Sunday, March 22, 2009

Norman Rockwell at the DIA

In an act of wee rebellion that was good for the soul, Monique and I set aside our massive to-do lists for a few hours today and instead drove down to the Detroit Institue of the Arts to see their new Norman Rockwell exhibit.

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:

(I wish I could've found a sharper copy on the Internet, but if you can't tell, the thing on the upper-left corner of the blank canvas is a pocket watch ticking down the time as it hangs on top of a calendar page with the deadline date.)

Not coincidentally, this painting resonated with both Monique and I, since we know the deadline pressures of the publishing industry all too well. It also makes a nice companion piece to the latest addition to the Magee collection, this panel from Ryan Claytor's And Then One Day that we picked up at that fundraiser art auction at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco:

So, um, if you're reading this, Ryan, don't worry about needing deadlines to push along the creative process. You're apparently in good company.


  1. The appropriate and heartfelt reaction to this post is Amen, Amen!

  2. I stumbled across this blog while looking, incidentally, for any information on the Mark Rothko collection at the DIA.
    Now I hold Norman Rockwell to the highest degree, and agree with nearly every statement you've made. I saw the exhibit and was brought to my knees by his sheer ability to tell a story and invoke the viewer in such an effortless manner. Hell, I'm seeing it again next weekend.
    But after I saw the show, as I do every time I go to the DIA, I went to visit Rothko.
    I want to take a moment to defend poor Mark Rothko, who I think is one of the most misunderstood painters of all time. Rothko's multiform paintings are not "dull squares" they are intended as spiritual, emotional and religious experiences. Did you know Rothko himself suggested you stand about 18 inches away from them? Rothko's work is misunderstood because hardly anyone knows what he intended by them. Yes, good art should not need explanation, but sometimes does. All you need to know about Rothko's work is his intention of intimacy. All you need to do is stand close and open yourself to feel.

  3. I promise, the next time I'm at the DIA (and I wish I'd gone back and checked my old comments before I went down on Saturday) I'll stand 18 inches away from the Rothkos and see if my opinion changes. I will agree that he probably gets picked on disproportionately for pushing the envelope in his direction, too, which is a bit unfair. The guys that I should really be picking on are the ones who came after Rothko and made squares and rectangles instead of at least doing their own thing.

    For what it's worth -- at least until I try the 18-inch experiment -- I like your stuff more than Rothko's, too!