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I will leave it to others to figure out whether or not Norman Rockwell was an artist or an illustrator. I don’t particularly care because his work is etched into my memory regardless. His images were simply everywhere. We always seemed to have copies of the Saturday Evening Post and Boy’s Life laying around the house. His work was as recognizable as any face, like a signature on some Great American Manifesto that captured everything we believed we were.

I was blissfully unaware of any real problems in our country when I was a kid. Despite living on the outskirts of a racially divided city, everyone who touched my life in those early years seemed to be really white. There were no minorities in my school. Our TV poured out My Three Sons and Dick Van Dyke and John Wayne movies, in black and white. I’m sure I watched Walter Cronkite every night but nothing really registered, not the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the riots in Detroit and elsewhere. I really thought I lived in a country filled with Rockwell characters fishing, going to the doctor, learning to play musical  instruments, falling in love, or chasing their dogs around the back yard.

Pride of Parenthood (Norman Rockwell, 1958)

Pride of Parenthood (Norman Rockwell, 1958)

I do remember, however, the night Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. I vividly recall staring up at the moon in a clear, sky thinking about an empty universe and time and distance. I was 11 years old but I still think I grasped the gravity of it all. I’m starting to think that reaching the moon was our zenith, that we’ll never come together to meet big challenges like that, ever again.

The Final Impossiblity: Man's Tracks on the Moon (Norman Rockwell, 1969).

The Final Impossiblity: Man’s Tracks on the Moon (Norman Rockwell, 1969)

I was quite astonished to find out, when I finally looked  into Rockwell’s body of work, that he delved deeply into the racial problems that infested our history. The only black people I recall in Rockwell’s work were waiters and baggage handlers in train stations. His political work was published but if I saw it, it just didn’t register because I wouldn’t have had any idea what was going on. It was powerful stuff and I’m sure some people found it inspiring and others were pissed off by it. Either way, paintings like The Problem We All Live With, which shows us a little black girl walking to school in the company of federal marshals, depicts an American reality I can’t even being to understand, one that probably resembles my country more than my memory does.

The Problem We All Live With (Norman Rockwell, 1964)

The Problem We All Live With (Norman Rockwell, 1964)

Whether Rockwell was just an illustrator or a “real” artist doesn’t really matter to me, although I think the power of Problem or the wit of The Connoisseur (below)  are well beyond the reach a majority of people who’ve ever picked up a paintbrush. His work has touched the lives of maybe three generations of Americans. A lot of people seem to be nostalgic for Rockwell’s America these days because it represents the best things we have always wanted to believe about ourselves. We no longer live in that America. I’m starting to believe that it never really existed in the first place.

The Connoisseur (Norman Rockwell, 1962)

The Connoisseur (Norman Rockwell, 1962)

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