Pictorial propaganda (Part I--Norman Rockwell and the Four Freedoms)
Those of you who read here regularly have probably noticed I've been mulling over the uses of propaganda lately, especially here, and again (at least to a certain degree) here .
At some point it occurred to me that nearly the entire work of artist/illustrator Norman Rockwell (some consider him the former, but others say he was "only" the latter) can, in a sense, be considered to have been propaganda for America.
Case in point, the "Four Freedoms" illustrations Rockwell did for the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, which I've duplicated here (freedom from fear, freedom to worship, freedom from want, freedom of speech).
The story of the paintings is interesting in and of itself: Rockwell tried to interest the government in the project, but no dice, and so they ended up appearing at his old venue the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell is said to have labored for six months over the project's execution, losing fifteen pounds in the process. But when he was done the response was overwhelming--and, in the end, the government realized the extraordinary value of the paintings to the war effort, organizing a sixteen-city tour and an accompanying bond drive that netted $130 million dollars, no chump change in those days.
The photos were accompanied in the magazine by an essay on each freedom, written by such luminaries as Booth Tarkington, Will Durant, Carlos Bulosan (not quite as luminous as the others), and Stephen Vincent Benet. Hard to imagine today--but then, all of it is hard to imagine today.
President Roosevelt's reaction to the project, which had been inspired by a 1941 speech of his, was the following:
I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms...
Roosevelt was explicitly acknowledging the paintings' ability to reach "the masses" (although he didn't use that term) in a way that augmented speeches and other "mere words." The paintings tap into another part of the brain--much as aromas can--a more "feeling" part, which is one of the reasons that this sort of thing is so distrusted today; we've learned the power of images to manipulate, and that manipulation is certainly not always for the good. Witness Al Jazeera, for example.
There may be indeed a fine line between inspiration and cold-blooded manipulation. The difference between the two may be our opinion of the uses to which they are put: if we agree with those uses, it's inspiration; if we disagree, it's manipulation (I plan to go into this at somewhat greater length in a later part of this series).
I would maintain that Rockwell's paintings provided necessary and desirable inspiration to a populace who already knew what they were fighting for during WWII. Yes indeed, the pictures simplify--America is not, and never was, as simple and good as the world Rockwell portrays. But he was tapping into ideals that were--and still are--a huge part of America, and are realized in this country more fully than they are in most of the world, flawed human nature being what it is. During WWII virtually the entire country understood this, and the illustrations simply put these thoughts into an easily perceived--and very moving--form.
Note my personal favorite, the couple putting their children to sleep: "Freedom From Fear." I'm a sucker for parent-child stuff anyway, and this one struck me with unusual force. The painting is so powerful, and the choice of subject so seemingly inevitable, that it takes a moment of reflection to realize that part of Rockwell's genius was his selection of this particular scene to illustrate freedom from fear--which, after all, is an abstraction.
Anyone who thinks Rockwell is never complex should study the expression on the father's face. The children are asleep, blissfully innocent and unaware (and that's the point, isn't it?). The mother is engaged in the tender act of tucking them in, and her face reflects her gentle and loving concern. But the father stands back--although not very far--as an observer. From his ever-so-slight distance, he comments on the scene, allowing his face and posture to express, along with his love, a contemplative and pensive awareness of threatening danger. This is underscored by the headline of the newspaper he holds almost casually in his left hand, which you may be able to read in the blown-up version of the picture, here. The fragment visible is:
During WWII, American citizens were well aware of the dangers to which European civilians, including children, were exposed on a daily basis, and this generic headline brought that home (almost literally) only too well. It is a powerful appeal to one of the strongest of human emotions, the desire to protect one's children.
Rockwell's paintings weren't really for export; as far as I can see from reading about the history of the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell's primary venue, the propaganda was for the domestic market. The Post itself was unashamed of what it saw as its mission, a charge that may seem laudable, merely quaint, or truly pernicious today, depending on the perspective of the beholder:
Inside the covers of the Post was fiction targeted at the masses. The fiction of the Saturday Evening Post was not highbrow like The New Yorker or even literary like Harper's and the Atlantic. It was popular, intended to strike a chord with the most possible people, not the most educated....When founded in the 19th Century the Post proclaimed itself neutral in politics, under Lorimer it would take on the editor's pro-business, Republican personality...At first a lot of the covers would contain an illustration which corresponded in some way to one of the stories or features inside. Lorimer would quickly abandon this strategy and instead select covers which evoked those same masses with whom he was trying to connect the contents to. He let the covers stand out as a representation of the magazine as a whole. Each issue of the Saturday Evening Post was intended from cover to cover and contents included to represent the same America that its readers were living in.
Rockwell was the magazine's main and very prolific cover artist, drawing his first for the Post in 1916 and his last in 1963, when the magazine abandoned illustrated covers in favor of photos--a move that did little to postpone its demise in 1969.
For those who are interested, here is the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum, featuring photos of virtually all of his covers, only some of which are overtly political. But I maintain that, in a way, they are all propaganda. That is probably one of the reasons so many look down on Rockwell and dislike him, and on pictorial propaganda in general (at least, if in the service of a pro-US agenda).
But more about that in Part II, tomorrow....