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Critics are canonizing Norman Rockwell as a Great Artist, as if being a master illustrator weren’t good enough.

At the turn of the century, it’s fitting that the art world would find itself engaged in a most fashionable and suggestive scandal. Two camps are at war over the depiction of American life and the artist’s place in how we see ourselves; the pros are crying, “Elitism!” and the antis are wondering what the hell happened to the old consensus on aesthetic standards. No, this isn’t about dead cows and elephant dung—that uproar was political, with aesthetics flown in to bolster ideology, a brouhaha as old as linseed oil and as permanent as the pyramids. The art-world provocateurs in this case are critics, not artists or free-speechers, and their goal is nothing less than the sanctification of populist illustrator Norman Rockwell.

It is a tiresome fact of the art-interpretation biz that nothing can be left alone, especially over the past 30 years as distinctions between high and low art have pancaked. These days, nothing keeps art discourse alive like frantic revisionism, the more off-kilter the better—or at least the better to provoke. Ten years ago, flightier members of the same critical crew were rediscovering Walter Keane’s paintings, taking a position that put them on the very farthest edge of the elitist-taunting knifeblade. Woody Allen attributed a passion for “the kids with the big eyes” to his Death figure in a parody of The Seventh Seal in the ’70s. In Allen’s ken, it wasn’t just OK to snigger at Keane; it was unthinkable that thinking people shouldn’t. A decade later, the paintings were found to be works of Walter’s wife, Margaret, and “the kids with the big eyes” became symbolic of feminine oppression and not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that kitsch.

The Rockwell debate opened in the fall of 1999 with the opening of a show at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, which contains 70 oil paintings, plus each of the 322 covers of the Saturday Evening Post he rendered between 1916 and 1963. The show will travel to no fewer than seven museums nationwide before landing at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in November 2001. Consequently, art extrapolators of all stripes have surfaced to induct Rockwell into the high-art pantheon. “The heavens must be falling,” Guggenheim Deputy Director Lisa Dennison said wryly when the announcement was made, anticipating the uproar.

Academician and culture critic Dave Hickey leads the pack of pro-Rockwell agitators; he’s been making a career of seeing art, music, and performance through a prism of democracy, to the delight of his young colleagues unbeholden to dated notions of salon autocracy. His essay “The Kids Are All Right,” a loving exegesis of Rockwell’s After the Prom, anchors the catalog for the High’s Rockwell exhibition, which is titled, with shades of pugnacity, Pictures for the American People. Rockwell provides Hickey with a perfect blend of representation and democratic values; Hickey has been stirring this stew since his 1995 essay “Shining Hours/Forgiving Rhyme,” a fugue on jazz, family, and how the memories of these things ought to be depicted—by Rockwell, it turns out. It is revisionism’s job to find something new, and Hickey’s keen, knowledgeable, and promiscuous vision brings an impressive spectrum of material to the job of revealing the hidden Rockwell.

But in Rockwell’s case, the claim that there’s more to his work than the high-art crowd has previously deigned to see sounds flatly absurd to the skeptics, who wonder what on Earth can’t you see in a Norman Rockwell painting. Right-wing British intellectual Paul Johnson incisively noted that Rockwell gave critics “no intermediary function”; that is, such was the democratic nature of his work that it bypassed the interpretation of experts and headed straight for the hearts of viewers, stoking resentment among the ‘sperts “for humble trade-union reasons.” This aspect of his work both attracts the art critics with refreshing anti-elitism stances and lodges Rockwell skeptics, however fond of his vignettes, in dismay that he “should” share wall space with Botticelli and Tiepolo.

In this semiotics-friendly age, it is possible to do a deep reading of any artifact; obsessively narrative works like Rockwell’s, with their allusions to art history and their painstaking detail, seem ideally suited to thorough plumbing. Take his Triple Self-Portrait (1960), a masterpiece of figurative struggle and compositional serenity in which multiple canvases interact along two axes that meet in the middle to form a conceptual X. From the painting’s lower left to upper right, reality fluctuates across the main canvas, starting with an open, much-abused art book sprouting Rockwell’s impositions (tagged pages, a tube of paint, a listing glass of soda); your eye moves up across the painter’s mirrored reflection to the back of the “real” head to the rather bright-eyed sketch, on up to small prints of great self-portraits through history—Rembrandt’s, Durer’s, Van Gogh’s—clipped to the upper right corner of his work.

The other leg of the X, running from upper left to lower right, creates the tension between the ideal and the mundane: A quintet of studies clipped to the canvas’s left corner plays vaudeville comic to the art-historical straight men on the right; your eye travels down between the youthful sketch and the anxious, wrinkled neck to the actual canvas’s signature, jokily engraved on the depicted painting’s canvas, to the idly smoldering trash can by the artist’s right foot. The two main full-face portraits-within-the-portrait merrily toy with illusion—Rockwell, seated on a stool, sees his torso reflected in a mirror, which is “seated” on a chair. Above the main canvas presides a golden helmet, symbol of art’s heroic past, its straps facetiously parenthesizing the face on the canvas; the mirror is topped with a gilded American eagle.

