Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Some Post-Stockbridge Thoughts

View from "Laura's Tower," The Berkshires. 
We spent a weekend in Stockbridge Massachusetts, in New England's beautiful Berkshires. You might know what famous American illustrator lived there. You might not. I'm guessing you know him if you are my age and that -- based on some anecdotal evidence I gathered yesterday while teaching my classes -- if you are under the age of twenty, you have no idea who he was; or, that, even if I mention his name, you still don't know who he was. (You might, however, say, "Oh... That guy," if I show you a picture of his work.

He is, of course (of course?) Norman Rockwell.

My first (typical and self-disappointing) reaction to my students not having ever heard of Norman Rockwell was to think of it as a deficiency in the kids. But, as always, I realized it is not their fault but the fault of the adult world if they are ignorant about anything in our culture.

It could be that we didn't teach them well enough. But, more likely, it is because we have created a world for them in which the philosophy is that the more information we can have flying around our heads, the better. These kids know more about more things than I did at their age because of the Googlenet. More is not always better.

Would we like to have a TV in every room? Every closet? Inside our silverware drawer? Some might say yes, but all must agree it would be a tremendous distraction.

How do they not know who Norman Rockwell is, when, in my mind, an American not knowing who he was is the equivalent deficiency of an American not knowing what baseball is. Will the world end? No....but it just ain't right...and it means we are doing something very wrong.

At the Norman Rockwell Museum, we watched a good documentary video about the artist. It fascinated me and it broke my heart just a little. (Don't worry -- it's already full of cracks. It's not like it's that first "ding" in a new car.) There was a recorded statement by Rockwell saying that he knew that what he did wasn't "high art." He even emphasized that point by saying "No one knows that better than me..." 

What the hell does that mean? If Picasso is high art, why isn't Rockwell? Was Rubens "high art"? Was Edward Hopper "high art"? Whatever the answers to those questions are, somehow, Rockwell allowed himself to be beaten into submission. The snootier critics were always rough on him (as was evidenced by his "artistic crisis" referred to in the film; he went to Europe to study "modernism") and it had its effect: he decided -- like an obese person making statements about his fatness just to let the world know that he is aware his physical deficiency -- to join up with them. 

It's tragic. Of course what he did is "high art." Rockwell was both a mirror and a lamp on our world even if, as he said, he chose to literally paint an optimistic pictures of how things "ought to be." In the end, his work is no less "high art" than is the world of film composers like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith; than the popular music of Paul McCartney or Leonard Cohen; than the plays of Neil Simon... 

Are any of these people's work not "high art" because they are popular? Is inaccessibility the key to the "high art" label? How stupid would that be? Are people disqualified from "high art" -- in the cases of the film composers -- because they are "hired guns"? Is any artist working on commission not an artist? Is art automatically low because it is made to compliment another kind of art (scores; illustrations...)?

It is horrible that Rockwell felt that way about his work. Again, and always: damage done by the "world." Rockwell had everything he needed and felt that he didn't. 

Rockwell is part of American culture -- a culture that all Americans share, regardless of descent. I once heard someone say that he is not relevant anymore because he depicted primarily white America. Truth is, he was consciously active in painting multicultural characters, especially later in his career...

...but who cares?  How long are we going to think along lines of color and race? We're Americans and Rockwell was a treasure. We should all be proud of his work. While -- especially as a teacher -- I understand the importance of and audience "relating" to the material at hand, I also think great is great. Langston Hughes and Robert Frost are both brilliant poets. We shouldn't skip teaching one of them because of the color of our classroom, nor should we accept ignorance to one or the other and make cultural excuses for it.

Standing, after a hard, uphill hike, upon "Laura's Tower," looking down upon the Berkshires, I realized that feeling small can really teach us how vast we are, within. Original? No. But the truth seldom is, I find.

1 comment:

  1. For what it's worth, I think Rockwell's self-deprecation was a variant of New England reticence. The art world has positively reappraised him in the past 20 years, and they've noticed things that Rockwell did consciously and with virtuosity: for example, the Mondrian-like way he uses square borders and apportions space in the painting of the old guys in the barber shop. And look at the reference images pinned to his canvas in his famous self-portrait: Durer, Rembrandt, Picasso, and Van Gogh! I suspect that explains, at least in part, the difference between what Rockwell said to keep stuffy art snobs off his back and what he knew to be true about the quality of his own work. Heck, his self-portrait pretty much tells us there are least three versions of himself, and you can't see the "real" Rockwell's eyes even through the opaque glasses in a reflection of his face.

    I started learning how to paint in oils around four months ago, and as I fumble to develop a different set of eyes for looking at paintings, I'm in awe of Rockwell's technical skill. But unlike some people who admire him for his technical skill alone, I enjoy his subject matter too.

    (Have you ever seen the work of J.C. Leyendecker? He was Rockwell's predecessor at the Saturday Evening Post, and one of his bigger inspirations, although Leyendecker's work was more stylized, his humor was more dark, and his depictions of children were a bit more grotesque.)