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Norman Rockwell exhibit opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

"Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg" gives a fine sense of Rockwell's accomplishments, and shortcomings. It shows how very good he was at selling us on a pleasing image of American society -- and how reluctant he was to push us any further than that.

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By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, July 4, 2010

This Fourth of July, let's celebrate courage. It took courage to split from England, courage to risk democracy and still more courage to dream up a constitution to preserve it.

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Courage has been the signature virtue of almost every great American: Emily Dickinson was brave to warp grammar, Louis Armstrong was brave to blow jazz and Jackson Pollock was brave to paint splats.

Norman Rockwell is often championed as the great painter of American virtues. Yet the one virtue most nearly absent from his work is courage. He doesn't challenge any of us, or himself, to think new thoughts or try new acts or look with fresh eyes. From the docile realism of his style to the received ideas of his subjects, Rockwell reliably keeps us right in the middle of our comfort zone.

That's what made him one of the most important painters in U.S. history, and the most popular. He had almost preternatural social intuitions, along with brilliant skills as a visual salesman. Over his seven-decade career, that coupling let him figure out what middle-class white Americans most wanted to feel about themselves, then sell it back to them in paint. (He started working as an illustrator at 16, in 1910. He died, still in the saddle at 84, in 1978.)

You could say that Rockwell painted the backdrop against which American courage has had to play out.

A new show of 57 Rockwells, borrowed from the collections of Hollywood celebrities Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, opened Friday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It includes oil paintings and drawings, and every one of them is a perfect depiction of what we've been taught to think of as true Rockwellian America.

There's the small-town runaway, and the cop who takes him out for a malt before returning him home. Aw, shucks.

There are the three old biddies gossiping, imagined as so ancient and gnarled that Rockwell had to use a man in drag to model them. What a hoot!

There's the remote blonde in her convertible being joshed by a couple of truckers. Jeez, lady, wontcha give those guys a wink?

In ads and magazine covers, on calendars and Green Stamps books -- on any surface that took ink, for any client who could afford his fees -- Rockwell sold us the vision of America as a place where troubles are never more than "scrapes" and flaws are always "foibles."

Rockwell remains resolutely, immovably on the mild side even when he goes "serious," as in his famous "Four Freedoms" series from 1942. (The conservative critic Dave Hickey, otherwise a Rockwell booster, has said that "when he's doing ideas, he's really awful.") Rockwell's vision of "Freedom of Speech," included in the Smithsonian's show, doesn't invoke a communist printing his pamphlets or an atheist on a soapbox. It gives us a town hall meeting of almost interchangeable New Englanders, no doubt agreeing to disagree about something as divisive as the rates for those new parking meters. For this, the Founders risked powder and ball?

Of course, Rockwell's true achievement wasn't in his trepidatious, homogenized vision of the country. That existed already. (The Saturday Evening Post, for instance, for which Rockwell painted 323 covers, forbade him to depict blacks except in subservient roles. Toward the end of his career, Rockwell got Look magazine to publish a few heroic scenes from the civil rights movement -- at just the moment when such subjects had moved into the mainstream of American thought.) Rockwell's great accomplishment lay in selling us this tepid vision of ourselves as one we simply had to buy into, on a communal scale.


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