Tuesday, July 06, 2010

For this, the Founders risked powder and ball?

There is a Washington Post Review, Norman Rockwell exhibit opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, by Blake Gopnik that's making the blog rounds and receiving much well deserved mockery in the process. 

I'm not a huge fan of Rockwell, I think he is rather schmaltzy, but it is clear he is an excellent and influential illustrator.

Glopnik on the other hand goes well around the bend in his disdain for Rockwell. He uses the 4th of July as an excuse to opine on the courage of American artists: Emily Dickinson for experimenting with her poetry, Louis Armstrong for playing jazz, and finally Jackson Pollack for splattering paint on canvas.

You can probably imagine what somebody who is a big enough twit to spin panegyrics about the heroism of Pollack's painting style thinks of Norman Rockwell. To put it mildly, he comes across as an insufferable snob.

What captured my eye in his piece, particularily in light of my last post Lopsided Democracy, was the following:

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? 

First off, to answer Glopnik's question, yes, that is why the Founders risked powder and ball. The picture shows a common working man standing to speak at a meeting. On either side he is flanked by men, who are dressed in suits and looking up and seriously listening to what he has to say. That is about as simple an image as one could paint of Jefferson's subversive and revolutionary notion that "all men are created equal".

That dignity, afforded to all men to both speak and to order their own affairs --the affairs of the nation as well as the town hall town meetings that Glopnik so cavalierly dismisses -- is precisely why they fought the Revolution. The idea that no man is above another in either station, caste or dignity is the axiom from which all else American flows.

By the way Mr. Glopnik, all the archetypes on your list that you get misty-eyed over: communists printing pamphlets, atheists on soapboxes, Latino socialists, disgruntled lesbian spinsters, foul-mouthed Jewish comics and metrosexual half-Canadian art critics are free to speak their mind in this country which you seem to think is full of vapid bumpkins.

Perhaps you should scrub the cliches from your writing, and your list was certainly a string of cliches if I ever saw one, before you presume to tell other people what a shallow, maudlin fools they are for liking an illustration.


Knucklehead said...

Well, yeah, that's exactly what they risked powder and ball for. So anyone could be heard, or not, as they see fit.

Sissy Willis said...

Great post, and your sentiments are close to my own heart and mind. As I captioned an image of two of Rockwell's "The Four Freedoms" series awhile back:

"We remember having reproductions of the illustrations hanging on the walls of our grade-school classrooms in the fifties and thinking even then they seemed quaintly old-fashioned. In today's world, again at war with those who would stomp on our freedoms, we see them with fresh eyes. Because Rockwell's subject matter was usually on the corny side, serious art critics tended to look down upon the artist's accomplishment, but beyond the anecdotal component -- much loved by the average American -- his compositional and painterly skills were quite remarkable."

Here's the post, which you may enjoy:


ambisinistral said...


Thanks for the link to that post, it was interesting.

You nailed a detail when you talked about seeing them again with fresh eyes. To a certain extent Rockwell is so ubiquitous that his images fade into the background.

I've always seen Free Speech as a working man speaking at a meeting. WEhen I read Gopnik's piece and looked at the illustration closer what really jumped out to me were the two men in suits framing him and listening so intently.

It's that detail, which I had never really thought of before, that really brought the picture's message into a clearer focus for me.