Thursday, February 26, 2015

Norman Rockwell's Gay Sailors

(Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar....)

Over the last year or so, Deborah Solomon’s biography of Norman Rockwell has gotten a lot of attention, some laudatory, some extremely negative.  Recently, the New York Times listed it in its 100 “Notable” books of 2014.  This is unfortunate, for while the book is indeed notable, I don’t believe its notoriety is the sort implied through its inclusion on such a list.  It’s mainly notable for its outrageous falsifications and distortions. 

So, you ask, what is so wrong with Solomon’s book?  See my previous post for some links that will answer that question for you.  Here, I’ll just summarize.  Solomon is the sort of art critic who leaps immediately to the most facile and gross sexualizations imaginable.  In the case of Rockwell, this approach applies not merely to the artworks, but to Rockwell himself.  Solomon presents Rockwell as a pedophile and as a repressed homosexual.  (She admits that she has no evidence that Rockwell ever molested any children.  But being a pedophile is a function of desires, not of actions.  She also admits there’s no evidence that Rockwell ever had any sexual encounters with any men, but again being a repressed homosexual is a function of desires, not of actions.)  There is no legitimate evidence for either claim.  
While I have already spent far too much time thinking about the book, which is quite simply without merit, this recent accolade from the Times has brought my attention back to Solomon’s book and prompts me to say a few more words against it.  Given the extensive criticisms produced by Abigail Rockwell and myself, one might assume there wouldn’t be much left to say.  But really the book is a nearly inexhaustible source of material to subject to devastating criticism.  So this time, I mean to approach it from a different angle.  In my earlier pieces, I’ve tended to focus on the easily-established facts, rather than on the much more complicated matter of sorting out interpretations of the artworks.  I’ve focused, for example, just on Solomon’s false claims about what the canvases in question actually contain.  (Yes, she gets that kind of thing wrong, all the time, such as when she claims that Rosie the Riveter’s eyes are closed. Etc, ad nauseam.)  It’s much easier to focus on such issues, since they can be settled definitively simply by actually looking at the pictures carefully.  Sorting out whether a given interpretation of a painting is defensible, well, that’s quite a lot harder to do—in fact, it may be just plain impossible.  So I won’t try anything quite that ambitious. 
What I propose to do instead is to attempt a kind of middle course.  In this piece, I will consider one of the pictures that is supposed to have some kind of homosexual overtones to it.  I will present a much better take on the painting than Solomon’s.  But then I will show that even if Solomon’s take on the painting were granted, it would still not help her contention that Rockwell was a repressed homosexual.  You don't have to accept my "reading" of the painting to see that Solomon's doesn't do what she wants it to do.
Before I begin, I should also say that the most deeply objectionable element in Solomon’s book is her attribution of pedophilia to Rockwell.  Her persistent attribution of homosexuality is not important in itself—few people today would be particularly bothered to hear that Rockwell was homosexual.  The reason I oppose this attribution is that there is quite simply no evidence for it, and vast amounts of evidence to the contrary.  In other words, I oppose it because it is false—because it gets Rockwell wrong.  And also because of the connected misreadings of the art that follow from it.
During Solomon’s painfully awkward appearance on the Colbert Report, an image of one of Rockwell’s early covers was put up on screen.  And while the image was showing, Colbert asked, in his sarcastic way, how could anyone look at a Rockwell and see some kind of gay imagery?  The image was this one:

When the picture was flashed on screen, the audience tittered.  It was typical Colbert.  Good theater.  Colbert doesn’t pretend to be an art critic.  He’s a clown.  A good one!  And he got his laugh with his comment on this picture.  I don’t begrudge him the laugh.  It was a funny bit.
But Solomon pretends to be an art critic.  And it is she, not Colbert, who came up with the idea that this image is somehow indicative of sexual ambivalence.  The smaller sailor sits with his buddy, staring off into space, clutching a photo of his girlfriend. He is close to his buddy, though, and his right hand seems to rest on the knee of his friend.  Solomon writes that this makes “you wonder why a young man who is supposedly thinking about his girlfriend is so comfortable sidling up to his hunky male friend.” (88)
Now, as it happens, it doesn’t make me wonder that.  I don’t see anything sexual in the picture.  It seems fairly clear what’s at stake.  As the date—Jan 18, 1919—on the Post cover shows, this was published soon after the end of the First World War, and was no doubt painted prior to Armistice Day, while Rockwell was still on active duty in the Navy.  So these are sailors at wartime, obviously away from their loved ones, thrown together on a ship, potentially in mortal danger.  The smaller sailor has a woman waiting for him at home.  The larger sailor doesn’t.  And as the smaller man dreams happily of getting back home, the larger man pensively, perhaps jealously, meditates on his rather more lonely life.  Notice, for example, the larger man’s ring finger is empty.  His tattoos show him to be a lifer, married to the Navy.  There is a heart tattooed on his right hand, but the inscription above it reads “Ma,” not the name of some sweetheart.  This is not a man who will be going home to a loving family at war’s end. 
The smaller man rests his hand on the larger man’s leg almost as if it were a piece of furniture—as you’d lean on a railing or the arm of a chair.  This plays up the angle of the larger man as belonging to the Navy.  It’s like he’s part of the boat.  The larger man’s crossed arms and downcast eyes show his sense of isolation.  Again, it makes sense to think of him as a bit jealous.  But not jealous of his gay lover’s girl back home.  Jealous, rather, of the fact that his friend has a home and a beloved to go to. 
The picture is signed “Irene,” by the way, which was the name of Rockwell’s then-wife.  It may be, then, that Rockwell means to make this something of a quasi-self-portrait, with himself as the smaller man, and his Navy buddy O’Toole as the larger man.  Solomon certainly insinuates this, sandwiching her “discussion” of the painting into her discussion of Rockwell’s friendship with O’Toole.  (It’s obviously not a self-portrait in any literal sense, since the smaller sailor doesn’t look anything like Rockwell.  But whatever.)  In fact, this is probably not a silly way to think of it.  By the time the picture was made, no doubt the writing was on the wall that the war was soon to end.  Wartime enlistees could start to see the end, and really look forward to getting home.  In that sense, the picture might be a touching tribute to O’Toole.
Viewed in this light, it’s a fairly poignant picture, even though I surely don’t think of it as one of Rockwell’s greats.  But it fits the timeframe and the mood of the day.  Looking at the picture as a pure insight into a bit of the personal side of Navy life in wartime—and to some extent as a reflection on Rockwell’s own time in the service—makes it take on a charming new light.  Looking at it as a strange little love triangle instead, well, it makes audiences titter.  Nothing more. 
None of this is to say that Solomon’s interpretation cannot be right.  Indeed, both of our interpretations could be right.  There’s no rule that paintings have to mean only one thing—or anything at all.  As I said at the outset, I’m not trying to prove that Solomon’s interpretation is wrong (too hard).  I’m simply presenting a better, deeper, one, which is more docile to the painting itself, and doesn’t simply leap immediately to sex.  The Colbert-style eyebrow-raise is a good way to prevent anyone’s thinking more carefully about the picture.  That shouldn’t be the art lover’s attitude.
            But now we come to my second point: the picture doesn’t support Solomon’s case about Rockwell’s repressed homosexuality, even if you do want to go along with the idea that there’s some kind of sexuality lurking in this image.  Pretend that the two men have a homosexual relationship.  Would that help Solomon establish her contention that Rockwell was a repressed homosexual?  Of course not.  In fact, it runs in the opposite direction. 
Think of what Solomon needs the painting to do, if it’s supposed to get us a repressed homosexual artist somehow achingly expressing his true self.  For it to support her views on Rockwell's sexuality, she needs a Rockwell who is a somewhat unwilling participant in heterosexual relationships—a Rockwell who isn’t really interested in the ladies, but who feels forced through cultural expectations (and current “gender roles” and all that kind of stuff) to get married and pretend to be a heterosexual.  (She writes, "Granted, he was married, but his first marriage and to some extent his second were not happy. They seem less like genuine unions than a strategy for 'passing' and controlling his homoerotic desires, whose expression he confined to his art." (163-4))   In short, she needs a Rockwell who sits with women, but dreams of men. 
Taking this picture in Solomon’s preferred sexualized way, however, we have the opposite.  We have a pragmatic homosexual relationship—two men thrown together onboard ship and hence more or less forced by social pressures (the lack of women!) to have sexual encounters with one another.  Despite this pragmatic homosexual activity, the smaller man still dreams of getting home to his girl.  Perhaps the bigger man—O’Toole, if we’re taking this as autobiographical in some way—is jealous of his buddy’s wife.  Perhaps the bigger man is not merely pragmatically homosexual, but is actually in love with his buddy: perhaps that bigger man wishes things could be otherwise, that the two of them could stay together forever, and so on.  Perhaps.  But that’s O’Toole.  The “Rockwell” character is itching to get home.  Once he’s off ship, the homosexual relationship is over, and things are back to normal for him. 
Again: if we take this picture as having some kind of sexual element in it, that sexual element runs in exactly the opposite direction from what Solomon wants!  It gives us a Rockwell who is thoroughly heterosexual at heart, even if willing to have some pragmatic gay sex when the ladies aren’t available; not a tormented suppressed homosexual.  The picture Solomon wants, in order to advance her suppressed homosexual thesis, is a picture of the sailor returned home, sitting with his wife, but ignoring her and wistfully dreaming over a picture of his old Navy buddy.  That’s the picture Solomon wants.  She gets the opposite.  Even if you go along with the notion that there’s some kind of homosexual theme lurking here, it doesn’t help Solomon.
Solomon’s defense against what I’ve said here, should she choose to make a defense, will no doubt be a rehash of misleading things she’s said in the past.  In press interviews about the book, she has persistently attempted to downplay and frankly falsify the nature of her obsession with Rockwell’s sexuality.  As such, she would reply to what I’ve said here by saying that all she’s said about Rockwell is that he’s interested in the male body; or she might say all she’s said is that he had homoerotic impulses.  I’ve already shown such dishonest dodges for what they are.  (See in particular the link to my second Huffington Post piece in the previous post here.)    
Yes, Solomon’s book is notable.  Very, very notable. 

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me that Ms. Solomon's efforts were to smear, rather than give any serious consideration to who Norman Rockwell is, and what he was painting. It is more likely that she was projecting her own degeneracy upon him, rather than even trying to be objective about her subject.