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Norman Rockwell: The Movie!

August 25, 2010

Our next scheduled post—on Gold Diggers of 1933—has been delayed so New Strategies for Invisibility can take a shot at Deborah Solomon.

You saw her feature on Norman Rockwell in the Sunday arts section of the NYT last month, right?   The article’s ostensible occasion was the opening of a Rockwell exhibition that’s up now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the contents of which are drawn from the private collections of filmmakers George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg.  The Sunday on which Solomon’s article ran was Independence Day—and if there’s anything more American than Norman Rockwell, it’s the combined luxury-good purchasing power wielded by George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg!  God bless the U.S.A.!

Deborah Solomon, as you are no doubt aware, is responsible for the brief, punchy, often confrontational, always entirely implausible “Questions for” feature that runs weekly in the New York Times Magazine.  “Questions for” is notable chiefly for its adaptation to print of the subtractive compositional techniques of reality television, i.e. the editing-down of long stretches of unscripted human interaction into episodes of maximal drama and minimal nuance.  I have been reading it for years with growing irritation and am now convinced—in keeping with today’s theme, and to quote Jon Stewart out of context—that it is hurting America.

But let’s not talk about “Questions for.”  Let’s talk about Norman Rockwell—about whom, the internet informs me, Solomon is presently completing a biography.  (We can add to the magic confluence of Rockwell, Spielberg, Lucas, and July 4th the NYT’s apparently inexhaustible willingness to let prominent contributors use their features to drum up interest in their own projects.)  It’s hardly crazy for Solomon to be working this beat—she has previously published biographies of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, and was for many years an art critic for that dynamo of the avant-garde, the Wall Street Journal—so I am willing exercise some charity and deference here with respect to her qualifications.

And honestly, as a piece of newspaper journalism, her piece isn’t a total waste of time.  If you ignore Solomon’s lame attempts to suggest inter-filmmaker resentment between Lucas and Spielberg—force of habit, eh, Debz?—she’s pretty perceptive about the values implicit in Rockwell’s work, and its place in the culture.

Oh, but then there’s this:

As beloved as [Rockwell] was by the public, he suffered the slings of critical derision, especially in the ’50s.  The dominant art movements of that era—Abstract Expressionism, Beat poetry and hard bop jazz—devalued craftsmanship in favor of improvisation and the raw, unmediated gesture.  Against this backdrop Rockwell was accused of purveying an artificial and squeaky-clean view of America, which remains a criticism of him today.

It is true that his work, for the most part, does not acknowledge social hardships or injustice.  It does not offer a sustained meditation on heartbreak or death.  Yet why should it?  Idealization has been a reputable tradition in art at least since the days when the Greeks put up the Parthenon, and Rockwell’s work is no more unrealistic than that of countless art-history legends, like Mondrian, whose geometric compositions exemplify an ideal of harmony and calm, or Watteau, who invented the genre of the fête galante.  Rockwell perfected a style of painting that might be called the American Ideal.  Instead of taking place in lush European gardens, his playful gatherings are in a diner on Main Street.

This is not so much completely as it is exactly wrong.  It is NOT true that Rockwell’s work “does not acknowledge social hardships or injustice.”  It just doesn’t depict them as insurmountable—provided we can approach them with sympathy for the perspective of our adversaries, and our adversaries can do the same.  This may not be likely, but it is certainly possible, and Rockwell demonstrates this possibility by not only depicting but encouraging it—and creating a rhetorical space in which it can occur—through his popular illustrations.

The suggestion that Rockwell’s work is inferior to the raw and gestural output of his modernist contemporaries is specious, given that he begins and proceeds with completely different assumptions and aims.  No, Rockwell doesn’t “offer a sustained meditation on heartbreak or death”—because heartbreak and death are by definition solitary, and sustained meditation on them presupposes a laudatory interest in the subjective experience of the heroic individual.  Rockwell has no such interest.  His work is comic, in the old Greek sense: it’s concerned with individuals only to extent that communities are made up of them.

A comic sensibility and an “idealistic” worldview are not remotely the same thing.  (I’m not even sure they can comfortably coexist in the same consciousness, since comedy depends on instances of gears not meshing.)  The first mistake that Solomon makes here—presumably as her editors are tapping their feet and glancing at their watches—is not so much to mischaracterize Rockwell’s work as to misapply her terminology: she’s conflating “idealistic” in its everyday sense (i.e. referring to those among us who won’t accommodate our lofty principles to the experience of actually living in the world) with “idealist” in its philosophical sense (i.e. referring, in epistemology, to the argument that we can never have certain knowledge of the external world but only the contents of our own minds, or, in metaphysics, to the argument that the external world has no absolute existence at all).

I suspect that Solomon realized as she was typing that she’d drifted across the center stripe, and I guess she deserves some semi-respectful tip of the hat for just putting the pedal down and going for it: viz. her unapologetically loopy comparison of Rockwell to Piet Mondrian, an honest-to-god theosophical idealist who sought in his work to distill the visible world into primary colors and right-angled lines.  Her reference to Antoine Watteau is more defensible, though still wrong: while Rockwell’s lightness and his stop-motion evocation of fleeting moments do recall Watteau—and there are parallels (probably misleading ones) to be drawn between Rockwell’s emergence as a brand and Watteau’s establishment of the genre of the fête galante—fundamentally they are two very different artists.


Watteau is rarely narrative in the conventional sense.  His canvases of frolicking aristocrats and costumed entertainers tend to give us the impression that we’re peeking through a summer haze to glimpse a titillating story-in-progress, but the key to their effectiveness and their appeal is that we can never quite figure out what the hell’s going on.  In Rockwell, what’s going on may not be immediately apparent, but we are damn sure meant to figure it out—and the longer we study each of his images, the more detail emerges to add nuance to their implied narratives.  Watteau’s paintings invite us into an imaginary world: diffuse and muted, languorous and ephemeral—akin, maybe, to the “floating world” depicted in Japanese prints—and in any event distinct from the quotidian realm in which we all live and strive.  Rockwell’s illustrations, on the other hand, locate us imaginatively IN the everyday world.  They depend for their effectiveness on the cultural competency of their viewers: our ability and our willingness to catch the artist’s references and to appreciate his implications.  For most artists working in a recognized genre—whether we’re talking about directors shooting post-Hitchcock slasher films, or novelists writing post-Tolkien fantasy, or painters producing post-Watteau fêtes galantes—the big advantage of genre is that it allows you (and your audience) to bypass a bunch of issues related to verisimilitude and “realism.”  That’s not at all what Rockwell is up to.  Contrary to Solomon’s suggestion, Rockwell is not generic but rhetorical: he engages with verisimilitude head-on, advocating, demonstrating, arguing for a particular kind of perceptiveness.  If we can look at the world with the same sympathy and suspended judgment that we look at his illustrations, Rockwell seems to suggest, our attention stands to receive the same rewards.

