I've been a longtime fan of Rockwell's work, which is pretty natural when you consider how much I like narrative art in general. And I've always felt that I've owed him particular thanks for helping me to develop my own sense of truly great art. This is because some twenty-plus years ago I came across an article somewhere in which the writer pooh-poohed Rockwell as a mere good illustrator, and went on to rather obnoxiously claim something along the lines of it being self-evident that he didn't merit inclusion among the truly great American artists of the Twentieth Century, a pantheon that I'm sure for that writer included an assortment of obscure abstractionists.
I thought that over a bit and decided that particular writer was full of beans. It seemed to me that what Rockwell did best was in fact a good deal more of an accomplishment: he told entire stories in a single picture, and he did it in a way that was accessible to anybody with a good pair of eyes. I remember this in particular because it was a concrete example to me of what I think is the greatest failure in academic criticism of the arts: a mistaken core belief that inaccessibility equals quality, and that accessibility is inherently a mark of clearly inferior work.
So it is that a bloated self-indulgence like Ulysses becomes cited as the greatest novel of the 20th century, the complicated puzzle of Citizen Kane gets listed as the greatest movie of all time, and that legions of art critics run down Rockwell's work as "mere Americana" while they worship at the altar of the dull squares of Mark Rothko. Harrumph.
Personally, I quite like Ulysses and Citizen Kane. Though I must admit I could do without Rothko's rectangles. But I truly believe that the only reason they are so prized in academia is because they provide so many opportunities for graduate and doctoral research by way of trying to provide ever-more obscure and circular explanations of what the heck they mean.
Whereas you don't really need me to explain this Norman Rockwell painting:
What does this mean? It obviously means that if a hobo steals a pie, he stands a good chance of getting bit in the ass by the family dog.
The real mistake is in thinking this is all that it means.
So, having now blathered on for a while about one of the origins of my longtime mistrust of academic art and literature criticism, I think you can see why I was especially interested to see the Rockwell exhibit that started up at the DIA this month. Now that I've visited museums all over the world, and had a genuine opportunity to see the world's great artists, would I feel that Rockwell's work still held up?
To save you any suspense, yes, I think it holds up very well indeed. In fact, now that I've seen some of those paintings in person, I have an even higher regard for it than I did before.
I also think that the fact that an exhibit on Rockwell is the feature exhibit at a place like the DIA may say that Rockwell is getting a bit more respect as a great artist. Oh sure, I'd guess that somewhere in the art world there are elitists who think that this is the sort of exhibit that you need to hold your nose and put on every now and then, for mere financial considerations. But they're really missing the point that one of the truest measures of an artist is the impact that his work has on those who see it. And there's no denying the impact of Rockwell's art on his American audience.
I could go on and on, but I'll settle for just urging those of you who live around Detroit and are reading this to check out the exhibit.
One final thought. One of our favorite paintings was this one, which speaks to the difficulties of being a working commercial artist facing deadline pressures: