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Tag Archives: Norman Rockwell

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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I wonder sometimes if people remember the purpose of the Memorial Day holiday. Contemporary belief would indicate that Memorial Day is a day set aside by Congress to grill steaks, ride around in a boat, and drink 30-packs of Coors Light. Of course, there are a lot of American flags involved, on T-shirts, flying from the front porches of homes, or decorating advertisements for sales on furniture and lawn mowers. Just about anything you can stick a flag on, someone has done it.

Originally, Memorial Day was set aside to honor those who have died in service to our country in war. It has since transmogrified into something we use to remember anyone who died, briefly, on our way to the beach wearing our “These Colors Don’t Run” tank top.

The Avenue in the Rain (Childe Hassam, 1917)

We used to take war a lot more seriously in this country. My parents were both veterans of World War II and were justifiably proud of their military service. My Mom, especially, took to reminiscing about the 1940s when she got older. She remembered how an entire nation dropped whatever it was doing in  December of 1941 and devoted every moment and every resource to winning a war that we were reluctantly dragged into (an oversimplification, to be sure). Really, the Rock-Ola Company stopped making juke boxes and started cranking out M-1 carbines. People were totally devoted to administering a beat-down to the forces of evil in the world. We all lived in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Homecoming (Norman Rockwell, 1945)

It’s hard to imagine this country coming together in that way for anything these days, although we pretended to for awhile after 9/11. The mass celebration that followed the two world wars don’t happen now, although young men and women are still traveling to foreign lands to fight, and die, for whatever passes as the national interest these days. The homecomings are local news and there aren’t a lot of parades going on. We don’t want to hear about it. Turn the channel.

Instead of uniting to fight a common enemy, many of us tend to find enemies within our own borders, maybe even our own communities. I find it terribly  ironic when someone describes protesters, be they Tea Party lunatics dressed up as fake patriots or hippies on Wall Street, as un-American, as if they were somehow dishonoring the sacrifice of our war dead by protesting against the government. Anyone who thinks like that simply doesn’t understand this country or our constitution and no amount of talking to them is likely to change that.

Iwo Jima Flag Raising (Joe Rosenthal, 1945)

Those Marines in Joe Rosenthal’s photograph had gone to war so hippies could occupy Wall Street,  people could go to the church of their choice, or no church at all, marry the person they love, and say whatever they had to say about our government. One of them was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, one a Native American from Arizona. One of them was the son of Texas dairy farmers, another a steelworker’s son from Pennsylvania. They were all Americans, and not one was more American than the others. Three of them were killed in action mere weeks after the photograph was taken.

Today, when you’re flipping burgers and listening to the baseball game on the radio, take a moment to remember what this day is actually for and, more importantly, what the men and women who have gone to war have really been fighting for all this time. It might not be what you thought it was.

It’s been a little more than a month since the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum is a project of one Alice Walton, tenth-richest person in American (worth about $21 billion, give or take) and one heir to the indecently large Wal-Mart fortune.

Given the Wal-Mart connection and our bizarre love-hate relationship with the company, I was expecting a lot of criticism of  Crystal Bridges from advocates of worker’s rights and a lot of derision from mainstream art people and I was disappointed on neither count. The opening was greeted with protests from the Occupy Movement and organized Wal-Mart workers, who were then mocked in an embarrassingly fawning puff-piece in Forbes.

A Model of the Crystal Bridges Museum

The art world has been dismissive because Ms. Walton is, apparently,  little more than a rich dilettante who simply went on a buying spree to fill a museum that was nothing if not a vanity project. Sounds a lot like how New York ended up with the Museum of Modern Art to me, and no one has pointed out how Crystal Bridges is different. Of course, there’s been some backlash against the effete snobs from the East Coast from the Arkansas loyalists, some even repeating the stupid, self-congratulatory mantra that the South is the REAL America and is in all ways culturally superior to the rest of the Nation.

Yes, the Waltons got rich on the backs of exploited workers, not just here but in third-world sweatshops from Taiwan to Sri Lanka. Interesting, but not really the point. The money comes largely from foundations, Alice Walton’s and Wal-Mart’s, mainly. They could have given it to the workers, I suppose, but they weren’t going to and no one could make them. What a lot of Wal-Mart haters fail to realize is that we have no one to blame but ourselves for the size of the Walton family fortune. SOMEONE is buying all that cheap imported bullshit from them. SOMEONE aided and abetted their destruction of Main Street and independent retailers. I have never seen anyone shopping at a Wal-Mart store at gunpoint. The Wal-Mart story is quintessentially American; they had a competitive advantage and exploited it. Capitalism 101.

So…New Yorkers can complain all they want when Walton buys Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits from the New York Public Library’s collection, at an auction, through a sealed bid, but the fact remains that the Library put it up for sale.

Kindred Spirits (Asher Durand - 1849)

We can all shake our heads in disgust when Walton’s dirty money buys Norman Rockwell’s iconic Rosie the Riveter, even though the result is that the painting will now be forever available to anyone who happens to be passing through Bentonville.

Rosie the Riveter (Norman Rockwell - 1943)

Me, I’m planning on spending a day at Crystal Bridges if I ever find myself in Arkansas for any length of time. Yes, the building is gaudy to the point of tastelessness, and yes, the money that built it and paid for the art that resides there is a monument to an economic system that dangerously unbalanced. I know these things. I know how hard it is to work for Wal-Mart, having spent the longest 8 months of my life in their employ in Bozeman, Montana a few years back.

I will go because art is meant to be seen and the paintings that now live in Bentonville are American treasures of the highest order. I will go to see the work of George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Cole, Charles Sheeler, Benjamin West, Mary Cassatt, and all the others because that’s what the paintings are for. And I will continue to work to change the system that created the wealth that financed Crystal Bridges in the first place. This time, I will leave the complaining and derision to someone else for a change.

Excavation at Night (George Wesley Bellows - 1908)

Update: 12/22/2011: The tempest continues! Bloomberg’s Jeffery Goldberg leads the charge on behalf of social engineers and bleeding hearts while “Culturegrrl” Lee Rosenbaum of the ArtsJournal defends the museum. Even after reflecting on what I’ve written here earlier, I can’t seem to buy the argument that Walton should have handed her money to Wal-Mart employees instead of bankrolling Crystal Bridges. These links are a good “point-counterpoint” on the arguments.

I don’t think it matters whether or not Wal-Mart workers, or at least the ones Goldberg talked to, don’t care about art. It’s a phony argument.