Key to Rockwell’s skill as a narrative illustrator is his ability to portray spaces that are less architectural or theatrical than social: he excels at conveying a sense of people thinking, interacting, regarding each other.  This is not something that Watteau does, or seems very much interested in doing.  When I think about Rockwell’s canonical influences—worth thinking about, since art-historical allusions crop up regularly in his work—my brain tends to gravitate toward the hyperreal images of the Mannerists, particularly those of Paolo Veronese, whose fondness for depicting startling perspectives of distorted figures in unholdable poses Rockwell seems to share, along with a gift for suggesting complex multi-character narratives in a single frozen instant through expression, attitude, and gaze.

I also think of Rockwell in relation to a distinct lineage of painters that begins with Caravaggio: Frans Hals, Rembrandt, La Tour, Joseph Wright of Derby . . . guys that David Hockney would identify as “optical” painters, i.e. painters who either used optical devices (lenses, curved mirrors, cameras obscura and lucida) to produce their work, or else tried to emulate the effects of such devices.

Hockney’s speculations about these painters’ methods are controversial.  I find them pretty persuasive myself, and anyway compelling as hell.  About Rockwell’s own use of optics, however, there is no question: he famously based his paintings on carefully-composed photographs that he’d trace onto his canvases with the aid of a Balopticon projector, a process that helps account for their distinctive sharpness.  For me, Rockwell’s reliance on photographs strongly recalls some of Hockney’s assertions about Caravaggio, who left behind a bunch of paintings but not a single sketch, who was accused by his contemporaries of being unable to paint without models present, and who has recently been alleged to have used not only optical devices but primitive chemical fixatives to capture projected images on his canvases.

The part of Hockney’s theory that’s most interesting to me (and almost certainly to him too) is not its “gotcha” aspect, i.e. the issue of which Old Masters used optics and which didn’t—a gossipy debate that has flickered intermittently over the past decade through the pages of various haute-bourgeois magazines in a kind of leisure-class parallel to the pro-sports doping scandals.  Rather, it’s the account his theory offers of how a particular style of 2D representation came not only to dominate the Western pictorial tradition but also to be universally and uncritically accepted as the most accurate kind of 2D representation available to us.  Hockney points out that we don’t remotely see the moving, blurry, peripherally-glimpsed, selectively-focused-upon world around us in the same way that a camera lens does; in a famous 1984 interview with the New Yorker he derisively characterized photography as “looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed cyclops—for a split second.”

I don’t really want to unpack Hockney’s entire argument here.  I will say that it’s worthwhile in a general sense to think about what kinds of visual experience photographs are good and not so good at capturing, and also about how photos—and images that resemble them—go about convincing us of their integrity, veracity, and authority.  More specifically, and in the present context, it’s interesting to ask: why did Norman Rockwell paint the way he did?  Why did his illustrations look the way they looked, and why did he use his particular methods to achieve that look?  Why was he a painter in the first place, instead of, say, a photographer?  Or—not to put too fine a point on it—why didn’t the magazine editors who made him rich just hire themselves a photographer instead?

Partly, sure, there’s the somewhat vulgar but still undeniable appeal of Rockwell’s full-on, holy-cow virtuosity: the dumb satisfaction—known to generations of Yngwie Malmsteen fans—of watching somebody take aim at something and just hit the living crap out of it.  On a technical level, dude was just a scary good painter.  (And as Hockney is always at pains to point out, the camera is not a shortcut for the painters who use it; it just introduces a whole new batch of technical challenges.)  But virtuosity is not Rockwell’s whole appeal, nor even the bulk of it.  When we call something “Rockwellesque,” we don’t mean that it’s extremely sharply rendered, or adroitly executed.  We mean something else.

To make an obvious but still important point, the difference between a photograph and a representational painting is that the painting contains no accidents.  Because every mark has been made laboriously by the painter, each must be assumed to be intentional, and therefore potentially relevant to our interpretation of the image.  Imagine if you will a photographic print hanging alongside a painting done after it which reproduces it so precisely that viewers must stare hard at the surface of each to determine which is which.  In terms of what they represent, their content is exactly the same.  But we don’t look at them the same way—and they aren’t saying the same thing.

What is significant in this distinction is not so much the images’ content but their grammar.  To be more specific (and jargonistic), the difference is analogous to grammatical mood: it lies not in what the images are saying, but in how—and why—they are saying it.  Photographs document, memorialize, and evoke particular acts of human perception; therefore they tend to address us in the declarative mood: they tell us, foremost, that they represent actual phenomena, i.e. objects that were present and/or events that were occurring in physical space at the instant the shutter was opened.  Paintings work in approximately the opposite way: because we know that what they show us has been filtered through the painter’s eye and mind and brush, we also know that we have no independent access to whatever real-world phenomena (if indeed there were any) the painter set out to represent, and that the factual basis for the representation is unavailable to us.  Therefore paintings speak to us in moods other than the declarative: subjunctive, imprecative, optative, inferential, mirative, speculative, hypothetical.  They always provide more reliable evidence about the subjectivity of their creators than they do about the phenomena they seem to depict.


