There Goes (Another) Norman

“My tipping point regarding Rockwell had come in conversation with Willem de Kooning. Our greatest modern painter quite adored Rockwell—as he did most things about the United States since arriving here, as a twenty-two-year-old Dutch stowaway, in 1926. (He reminisced, ‘My Communist friends in Greenwich Village said America is a lousy country. I told them they were nuts.’) De Kooning emboldened me to write something that was in the air to be written.”

Peter Schjeldahl, writing about Norman (not John) Rockwell. I stumbled across this literally hours after linking to Joyce Millman’s piece on Richard Harris, and though we’re now in the art world as opposed to the pop world (and though it would be foolish to even begin to compare the impact of one-hit-wonder Harris with American-icon Rockwell), it drives home the point for me, yet again, that there are no longer any lonely works of popular art, in any field. Anything that is significant, at least in terms of popular appeal, will at some point have its case made for it, even if the initial resistance towards it is strong.

(I need to read one of Schjeldahl’s books. Hardly at all familiar with his writing, but one day, I got curious about him — not sure what tipped me off — and downloaded a couple podcasts on iTunes — one was a lecture he gave — and spent a good portion of the time laughing hard. He’s a real wisecracker, an almost Chuck Eddy-like balloon-puncturer.)

5 thoughts on “There Goes (Another) Norman

  1. Dave Hickey writes favorably about Rockwell in Air Guitar.

    Wouldn’t say that Norman Rockwell is a test case for “anything significant, at least in terms of popular appeal…” since he’s obviously distinctive and talented. And what you’re talking about is “made the case for it by the intelligentsia (or lumpen intelligentsia like bohemieans),” since presumably someone somewhere has explained to her best friend why she does or doesn’t prefer Hallmark Cards to The Far Side greeting cards or something. But has anyone in “the art world” made the case for Hallmark? (I don’t know, not being at all conversant in art world discourse).

  2. I forgot about Hickey — you’re right (and I think it was through him I semi-discovered Schjeldahl).

    re: “significant… popular appeal” — I was simply saying that the point I’m fumbling around with here would be irrelevant in regards to an obscure work of art (value judgments weren’t part of the equation). Of course there are loads of lonely works of art and songs out there, stuff that no critics are making the case for, but if it’s stuff that critics aren’t exposed to in the first place — that’s a different kind of lonely than what I’m describing. Rockwell, from my (admittedly incredibly limited) understanding, was a hugely popular artist who, at least in his time, had little, if any, critical cachet. His work was beloved by millions, yes, but his work was underappreciated (let’s say “under-critiqued” — not treated seriously) by the (thanks for the clarification) lumpen intelligentsia. My overall point being: I don’t think this happens anymore, or not nearly as often. No works of popular art escape underappreciated by SOME members of the intelligentsia. No one here gets out alive (or dead, as it were). Um…

  3. “But has anyone in ‘the art world’made the case for Hallmark?” I might ask instead: has anyone in the art world made the case for greeting cards? (Well, Warhol, possibly, if not specifically than maybe be inference.) if so, I assume Hallmark are the Beatles or the Picasso of that particular subset.

  4. Another (green world) Norman: Well, obviously I’ve done my time in the so-bad-it’s-good trenches, after getting into this critical racket via the example of Lester Bangs, but I haven’t turned the corner on Norman Rockwell yet. Scott, I got a kick out of you employing the precise Rockwell painting you did to illustrate this post, as one time when I was a kid, and complaining to my mother about me having red hair, she reminded me that Norman Rockwell often featured red-haired boys in his paintings — which, even though I was only ten years old or whatever, was one of the worst possible justifications she could have given me.

    My parents subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post at the time, so I was quite familiar with Rockwell’s oeuvre. I was impressed with his precise detailing, of course, but then I found out somehow that he painted from models and props dressed exactly to his specifications. In my naivete, I had assumed that painters (like my own writer-to-be) saw the whole image in their brain and then expressed that directly onto paper or canvas. (My much-later painter hero Rene Magritte probably did.) That was my first disillusionment with Rockwell. But even if I didn’t worry about his methods, there was still something disturbingly CUTE about his Post-covers mise en scene that bothered me even before I had words to identify it. Years later, when I got into movies, Frank Capra’s films irritated me the same way. but by then I knew what the offending element was: schmaltz beyond the call of duty. (Capra really rubs your face in schmaltz; Rockwell almost seems subtle & realistic in comparison.)

    When I got older, my red hair gradually turned blond, and finally, in my dotage, white, making me look like Andy Warhol, another of my (ironic) painter heroes, ironically — maybe I can finally deal with Norman Rockwell in this hipster reappraisal you speak of, now that no one can mistake me for one of his Hummelesque redheads.

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