Rockwell’s work invites the eye to roam, pick up all the cues, make the connections, get the jokes. A close look at any Rockwell canvas reveals that his work does not elide the critic’s job of interpreting so much as it does the viewer’s experience of making his own connections, chancing upon resonant grace notes that haven’t been thrust in his face, finding a layer of meaning underneath the bald narrative. It’s this prohibition of imagining that frustrates critics like the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl, whose excellent essay “Fanfares for the Common Man” moans over Rockwell’s aggressive exposition. “Rockwell’s principled sense of narrative cogency demanded that every visible action have a visible cause,” Schjeldahl writes. “The effect is suffocating.”

One unanswerable charge against the presumed high-art lockout of Rockwell is that it is the critics, those intermediary functionaries, who have orchestrated his reputation as a mere illustrator of comforting trivialities, skipping over his understanding of art history. Those familiar with Rockwell’s biography note that de Kooning praised his technique. Almost every current commentary dredges up Michelangelo’s Isaiah to pose next to Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter (1943), tacks Monet’s rinsed-blue sky next to the dappled Impressionist pastels of Aunt Ella Takes a Trip (1942), points to the wink at Mondrian in the off-kilter windowpanes that frame Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950). These comparisons pass over subject matter and execution—the main sources of fuel for Rockwell skeptics—which amount to what the artist himself called “life as I would like it to be.” Art history and social revisionism are vastly different things, and Rockwell’s gift in this case leaned toward fond mimicry; adapting Vermeer’s The Lacemaker to a Sun-Maid raisins ad doesn’t make a man “the Vermeer of this nation’s domestic history,” as Hickey claims he is.

In his introduction to the compendium of essays that accompany the exhibit, Ned Rifkin avers, with gasping illogicality, “There are no surfaces of paint in Norman Rockwell images because they were not regarded as paintings,” putting Aunt Ella’s cart firmly before the horse—which comes first, the attitude toward the painting, or the painting itself? An artist must make choices, and Rockwell made the choice to communicate to a vast audience. It was an illustrator’s choice, and he settled for an illustrator’s venues. The argument that his absolute accessibility ennobles his work proves as much of a dead end as the one about his familiarity with art history. Former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas Hoving declaims, “[H]e was one of the most successful visual mass communicators of the century.” And, again, what does that prove?

The stories the paintings tell are bulging with detail, all of it consciously chosen and much of it unbearably prinked up to communicate with alacrity and staying power. Look again at Triple Self-Portrait—the painter’s knees stick out, and his toes turn in cutely; Rembrandt wears the slightly exasperated expression of a longtime portrait sitter. Turned-in toes are a motif, as are the awww-inducing cowlick and upturned noses sported by Rockwell’s little scamps in No Swimming (1921), The Runaway (1958), and Hickey’s beloved After the Prom (1957). The pop eyes, endless mugging, and tell-all detailing of every single canvas drive those with a casual admiration for Rockwell’s technique and good heart absolutely mad. Of course he is a populist, but the figures get freer play than the viewers—our conclusions are made for us, our easiest fondnesses validated, our wishful thinking incarnated. “The absolute lack of mystery in his art makes me sick,” writes Schjeldahl, and it is this lack that finally alienates us from his visions. The chief connection occurs between the viewer and the artist: not “Yes, these people depict life as I understand it,” but “Yes, this is life as I’d like it to be, too.”

There are a number of possible arguments in Rockwell’s favor that answer his deriders on their own terms. If Rockwell is a propagandist for an idealized way of life, well, so was Jacques-Louis David, sanctifying Napoleon’s First Empire with neoclassical allusions, and no one ripped David’s The Oath of the Horatii out of the Louvre because it didn’t feed peasants. The Futurists thrust modernity upon cubism as a bolster to Mussolini’s populist dynamism, but you can see their man Brancusi’s Bird in Space right here in the free world. All artists either reinforce or criticize the social, political, and cultural constructs of their times, by engagement or, as in Rockwell’s case, by default. He was one of the most successful visual mass communicators of the century. Hoving’s right, but it doesn’t matter; taking the “visual” out of his quote, weren’t we just talking about Mussolini?

Mass communication is one of the intents of illustration, and it is critics’ snobbery that refuses to appreciate great illustration on its own terms but instead seeks to recategorize it as something else—the kind of illustration they like. As a fan of illustrators, I find this selectiveness frustrating. Where’s Howard Pyle’s retrospective? Where’s Gustave Dore’s? Arthur Rackham’s? Walter Crane’s?