When painting and photography begin to converge—when paintings conceal their makers’ brushstrokes and decisions, and when photos become more synthetic and controlled—then things start to get interesting, grammatically speaking.  In such cases the images engage actively with our expectations, trying to anticipate and to get in front of what we already know and think and feel about whatever it is they show us.  In doing so, their speech becomes compromised, modulated, dynamic: the images reason and argue with us; they persuade, warn, seduce, cajole, and deceive us; they mock, joke, suggest, and wonder.  Rather than allowing us to bypass issues of verisimilitude, images like these put those issues squarely in our faces, and insist that we consider whether the world they represent is the same world we inhabit.  These are the kinds of images that Norman Rockwell produced.  When I say that Rockwell is always rhetorical, this is what I mean.

Although this kind of visual rhetoric becomes easy to spot when we look at painting and photography in relation to each other, I think it’s important to note that it predates the birth of chemical photography (though not that of modern optics) by kind of a lot.  As Dave Hickey points out in his great essay on Robert Mapplethorpe in The Invisible Dragon (“Nothing Like the Son”), Caravaggio was already working this way at the turn of the 17th Century: rather than awing and overwhelming his audience through enormous scale and startling special effects, his ecclesiastical paintings present the mysteries and the miracles they depict as tactile, intimate, and natural—not as cataclysms disrupting the texture of ordinary life, but as possibilities latent in the everyday.

“Just as Christ opens his wound to Saint Thomas,” Hickey writes,

Caravaggio (presuming to persuade us from our own doubt and lack of faith) opens the scene to us, in naturalistic detail.  And we, challenged and repelled by the artist’s characterization of us as incredulous unbelievers (and guilty in the secret knowledge that, indeed, we are), must respond with honor, with trust, by believing—and not, like Thomas, our eyes.  (To look is to doubt.)  To free ourselves from guilt, and from Caravaggio’s presumption of our incredulity, we must transcend the gaze, see with our hearts, and acquiesce to the gorgeous authority of the image, extending our penitential love and trust to Christ, to the Word, to the painting, and, ultimately, to Caravaggio himself.

Pretty cool trick—if it’s 1602, that is, and you’re Caravaggio, better equipped than anybody else in Europe to spring that kind of image on your unsuspecting, visually innocent audience.  If, on the other hand, it’s 1943 and you’re Norman Rockwell, then your circumstances are rather different: advances in photographic and print technology have made photo-oriented magazines like Life and Look and National Geographic commercially viable and increasingly popular, and American readers have grown accustomed to seeing content accompanied by photos instead of illustrations.  Suddenly it seems less of a given that editors will keep sending work your way.

(Being stylistically out-of-date wasn’t Rockwell’s only reason to be nervous in ’43; the editorial page of his cash cow, the Saturday Evening Post—which printed his famous Four Freedoms series after the Office of War Information had initially passed on them—had consistently opposed both the New Deal and American involvement in World War II.  Since the entire purpose of Rockwell’s Four Freedoms was to promote the sale of war bonds by illustrating principles articulated in FDR’s 1941 State of the Union, one imagines that this made for some lively meetings in the Post’s editorial offices.)

In a few fairly pointed passages in his book Secret Knowledge, David Hockney draws a connection between “lens-based” images (e.g. optically “realistic” painting, sculpture, photography, and film) and the great despots of the mid-20th Century, who he says demanded a stock of such images “to consolidate their power.”  This is an important observation, but it implies that lens-based images are inherently antithetical to freedom, which I think overstates the case.  Sure, images like these ARE potentially dangerous, if only because they’re politically operative—but this is just another way of saying that they’re rhetorical.  A painting like Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (above) certainly DOES serve to consolidate the power of the Church that subsidized its creation, in much the same way (as Hickey demonstrates) that Mapplethorpe’s sleek and elegant porn valorizes submission of a very different kind (and to no established order).  But Rockwell—who paints not at the cutting edge of image-making technology but in an avowedly outmoded style, with the evident aim of encouraging not capitulation to authority and/or uncritical jingoism, but only an expansion of positive liberty—is up to something else.

To help bring out this contrast, let’s take a quick look at a couple of Rosies:

That, obviously, is Rockwell on the bottom, and J. Howard Miller’s iconic badass on the top.  Context accounts for some of the differences: Miller’s was a 1942 factory poster for Westinghouse, while Rockwell’s was a 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover.  Miller meant his audience to look at his poster and see themselves; as such, his image is skimpy on particularizing detail.  It’s direct, stylized, almost cartoonish; you can imagine him producing it without the use of a model, never mind a projected photograph.  Its purpose is straightforward, and so is its rhetoric: the image reassures and inspires workers via appealing example, aiming to defuse any cognitive dissonance arising from the idea that assembly line work is unfeminine.  (Its clarity and simplicity also make it portable, arguably more potent today, repurposed as a campy feminist signifier, than it ever was as war-effort propaganda.)

Rockwell’s Rosie is targeted at exactly the same cognitive dissonance, but in an entirely different set of brains: those of the Post’s bourgeois readers, who hadn’t yet necessarily decided how they felt about the war, never mind the sweeping cultural changes it brought about—and who certainly weren’t sending their daughters into the factories.  Rockwell doesn’t set out, as Miller does, to nip in the bud anyone’s discomfort about nice young ladies wielding pneumatic hammers.  In fact, this discomfort is what this image uses for fuel, what makes it work.

Unlike Miller’s maid of Westinghouse, Rockwell’s Rosie neither offers nor requires encouragement: she’s in her element, unmistakably working-class.  Odds are good that she had a factory job before the war, and she damn well expects to keep punching the clock after the boys have come home.  Rather than addressing social worries about women headed for the assembly lines, Rockwell draws our attention to women who have already been there, making them visible, then elevating them as contemporary icons—partly in jest, but mostly not.  None of the image’s intertextual jokes—the billowing flag, the Mein Kampf footrest, the halo floating above the face-shield, the compositional allusion to Michelangelo’s Isaiah—are made at Rosie’s expense, or at anybody’s, really, except for maybe Hitler’s.  Instead they serve to inch the image away from “realism” in the direction of fantasy and gentle parody, a move that creates a safe, non-confrontational rhetorical space in which the Post’s subscribers can encounter this imposing alien being.  While Miller sets out to naturalize his Rosie—to insist that there’s nothing weird about ladies in factories—Rockwell acknowledges the strangeness of his image, foregrounds it, amplifies it, and then reassures his audience that it’s totally okay, that this is different but not bad, and that big girls with rivet guns are part of what makes this crazy nation of ours so freaking great.

