Pictorial propaganda: Part II--Norman Rockwell and Soviet art
Now, who doesn't like Norman Rockwell?
Yeah, he's corny as all get out. But breathes there the man (or woman) with soul so dead who wouldn't be touched by this picture, and a host of others by Rockwell?:
Well, there are some who indeed seem to be untouched by it and its brethren. But there may be an even greater number who actually are touched by it, at least for a moment--but then their sense of their own cultural, personal, and political sophistication kicks in and will not allow that feeling to stand, because they distrust it.
An excellent example of the sort of thing to which I'm referring is this article by Jerry Saltz, appearing in the Village Voice of November 2001 (shortly after 9/11). It is a review of a Rockwell exhibit that was mounted by Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum, entitled: "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People."
That title, of course, is no accident; as I wrote yesterday, Rockwell's paintings were indeed a sort of advertisement and even propaganda for America, geared to the American public itself.
Reviewer Saltz finds the entire concept of an art museum honoring Rockwell somewhat offensive:
When it comes to the claims being made for Norman Rockwell, my advice is just say no. A cadre of museum directors, curators, national critics, art historians, and suddenly populist art theorists want you to love him.
At one point, Saltz quotes an explicit reference to the inspiration Rockwell's work might be able to offer the American people, post-9/11--the propaganda aspect, that is:
Thomas Krens opines that Rockwell's "nostalgic images of American life" might "offer comfort and inspiration . . . during such a difficult moment in U.S. history."
But Saltz says such comfort should be resisted. His reasons are not just artistically elitist (that Rockwell is an inferior illustrator, not a true artist), although that reason is certainly part of his objection. An additional reason he cites is a political one; and, in fact, the two objections seem to be fused in his mind [emphasis mine in the following quotes]:
At its best, this show proves that Rockwell is what he's always been: a top-notch illustrator who can grab your heart and wring it...At worst, it shows the Guggenheim further trashing the reputation won for it by generations of artists, and only underlines Rockwell's reputation as merely the maker of what he himself called "feel-good" "story-pictures." ...
For the art world to fall for this simple vision now—especially now--is, as Flash Art American editor Massimiliano Giorni put it, "like confessing in public that deep down inside we are, after all, right-wing." He adds, "We all like stability and the cheesy beauty of a little day in the greatest country in the world—our beloved America. But it's simply reactionary. It scares me."...
Loving Rockwell is shunning complexity...Much is made of Rockwell's popularity, "virtue," and ability to create a world. But Rockwell's world is cardboard compared to someone like Brueghel's...As for populism, an exhibition devoted to The Simpsons would be less sentimental, more visual, and have twice the virtue of this affair. And an empty room with piped-in music by Hank Williams and Sonny Boy Williamson—both Rockwell's contemporaries—would take you deeper and tell you more about America than this show.
Rockwell's America is not Saltz's America. It's an America that Saltz (along with Giorni, whom he quotes approvingly) seems to find dangerous, right-wing, reactionary, and all-too simplistic.
What's going on here? For one thing, we see in Saltz a familiar dislike for a vision that's not "nuanced" enough; a distancing from populist tastes and an assertion of cultural superiority through complexity. What might this "complexity" be that Saltz and those who agree with him so crave?
It's partly emotional: Rockwell's world is not dark enough. It deals mostly with the light (although I'd have Saltz study that "Freedom from Fear" painting again if he thinks Rockwell always ignores the dark). But the emotional merges with the political; it seems that Saltz also understands and perceives the propagandist undertones of Rockwell's art, and this quality is a good part of what offends him and others, since it simplifies America and makes it seem too "good."
Saltz seems to actually be afraid of Rockwell's ability to speak to certain values that are quintessentially American, and to unequivocally affirm them in a way that is not complex. Why might this be?
My impression is that, in addition to wishing for constant nuance, Saltz and others have lost the ability to make a clear distinction between propaganda that inflames hatred (such as, to use just one example, this) and the work of those such as Rockwell, propaganda that embraces human values and explicitly rejects that hatred--as long as such art is in praise of America. Both "dark" propaganda and "light" are lumped together and detested as though they are one and the same, in the same way that patriotism and love of nation is often considered a suspicious emotion, guilty until proven innocent.
In a similar manner, there is a kneejerk distrust of art that is seen as sentimental, and not just for esthetic or elitist reasons, but for political ones. And there is some validity to that, I think: there is a history of totalitarian governments using such art to manipulate their populaces.
Here, for example, is a lengthy article on Soviet art, comparing it to the works of--none other than Rockwell himself!:
It does not take an experienced connoisseur to notice the uncanny similarity between the widely popular art of Norman Rockwell and certain artworks of Socialist realism. Similarly, some of the official art created in the Soviet Union during Rockwell's most successful years could easily pass as emblematic of the Saturday Evening Post covers depicting that era.
This can be a confusing realization given that these images originated from the two very polarized ideological standpoints of that time. Is this a mere coincidence of style, or are these two forms of expression somehow more deeply bound?
I see what the author is getting at, although I think the similarity is strictly superficial. Take a look at this Soviet-era genre painting, entitled "Low Marks Again":
This painting--which is far more charming than most Soviet-era pictures, which tended to feature Lenin and a flag, as I recall--does bear a superficial resemblance to Rockwell's work: the genre family scene, the dog trying to comfort the boy but failing, the mother's concern, the flatness of the drawing style. Yes indeed, it's all quite a bit Rockwellian.
But not really. To me, it looks as though the heart has somehow been cut out of the picture, a painting which ends up being not even of greeting card quality. In short, it seems dead. It gives off the flavor of textbook illustration more than anything else.
It's as though the artist were painting under some sort of compulsion, with an assignment and rules to follow--which, of course, he or she probably was. The totalitarian nature of the government has somehow oozed out in the art and could not be disguised. Despite all efforts at cuteness and light, the picture is heavy.
Rockwell was painting for the commercial market, but he was artistically free and made his own choices. In fact, the famous "Four Freedoms" paintings were his own concept, and they glow with life and love. All of these facts are somehow present and reflected in the paintings themselves. As propaganda, they were doubly effective for that--because the artist, and most of the viewers, believed them to be essentially true. Despite superficial similarities to Soviet genre art, Rockwell's paintings manage to express the vast differences between American and Soviet society, between an artist who is free and one whose work is dictated, between an artist who believes in the truth of his work and one who doubts.
Well, I'm not finished yet. Tune in tomorrow for Part III (the finale), about kitsch and its relation to pictorial propaganda....