemen — for

painstaking photo shoots.

 

[Beware of gratuitous cobranding!]

It is precisely this reportorial

rigor that bugs Rockwell's

new-historical foes. The

undeniable quality of the images

comes not from their saccharine

pull on the heartstrings —

just the opposite. It is

Rockwell's maniacal search for

the right detail that sucks

viewers in, like it or not.

Nothing is left to chance. If

there's a stamp on a letter, it

is the correct postage, properly

canceled. If there's a cigarette

butt on a courtroom floor, a

chain smoker from that era could

identify the brand.

 

"Rockwell didn't illustrate

Middle America," Schjeldahl

writes, "he invented Middle

America." But Rockwell sticks

out as an odd counterexample to

the frequent argument that

photography and TV have made

folk histories obsolete. Want to

know what barber shops were like

in the 1940s? What kind of

sandals suburban housewives

preferred? Whether baseball

umpires wore bow ties? You could

spend an eternity in various

photo archives — or you

could just check with Norman.

When some 22nd century Ric Burns

does a documentary on 1930s to

1950s America, he will go

straight to the Rockwell

catalogue raisonné.

 

Rockwell loved making up "what's

wrong with this picture?"

puzzles, and indeed, all of his

Saturday Evening Post covers

could be viewed through this

lens. The frightening

accumulation of detail makes for

a feeling that there is

something very wrong, almost

deliberately wrong, with even

his most innocent scenes. That's

why he's rebounded like rubber

from the gluey attacks by

highbrow critics and Am. stud.

majors just exposed to the

Roland Barthes method. He's too

easy a target. There's no need

to pick apart images so

overdetermined that they

spontaneously unravel

themselves. There are no

subtexts to discover in here;

they're all right out there on

the surface. It makes sense that

many former detractors now

mention Rockwell in the same

breath as Andy Warhol, that

other favorite love-to-hate icon

of Americana. Warhol painted

things he instinctively liked,

insisting that his work was

deeply superficial. Likewise,

Rockwell insisted that

everything you need to know

about his work is on the canvas,

often poking fun at impenetrable

modern masters. He made no bones

that "I paint life as I would

like it to be." "So sue me," a

less self-consciously homespun

guy might have added. Leave that

to Rudy Giuliani and the

Brooklyn Museum.

 
courtesy of Ersatz