As Richard Halpern writes in his Rockwell book,

Rockwell’s Rosie is such a compelling performance because it is such an ambiguous one.  Rockwell participates in the [Office of War Information] propaganda campaign without entirely subordinating himself to it.  It is not that he shrinks from his imposed task; rather, his very enthusiasm pushes him to produce something unexpected.  He gives even more than he is asked, and that “more” complicates and ennobles the image.  His Rosie thus sends an officially sanctioned message without being contained by it.

The addition of this complicating and ennobling “even more” is Rockwell’s signature move, something we see all over his work.  It’s what gives his rhetoric its distinctive flavor, and is also, I would argue, what makes him a major American artist.  The move basically works like this: Rockwell zeroes in on an instance where some set of codified social norms is scraping up against some other such set.  Then he depicts the scene—in a style that suggests the alert and impersonal objectivity of a photograph—from a perspective that privileges neither set of norms.  The resulting image suggests and demonstrates that these contradictory norms can tolerate each other, can peacefully and even productively coexist.  Once you start noticing this signature move (something the conservatives who idolize these images seem incapable of doing) it becomes apparent in a hurry that Rockwell’s real subject is never the norms themselves, but rather the all-but-invisible liberal-democratic society in which these encounters occur, and which makes them possible in the first place.

The key thing to catch here is that Rockwell’s images deliver this message without making any discernable effort to convince, without any recourse to debate-club tactics geared solely toward scoring easy points.  His images never reduce or simplify for the sake of argument; they never pump us up with myths or fascinate us with superhuman iconography.  Instead they go about their work honestly and in good faith, deftly conjuring—by means of their perceptive xenophilia, their documentarian preciseness, and a profligate surplus of imaginative detail (which all together constitute the “even more” that Halpern identifies)—a vivid sense of a world distinct from but directly adjacent to the one we inhabit, a world that could be constructed here through nothing more than a collective effort of will and materials we already have on hand.

What I’m trying to say is that Rockwell’s visual rhetoric is not propagandistic, as many of his detractors claim; neither is it idealistic, as Deborah Solomon suggests in the NYT.  Rather, it is very specifically fictional.  Fiction (like obscenity) is one of those concepts that everybody thinks they understand—I know it when I see it!—but then has a hell of a time actually defining when push comes to shove.  Fiction just means stuff that’s not true, right?  Well, no, not exactly.  Fiction stakes no fast claims on “truth” or “reality;” it just asks its audience to set such considerations aside and roll along with whatever it has to say, deep into wildernesses of grammatical mood.  Fiction’s primary aim is not to get its audience to think (although the audience probably will think) nor to feel (ditto) but rather, in a broad sense, to imagine.  If a particular fiction works on us, our experience is not necessarily one of being convinced, or emotionally moved, but rather of being transported.  Successful fiction leaves us with the feeling that—although the movie ends after the last frame, the book after the last page, the painting at the edges of its canvas—the invented world that it has put into our heads somehow just keeps going.  (This is no less true if the invented world is, say, contemporary Baltimore than it is if it’s the entirely fanciful Kingdom of Florin.)  If, as Bismarck said, “politics is the art of the possible,” then fiction is far more politically efficacious than any overtly political discourse could ever be, since expanding the scope of what’s possible is fiction’s bread and butter.

Once we’ve identified Rockwell’s aims and methods as fictional, it becomes clear why his images look the way they do.  Although Rockwell is pursuing his goals at an advanced level, his project is basically an extension of the traditional task of a certain type of commercial illustrator: one who specialized in producing naturalistic images to accompany narrative texts, very often prose fiction.  (Or maybe advertising, which is a subset of fiction.)  These images’ object was to provide imaginative access to the worlds these texts described—worlds in which pirates chase galleons off the Spanish Main, worlds in which shirts stay wrinkle-free without ironing—by being convincing, which typically meant depicting key episodes with near-photographic clarity and richness of incidental detail, such that readers could imagine themselves as eyewitnesses.  (This is, of course, a mass-market upgrade of the same tricks that Caravaggio built his career on.)

In this sense, Rockwell can be placed in a long line of American illustrators that includes Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Howard Pyle, Frederic Remington, Frank E. Schoonover, and N. C. Wyeth, all of whom labored to evoke mythic and alien settings: the open sea, the American West, feudal Britain.  (Some of their near-contemporaries among European academic painters—Delacroix, Gérôme, Alma-Tadema—specialized in classical and oriental scenes executed in a similarly detailed fashion, to comparable ends.  Good rule of thumb: anytime you see an image that looks like a photograph, but isn’t, you are probably looking at somebody’s fantasy of something.)  Here it’s useful to contrast the working methods of these illustrators with those of another group that specialized in caricature, i.e. the stylized and exaggerated images that accompanied news and topical commentary, featuring reductions and simplifications intended to reassure readers that complex issues were within their grasp.  Rockwell’s achievement, of course, involved something akin to a synthesis of these approaches: like the caricaturists, he lay claim to the “real world” as his subject—but instead of offering analysis about it, or making sweeping proclamations, he focused on capturing the quotidian experience of living in that world, and made that experience seem as intense and as outlandish as the jousts and cattle drives and battles at sea that were his colleagues’ stock-in-trade.

If Rockwell seems old-fashioned—which for a long time he has—it’s due not so much to the irrelevance of his sensibilities as it is to the irrelevance of his methods.  It’s not hard to find images that work like Rockwell’s do (many a New Yorker cartoon, for instance, sings in the same bemused and affable key), but good luck finding images that look like his.  If Rockwell has been out of fashion since the Sixties, then Pyle and Schoonover and N. C. Wyeth are at this point pretty much esoterica.  These artists’ slide into irrelevance has closely tracked the decline of the kinds of stories they used to illustrate—by which I mean prose fiction in general, but also a particular type of prose fiction, the type that revels unselfconsciously and expansively in its own exoticism and limitless capacity for invention, a type that is disinclined to spike its wonder with any irony.  I’m talking about geeky fiction.  It is surely significant that about the only places you’re likely to see the work of the aforementioned illustrators emulated are the covers of sci-fi and fantasy novels; these days even romance publishers seem sheepish about their long dalliance with Fabio, more apt to go the demure flowers-embossed-on-the-cover route instead.