Even critics who seek to revise aesthetic definition are manipulated by their own terms of definition. In his appreciative essay in the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman flatly states, “To the cognoscenti, the almost complete lack of any sorrow or suffering in Rockwell’s pictures was a clear sign that he was a lightweight.” This view of an art world that cherishes the unintelligible and the bleak is an outdated one, the product of an ideology-driven search for consensus amid the aesthetic roil of the ’50s. The politicizing of art amid social upheaval that came a bit later is reflected in the old we’re-a-bunch-of-dreary-Puritans cant, which, Kimmelman maintains, dismisses Rockwell’s vignettes in the face of their pleasurable effect. The narrowness of this view is breathtaking—painting, even what used to be called modern art, is hugely a pursuit of pleasure, of visual ravishment like Jasper Johns’ White Flag or witty art-history dust-ups like Robert Rauschenberg’s collages. As for Rockwell’s lack of cynicism, I’d take his domineeringly sentimental specificities over Thomas Hart Benton’s bullshit generalizations any day, and Rockwell’s the better painter.

Most of the neo-Rockwellians see high-art validation in his accessibility—a strange argument to make, now that modernism is in its nth “post” period. “Rockwell gave us a people’s history of America during the first half of the century,” writes Kimmelman, sweeping everything else off the table: So do advertisements, Sear’s catalogs, the evolution of women’s lingerie, New York State real estate records, farming-industry statistics, and musical comedies. Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis, a thoroughbred American story in which nothing ever happens and everything about our psyche is revealed, movingly and with a joy only an immigrant could tap, is one truth of this country’s past; Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip is another. Rockwell’s scenes of American life—prom dates and soda fountains, pigtailed kids and warmhearted authority figures—depict still another truth with empirical although not narrative scrupulousness. But he never attempted to land the bigger fish, or to let his truth tell its own story; Rockwell’s cutesifying tweaks speak volumes more than the actual scenarios do. The fact of their inclusion suggests distrust of what he saw with his own eyes.

Among some of Rockwell’s current defenders, his later work, such as the social “problem” paintings and the Four Freedoms series, merit some disappointment. Hickey claims they signal “the end of Rockwell’s instinctive identification with the citizens he painted and the beginning of his tenure as a member of the nation’s new, therapeutic, power elite.” He justifies this position by claiming that Rockwell himself strove for seriousness, neatly validating Hickey’s critical defense: Rockwell the sentimental illustrator was a serious artist; Rockwell the self-conscious social commentator was inappropriately authoritative.

The artwork itself does not come under critical review—The Problem We All Live With (1964), showing Ruby Bridges being accompanied to a newly integrated school by four anonymous white guards, for example, is as detailed and narrative as the puppy-at-the-vet painting—but Rockwell’s attitude toward his work and his position as a powerful representational voice seem to be fair game. In ascribing this shift in tenor among Rockwell critics to the late painter himself, Hickey dances on the edges of the “noble savage” defense of folk, found, or outsider art—to me, much of Rockwell’s manic detail smacks of art of the insane—because the critic suggests that the guy could really paint when he didn’t think about what he was doing. Furthermore, because Hickey doesn’t tackle any formal failings of Rockwell’s “problem” period, he doesn’t specifically place this loss of “instinctive identification” anywhere outside of the paintings’ subjects—underrepresented Americans like blacks. Hickey’s problem must lie elsewhere: in his discomfort with Rockwell’s tackling social issues. The critic implies that the artist’s “instinctive identification” is limited—to the cute, the white, those whose responses to their world are conventional and anticipated.

I like The Problem We All Live With just fine—the girl is sweet and serious in her crisp white dress, both a pawn and a person; the anonymity of the headless guards’ trouser legs ominously suggests that only the fine line of duty forestalls their preventing, not protecting, the child’s access to a white school. But again, the painter overexplicates the tomato splooshed against the graffiti-scrawled wall to prod our outrage at the blind senselessness of racism, as if Ruby Bridges’ own experience weren’t enough. Rockwell was no less institutionally authoritative when he was insisting that white American youth were little Tom Sawyers in shredded jeans out to poach some fish, or that figures of authority are a uniformly kindly and indulgent breed. The Problem We All Live With is a more telling painting than New Kids in the Neighborhood (1967), in which white and black kids face off in a parallel portrait of demure curiosity, each side with a furry household friend, a baseball mitt, a pair of basketball shoes—everything’s gonna be fine.

It is such choices that indicate that the illustrator’s art is at work, that secure the efforts of his successful visual mass communications—although that definition has also fit some (not none, some) of the greatest consensus-driven “high art” in the world that managed to function without Rockwell’s cheese. The sticking point in this debate isn’t over formalism, subject matter, or artistic intent. It’s over terms. That’s a mighty elitist argument to be having about a small-d democratic painter—whether we have to give him a new title before we let him in the club. It’s worse for the casual appreciator of his rich imagery; the ordinary American for whom he painted has been blindsided by this debate. Anyone who sort of liked his homey, charming canvases is being bullied into revering them, or dismissed as a snob for not.—Arion Berger