What Keeps Rockwell From Being ‘Canonical’?
On the prolific illustrator’s murky relationship with the art world
Oct 8, 2018Featured artists
Norman Rockwell’s images of 20th century America have been consistently beloved and widely reproduced. His name is as recognizable as contemporaries like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. No one doubts his talent, his ability to not only bring characters to life but make them larger than. And yet Norman Rockwell has never been fully embraced by the art world. In fact, Rockwell, the man who many credit with defining mid-century America’s concept of itself, had his first New York-museum solo show in 2001—20 years after his death. How do we explain a man so accomplished being left out of the history of his field?
Against the grain of the avant-garde
Academic painting that favored narrative, naturalism, and figures dominated Western art from the Early Renaissance in the late 15th century to the end of the Neoclassical era in the late 19th century, just when Rockwell was born. As “-isms” emerged (think Impressionism, Expressionism, and Cubism), “Art” with a capital “A” came to be defined as complex images one needed intense training not to create, but to interpret. The 20th century’s eminent art critic and art historian, Clement Greenberg, published an article in 1939 that defined Academic art as “kitsch” and “kitsch” as the antithesis of “Art,” culture, and thought. Rockwell’s work is nothing if not figurative, narrative, easy to understand, and conspicuously skilled, all contributing to the fact that, according to Greenberg, he “sank painting to an all-time low.” No one needed a degree or multiple trips to New York and Europe to view and interpret Rockwell—all they needed was a 15¢ magazine.
In the late 1950s, as Pop art followed Abstract Expressionism as the movement in vogue, representational images were allowed back in the East Coast art world canon—as long as they took aim at commercialism. Rockwell’s relationship with commercialism was anything but contentious; he made a living drawing covers for the most popular magazine of the day, The Saturday Evening Post. Andy Warhol, the patron saint of Pop art, made it painfully clear that the “in” crowd—those associated with the art world—should be aligned with the sort of social liberalism found in New York City, far away from the quaint images of school children and families found on Rockwell’s Post covers. Not only was Rockwell’s representational style “out,” but his focus on sentimental definitions of the perfect American family was deemed non-progressive.
A new kind of liberalism
If liberalism eventually moved on from notions of fashion and “hipness”, it still didn’t help Rockwell’s case. Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” gave rise to a form of art historiography that sought to correct the tendency to overlook female artists. This liberal sea change made its way to minority artists too, if not at a delay. What remained from these periods of heightened activism was a thirst for the sort of diverse voices that been neglected for the entire history of art.
How Rockwell fits into this kind of revision is evident. It didn’t matter that it was the same white men who deemed his work “bad” that had kept art so white and male. He himself was white and male, not to mention heterosexual, and his work portrayed the lives of privileged Americans—white upper-middle class families that came to represent an America that was much more diverse than could be known by the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. And this is the core of Rockwell’s problem. Most of his most popular work was created for commercial means, not for the walls of galleries. And while much of his later illustrations were concerned with race and civil rights, they are not the images he is remembered for.
Revisiting Rockwell today
It is now considered progressive to grant any work the benefit of visual analysis—to not write off work for the sake of Greenberg-like elitism, no matter the artist’s identity. Now art historians who study Rockwell are careful to more closely analyze his exact choices in color, composition, subject, and figure positioning. His Post covers are revisited with an analysis that ties together his personal views with the fact he had to cater to a wide commercial audience. (In fact, those views more closely aligned with the civil rights movement than many of his contemporaries could have guessed.)
How Rockwell fits in with the art world’s values in 2018 is unclear and an interesting case to explore. The Guggenheim embraced Rockwell in 2001, positioning the exhibition as a progressive revisiting of a once written-off artist. But today, only a decade and a half later, it is once again hard to imagine a New York exhibition presenting such care-free images of America in the 1950s and 1960s. However apolitical those works were originally supposed to be, it would be impossible to see them on the wall of a museum without considering today’s politically charged context. (These images are, after all, the sort of America implicit in the phrase “Make America Great Again.”) This isn’t to say just that the cultural tides of America frequently shift—that much we can take for granted—but that sometimes they wash ashore something that was never made to float.