But let’s not be too hasty here.  Intemperate lust for tales of high adventure and weird fantasy didn’t just evaporate from American life at about the time JFK was shot.  Sure, geeks had it rough through most of the cool and callous Seventies, with little save Star Trek in syndication to sustain them, but they bided their time in underground exile, regrouped, and bounced back with a vengeance in about—oh, gosh, let’s see—May of 1977.

Looking back, it seems clear enough that the principal mission of George Lucas’s life—a mission at which he has basically succeeded—has been to achieve a seamless fusion of painted and photographic images.  It seems difficult to overstate the degree to which the products of Lucasfilm, Ltd. (along with those of Industrial Light & Magic and Pixar, respectively its current and former subsidiaries) have altered the big-budget filmmaking process, making it not only possible but routine for directors and cinematographers to marry lens-based and purely synthesized footage into something that audiences will buy as an entirely plausible evocation of another world.

Fan lore identifies a screening of abstract experimental films that Lucas caught in the mid-1960s as his big teenage a-ha moment, and that story basically checks out: we can certainly see Stan Brakhage in Star Wars, if only manifest in the idea that film is a writable surface that can capture the images of other writable surfaces (an idea that starts to get pretty interesting, and lucrative, once you have access to a bluescreen).  But by this point we should ALSO be able to recognize the perverseness of Brakhage’s painted-upon celluloid as a reverse analogue of another perverseness surely encountered by Lucas in his childhood, namely that of the commercial illustrators who adorned the pages of the adventure stories he loved—whose key working methods often involved staging elaborate photographs of models in costume, then projecting those photographs onto blank surfaces and repainting them in minute detail.  Boiled down to their essences, Brakhage’s goal and the goal of these illustrators was the same: to keep ahead of audience expectations by playing a shell game with reality and artifice, accident and intention; to pass off as organic and autonomous what has actually been laboriously constructed; in short, to help us trick ourselves.  It seems to me that Lucas’s gifts as technician and storyteller—though vastly amplified by his epoch-making technological vision—are roughly comparable to those of Howard Pyle or N. C. Wyeth: what he has contributed to the image-making toolbox will endure long after his films—which, by and large, are quite bad—have all been forgotten.

Lucas’s friend, collaborator, and fellow Rockwell-gatherer Stephen Spielberg, on the other hand, is by a wide margin the most significant American filmmaker of his generation.  In her NYT piece, Deborah Solomon alludes to the fact that although Lucas owns many more Rockwells than Spielberg does, Spielberg owns more good ones.  “He paid more,” Lucas explains.  Okay, maybe.  Then again, it could be that Spielberg has a clearer understanding of how Rockwell actually works—and a better sense of what (aside from their unabashed sentimentality) distinguishes his images from those of the other naturalistic commercial illustrators we discussed above.

I sort of suspect that the latter may be the case, because a lot of Rockwell’s notable traits and signature moves—which at this point have pretty much vanished from the realm of static visual art—pop up in Spielberg’s films all the time.  One aspect of this influence is purely technical, and widely shared: even as early as the Thirties, plenty of filmmakers were looking to Rockwell (who was himself looking back to Pyle, Homer, La Tour, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, et al.) for ideas on how to effectively light and block and frame their shots.  What Spielberg seems to have picked up better than most are the narrative (rather than purely aesthetic) functions of Rockwell’s techniques; he seems to aspire not only to compose his shots like Rockwell’s images, but also to edit them in such a way as to suggest the experience of looking at a Rockwell.  Since film can’t provide the luxury of studying an image until all of its telling detail has emerged, Spielberg has learned to deftly guide our attention exactly where he wants it to be, and to do so in such a way that we feel like we got there on our own.  He’ll typically accomplish this by means of efficient reaction takes—broadly acted, but carefully chosen—which is exactly how Rockwell’s narratives work.  As a result of this approach, Spielberg’s most effective scenes often feel like animated Rockwells, like Rockwells sprung to life and into motion.

(It’s interesting to note—and I wish I could take credit for this observation, but I heard it a few years ago from the artist Adam Frelin—that the balance of indebtedness seems to have tipped back lately in the direction of the art world: Spielberg’s films are obvious and acknowledged points of reference for Gregory Crewdson and many other contemporary photo artists—and it’s not too tough to find evidence of his influence in other places you wouldn’t necessarily think to look, like the mid-career work of Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall.)

Technical similarities notwithstanding, Spielberg’s principal debt to Rockwell isn’t aesthetic or narrative.  It’s ideological—and, of course, it’s rhetorical.  More than just about anybody else I can think of, Spielberg (at his best) shows us the world through Rockwell’s lens: he displays the same fascination with and affection for otherness that we find in Rockwell, and he too seeks to embody and encourage toward such otherness an attitude of openness, generosity, and gentle humor.  Spielberg is one of the all-time great portrayers of friendship—not of longstanding friendships in the bromantical or Sex-&-the-City veins, but rather of unexpected, often fleeting comradeship between entirely dissimilar individuals.  The cinematic gold standard here is probably the geopolitically fraught relationship in Casablanca between Rick Blaine and Capt. Louis Renault, but Spielberg has made some admirable additions to the field: think of Roy Scheider’s transplanted big-city cop and Richard Dreyfuss’s dorky marine biologist in Jaws, or Liam’s Neeson’s Nazi industrialist and Ben Kingsley’s Jewish accountant in Schindler’s List, or even the brief exchange between Tom Hanks and Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan.  Think most of all, however, of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., Spielberg’s two most personal films, as jaw-dropping a pair of fantasies as you’re ever likely to see about escaping the prison of the alienated self through sympathetic contact with a radically alien other.

Spielberg’s achievements, like Rockwell’s, are crowned with a couple of asterisks—probably best regarded as caveats, not dealbreakers, but still worthy of note.  No matter how pure its intentions, a work of art that’s motivated by love of the unfamiliar and the exotic will not tend to encourage understanding of whatever cultures or individual it depicts.  (Understanding, in fact, spoils all the fun.)  This limitation creates certain dangers that artists ought to guard against, and that they probably won’t: see, for example, the gee-whiz, aw-shucks, devil-may-care racism of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  (Temple was, of course, a collaborative venture between Spielberg and Lucas; I’m not going to try to argue that Spielberg was blameless in this mess—but still, one of these two guys went on a year later to make The Color Purple, while the other one gave the world Jar Jar Binks.  That’s all I’m saying.)  Rockwell’s track record is actually somewhat better than Spielberg’s on both gender and race—particularly after 1963, when Rockwell finally left the Saturday Evening Post (which had a longstanding prohibition of images of African-Americans, unless they were depicted as servants) and began working for Look.  (His great civil rights images, such as The Problem We All Live With—apt to shock anybody who just knows Rockwell from, like, that Thanksgiving turkey picture—all date from this period.)  Whether Rockwell and Spielberg can legitimately claim the authority to depict whatever and whomever they please is a valid question, and one that ought to be periodically revisited—although I predict that we’re consistently going to find that, yes, they can indeed.  Even so, we’d do well to keep in mind that their rhetorical posture—like any rhetorical posture—obliges them to be silent on certain subjects, even as it frees them to speak eloquently on others.

The other standard charge levied against Rockwell and Spielberg is that their output is kitsch.  How accurate that critique is, and how damning it is, depends, I suppose, on what you mean by kitsch.  If your gripe is that their work is purely commercial, deliberately shallow, and has no goal other than promoting itself and its associated products, then I don’t think either of these artists qualifies as kitsch: both obviously aspire to engage and communicate, not simply to accrue revenue.  If, on the other hand, you regard as kitsch any art that makes an appeal to the sentiments of a broad audience, then Rockwell and Spielberg absolutely qualify.  To argue, however, that their art is not legitimate, or is actually somehow detrimental, seems a bridge too far: that’s a critical position that just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  Yet Rockwell and Spielberg have no shortage of detractors who will say exactly this, and who will reflexively condemn the whole of their respective outputs—a position that, I suspect, accords with the unexamined tendency of self-identified elites to favor the niche over the common, to gird themselves with fashion and irony, and to avoid at all costs the potentially humiliating risk of actually espousing some belief from which they might not later be able to retreat.  And this makes me sad—not for Rockwell, who’s dead, or for Spielberg, who’s rich, but for a culture that is afraid to openly value much of anything.  Because here’s the deal, gang: any critical project that has obliged itself to automatically and categorically dismiss ALL positive assertions of value self-destructed a long-ass time ago.  It now amounts to little more than a baleful modernist ghost ship—the very sort that Howard Pyle might have painted—adrift on the teeming sea of cultural production.

In his 1960 autobiography My Adventures as an Illustrator (quoted by David Kamp in an excellent Vanity Fair piece, which I am indebted to Boman Desai for bringing to my attention), Rockwell sets forth his goals and methods with unapologetic directness:

Maybe as I grew up and found that the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and so painted only the ideal aspects of it [. . .] If there was sadness in this created world of mine, it was a pleasant sadness.  If there were problems, they were humorous problems.  The people in my pictures aren’t mentally ill or deformed.  The situations they get into are commonplace, everyday situations, not the agonizing crises and tangles of life.

We should be cautious as we read this, lest we outsmart ourselves, as Deborah Solomon seems to have done: the fact that Rockwell sets out to paint the ideal aspects of the world doesn’t make him idealistic.  Rather than being unwilling to accommodate his values to the experience of living in a degraded world, all Rockwell does is accommodate: first seeking out lived moments that point the way toward an America that he’d like to see realized, then inventing ways to make those moments portable, signposting them for the rest of us.  Far from a serene and pious idealist, the Rockwell who addresses us through his images is a stubborn Pelagian optimist, offering reassurance and encouragement.  He’s working hard at this, because he knows what’s at stake—knows that the whole shebang could still break either way.

Because Dave Hickey is rapidly emerging as the chief household god of New Strategies for Invisibility—and because I haven’t been able to type a word of this post without looking over my shoulder at him—I’d like to sum up by quoting at some length from “Shining Hours / Forgiving Rhyme,” his deservedly legendary essay on Norman Rockwell.  (I’ve quoted from it before, and I’m sure I will again.)

The people who hate Rockwell [. . .] accuse him of imposing norms and passing judgments, which he never does.  Nor could he ever, since far from being a fascist manipulator, Rockwell is always giving as much as he can to the world he sees.  He portrays those aspects of the embodied social world that exist within the realm of civility, that do not hurt too terribly.  But it is not utopia.

People are regularly out of sync with the world in Rockwell’s pictures, but it is not the end of the world.  People get sick and go to the doctor.  (Remember that!)  Little girls get into fights.  Puppies are lost, and jobs too.  People struggle with their taxes.  Salesmen languish in hotel rooms.  Prom dresses don’t fit.  Tires go flat.  Hearts are broken.  People gossip.  Mom and Dad argue about politics.  Traffic snarls, and bankers are confused about Jackson Pollock.  But the pictures always rhyme—and the faces rhyme and the bodies rhyme as well, in compositions so exquisitely tuned they seem to have always been there—as a good song seems to have been written forever.  The implication, of course, is that these domestic disasters are redeemed by the internal rhymes of civil society and signify the privilege of living in it, which they most certainly do.

You are not supposed to forget this, or forget the pictures either, which you do not.  I can remember three [Saturday Evening] Post covers from my childhood well enough to tell you exactly what they meant to me at the time.  One is a painting of a grandmother and her grandson saying grace in a bus-station restaurant while a crowd of secular travelers look on.  The second depicts an American Dad, in his pajamas, sitting in a modern chair in a suburban living room on a snowy Sunday morning.  He is smoking a cigarette and reading the Sunday Times while Mom and the kids, dressed up in their Sunday best, march sternly across the room behind him on their way to church.  The third depicts a couple of college co-eds changing a tire on their “woody” while a hillbilly, relaxing on the porch of his shack, watches them with bemused interest.  The moral of these pictures: Hey!  People are different!  Get used to it!

