Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Prelude to a Book Burning

I dragged the Lobbyist to see the Norman Rockwell exhibition at the Smithsonian over the holdiay weekend, not becuase I'm a big Rockwell fan, but because I was interested in a particular image which I'd seen in the promotions. Still, I must admit I was very interested by the show, though perhaps not in the way the painter or the curators intended. As an exercise in Highest Kitsch it would be hard to top, and it was full to bursting with the kind of Wonderbred white folks likely to make Glen Beck pop a woodie.

It's not that Rockwell didn't have talent, he clearly did. But why he chose to exercise it in such a subervient and Bowdlerized fashion is hard to say. Certainly there was money in it, and maybe middle class comfort was as much as his sensibility could aspire to. But he sure does celebrate American complacency like crazy. It's very white and healthy, nary a hint of sex, disease, death, or sin. He makes Mother Goose look like Stephen King. Everybody is lit up with virtue, good intention or, at worst, the kind of minor foible which can be fully captured by joshing. At most, men leer impotently at glamorous gals, who don't return the slightest visible interest.

It strikes me that Rockwell's castrated attitude to his art is nicely encapsulated by the picture above, a fisherman hauling a mermaid in a lobster pot. She seems to be bound at the wrists, but is not at all distressed by this -- au contraire. And the fishmernan himself is just hauling dead weight -- note the down-pointing handle on the marker float. There's infinite weird, wonderful narrative possibility in the capture of a mermaid, but Rockwell's picture closes all of it off completely (It's a sort of anti-storyboard) with a type of humanity that has nothing naughty below the waist.
It's not that art has to dwell on or foreground dark or forbidden things to be good, but the relentless exclusion of anything even pleasantly troubling invariably deforms expression. And this, many white Americans are quite sure, is the quintessense of American Art.


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