Note Hickey’s use of the word “moral” in that last sentence, which I doubt very much was casual or unconsidered.  Rockwell is never moralistic—but his illustrations certainly depict a moral universe, one inhabited by people who are always struggling to figure out where value ought to be located, how they ought to behave.  Rockwell doesn’t preach, doesn’t prescribe, doesn’t pretend to have any answers.  The positive values he espouses are few, and carefully considered, and he broadcasts them like a beacon in every weather: decency, hospitality, tolerance.  Were he with us today, one imagines that he would be rather shocked and upset to hear these values regularly being decried as anti-American—as dangerous, even—when they are by any reasonable measure the cornerstones and necessary preconditions of virtually every worthwhile aspect of American life.  It cheers one, however fleetingly, to think of how a risen-from-the-grave Rockwell would engage with the contemporary cultural landscape (immigration reform, gay marriage, Islamic centers in Lower Manhattan) once he’d set up a studio and hired himself some models and a decent photographer.  It almost hurts to feel the lack of his living eye and hand coaxing us out of our fears and suspicions, trying to awaken us to what a long-dead American president once named—in darker times than these—the better angels of our nature.



14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2010 11:08 am

    “the difference between a photograph and a representational painting is that the painting contains no accidents”

    I love declarations like this — their truth value is rather beside the point, they’re just fun to think about. Do you really take this to be self-evidently true? Here’s one way for a painting to contain an accident: The painter adds a figure or an object, decides against it, paints over it. Years, centuries later, it begins to show through (pentimento). A painter could also add one or two strokes too many; it could bother them for the rest of their lives. Similarly I can think of ways to take a photograph that contain no accidents. For an extreme example, snap the shutter in complete darkness. Nothing shows up on the film, quite as intended.

  2. August 26, 2010 10:09 pm

    Hey EG –

    I was wondering how long it would take somebody to call me out on this! (Answer: about 12 hours.) I don’t think it’s self-evidently true, exactly, that representational paintings contain no accidents . . . but I DO think my statement holds up to scrutiny, provided we use pretty restrictive definitions of “contains” and “accident.”

    I’m thinking here about what we do with an image’s content with respect to our interpretation of it; therefore I’m thinking of an accident as something that an image-maker doesn’t INTEND to include, but is willing to accept the presence of. Stray images find their way into photos all the time; we know this, and are therefore not inclined to expend interpretive energy on what seems random. Stray images DON’T just find their way into paintings: they have to be put there. In this sense, I’m not sure I’d consider a pentimento an accident; I’d consider it damage—extrinsic to the painting—that reveals a series of revisions. And the addition of a few strokes too many that will torment the painted for years afterward isn’t an accident either: it’s a mistake, intentional but wrong.

    Photography presents the same challenges, but from a different direction. If we see a Peugeot in the background of a Cartier-Bresson photo, we are probably safe in assuming that it just happened to be back there; if we see it in a painting, then we’ll have to stop and read the license plate and wonder whether the particular letters and numbers signify anything. In a similar vein, if Cartier-Bresson is developing his images and sees that a photo he took of an old woman in a park has a pigeon flying through it, he has to consider that some viewers might interpret the bird as a dove, i.e. as the Holy Spirit, and impart to the image Christian content that he doesn’t intend it to have. If the bird is prominent enough, he may have to junk the image—or dodge out the bird in the darkroom—to get it to do what he wants it to do. In these examples, the inclusion of the Peugeot is an accident, but the inclusion of the pigeon would be a mistake.

    You’re right that opening a camera shutter in total darkness permits the photographer total control—I like this idea; it reminds me a little of the sculptor Tom Friedman, and a piece of his called “1000 Hours of Staring,” which is a blank sheet of paper he claims to have stared at for 1000 hours—but I’m going to be a stickler and say that what you’re describing isn’t a photograph, because the photo (as it were) hasn’t graphed anything. The difference between opening the shutter and letting no light reach the film and not opening the shutter at all is purely conceptual, not functional.

    (I guess what I’m kind of doing here is working with the Aristotelian definition of “accident,” i.e. an attribute which may or may not belong to a subject without affecting its essence. Broadly applied, that’s a problematic concept, but I think it’s kind of useful in thinking about art and interpretation.)

    This is something I’m prepared to change my mind about, however, if you want to keep kicking it around. Thanks for the great comments!

  3. August 27, 2010 8:24 am

    Ah yes, it’s always nice to define your terms — but when you do so upfront, the declaration loses a lot of its argument-starting power. :)

  4. August 27, 2010 8:49 am

    My thoughts exactly!!!

  5. August 30, 2010 3:10 pm

    Martin! This is my favorite post so far! You have offered a lot to think about and you have more eloquently defended an artist I love than I could hope hope to. I got a lot of shit from artist friends in college for liking Rockwell, so I will now be sending this link to those people as a reason why he is an interesting and important artist.

    To your point about photos vs. illustrations, I was in Borders a few years ago and saw a photo book that was a collection of photos based on various Rockwell paintings. The images were hollow replicas at best. They lacked the insightful commentary that the originals contained and become trite and judgmental. They were the exact opposite of what I think Rockwell was trying to accomplish.

    I like to think of Rockwell as an influence in my own work and

    This part: “..the fact that Rockwell sets out to paint the ideal aspects of the world doesn’t make him idealistic. Rather than being unwilling to accommodate his values to the experience of living in a degraded world, all Rockwell does is accommodate: first seeking out lived moments that point the way toward an America that he’d like to see realized, then inventing ways to make those moments portable, signposting them for the rest of us. Far from a serene and pious idealist, the Rockwell who addresses us through his images is a stubborn Pelagian optimist, offering reassurance and encouragement. He’s working hard at this, because he knows what’s at stake—knows that the whole shebang could still break either way.”

    was especially close to home for me. You have once again put into words concepts I have thought about but haven’t been able to articulate. The last thing I wanted to add is that I was listening to an old interview between Hickey and Teri Gross and he was talking about Rockwell. He said he made ‘pictures of moments that don’t hurt.’ And that to me crystallizes what I try to do in my own work and really says a lot about Rockwell’s entire collection. The end. Thanks for writing this post!

  6. August 30, 2010 3:14 pm

    ps. also a very good analysis of Lucas and Spielberg’s films. I never really thought about Spielberg like that!

  7. September 1, 2010 9:24 pm

    Hey B-Ro, thanks for the comments, and I’m super-glad you liked the post!

    I definitely feel like I see Rockwell in your work—less in your composition or subject matter than in your attitude, which always seems empathetic and generous, even when you’re shooting people and things that are not culturally or ideologically simpatico. I always feel like you’ve made an effort to see something you didn’t expect to see, and that your photos are a record of that. That’s pretty close to the same thing I find most valuable about Rockwell. (As your experience at Borders demonstrates, people have a tendency to misread Rockwell: to take things from him that don’t transfer well, or to confuse his style with his attitude. Rockwell is invisible in your stuff unless people know to look for it; once you know it’s there, I think it’s clear as a bell.) And so far as your college artist friends go . . . who’s laughing now, eh? (Well, maybe they’re still laughing at SOMETHING, but I doubt they’re laughing at you.)

    I’m actually a little surprised to hear that Rockwell got no love from the artists, especially given that his style of representation and narrative approach seems to have flickered back into vogue in recent years. Somebody like John Currin is referencing him directly, of course — and not ironically, or at least not entirely: trying to pack hundreds of years of kitch and avant-garde representational traditions into a single image — but I see similarity (if not influence) in the use of near-photographic painted images in, say, Kehinde Wiley’s stuff, and even in the use of narrative and kitsch in the work of somebody like Kara Walker. Hickey has that great bit in “Shining Hours” where he says that “most of the artists I have known actually LIKE Norman Rockwell and understand what he is doing,” and then goes on to talk about De Kooning and Warhol and Jeffrey Vallance. It’s pretty sweet.

    I like that Hickey quote from Fresh Air a lot . . . I still need to listen to that interview! I DID listen to Terry Gross’s interview with Willie Nelson that aired today, though:

    WILLIE: That first week, while I was making that long drive across Houston to this club in Pasadena, I wrote “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Crazy,” so I thought: y’know, I better get on out of here and head up to Nashville. So I got a job working as a songwriter for–

    TERRY: Wait wait wait wait wait . . . you wrote “Crazy,” “Night Life,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” all in THE SAME WEEK?!?

    WILLIE: Uh . . . yeah. Yeah, I did.

    Thanks, B!

  8. September 5, 2010 12:43 pm

    Another really thoughtful and important post — remind me again why you aren’t writing for OL?

  9. November 30, 2010 7:30 pm

    Hey Martin,

    Well, here I am commenting 3 months ex post facto. Far be it from me to comment on your rigorous analysis, especially since I am woefully undereducated in many of the modern artists and critics you cite. Instead, I will just list the things in your essay that gave me little bursts of joy:

    1- The comparison of Rockwell to the Mannerists. Brilliantly obvious, but who has ever made that clear connection before. There is the same ‘shock’ of something going on in both Rockwell and the Mannerists, a shock that draws you in and makes your curiousity lead you in even deeper. I remember Bob and I were in Venice once and happened upon ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ by Tintoretto.

    TINTORETTO The Marriage at Cana

    We sat in front of it for hours just letting the narrative flow out of the picture. The thrilling foreshortening drew us in even more! Very similar experience to the involvement one feels as the narratives in Rockwell unravel….good example above with the Hero Garageman’s return.

    2- I am fascinated by your likening different painting styles to different grammatical rules. I have never thought of it this way. I am thinking that this would apply especially well to film analysis. Can we develop this thought next time we meet?

    Thanks again for this swell essay. (and yes Spielberg 100 times over Lucas!)

  10. Dr. Errol D. Alexander permalink
    February 28, 2011 10:38 pm

    I guess if forced to seperate artists into two great divides, there would be A. Durer,” I can paint anything or person no matter how ugly and make them beautiful” compared to Norman Rockwell, who stated, I avoid the ugly and try to make the common things and happenings in life more about the triumph of human spirit to endure rather than to achieve” Errol D. Alexander Arrowhead Institute

  11. March 18, 2011 3:36 am

    This actually made me cry: “Rockwell acknowledges the strangeness of his image, foregrounds it, amplifies it, and then reassures his audience that it’s totally okay, that this is different but not bad, and that big girls with rivet guns are part of what makes this crazy nation of ours so freaking great.”

    It was an awkward moment for me because I was worried my crying represented some suppressed streak of nationalism – but I’m pretty sure it was just the moment in this essay when I realized that you were (indirectly) noting that the qualities I find so compelling and beautiful in that painting are qualities that someone else might admire as well.

    I loved this piece and love your blog. It is, in my opinion, the BEST blog. It’s especially charming how you only post twice a year or so! A good reminder that some things are worth waiting for.

    On Normal Rockwell: I find his paintings just so pleasurable to look at. You’ve pointed out the message in them that I must be lapping up, but also I like them on some kind of simple level because of their whimsy and joy. It’s hard to look at them with a grumpy or even critical eye. On the other hand, as a member of the self-identified elite (I guess?), I think what I react badly to is the commerciality which you mention some here, but don’t linger much on. Art that is created for the purpose of selling has a dirty feel to it. I know there’s all kinds of smart things to say about popular art and how supposedly non-commercial art is also commercial and so forth, but I do think that’s the main negative emotional response I have about his work. It feels manipulative, and the manipulativeness is all about the obviousness that it’s a product for sale, and that someone is making me feel something and getting paid for that. Which is probably why I’m not a big fan of Spielberg either. Why Dancing in the Dark doesn’t set off those alarms for me, I don’t know.

    Thanks for the wonderful post. I love your writing and look forward to more.

  12. March 18, 2011 11:05 am

    I can’t stop thinking about this! On the way to work this morning I kept trying to pinpoint why Rockwell seems so suspect. I’m sympathetic with the optimism project, but there’s something frankly dumb about this idea that in America, only good things happen. His images might be detailed, but nuanced? His message is so simple and what feels so outdated to me (besides his technical skill), is this idea that the liberal democratic society works. And the commercial nature of it – it’s hard not to feel cynical about someone selling you their Great America message. I’m sure other people have said this better than me.

    Anyway, I am impressed by how I can’t stop thinking about this post. Great stuff.

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