Thursday, March 5, 2015

Rockwell's Cop and Race

Rockwell's art has been parodied a million times, cleverly, stupidly, respectfully, cruelly, comically, angrily--virtually every way imaginable.  Particularly susceptible to parody, it seems, is the iconic "Freedom From Want."  But recently, another of Rockwell's works has stepped to the fore:

This was a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1958.  Cops don't seem to have quite the same public image these days.  I've seen multiple parodies of the Rockwell painting--I don't have the time or inclination to try to find out who was first to come up with the idea, but it's a popular one.

I can recall three similar pictures, though a few moments on Google only turns up two.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, critically speaking, and say that the Mad Magazine picture is the best of the bunch.  

Those who don't know Rockwell's work very well--and who haven't been reading my blog, particularly posts like this one--might think that these parodies offer a critical assessment of American culture that an aw-shucks kitschy nostalgia painter like Rockwell couldn't possibly manage.  That would be a gross error.  

This murder, which involved the local police working together with the KKK, was painted by an outraged Rockwell during the height of the civil rights movement.  It's far more powerful than any of these silly parodies and, it's Rockwell's own thought, not simply a riff on someone else's.    

But still, it's true that generally, Rockwell presents a more positive view of things.  Not a whitewashed view!  (As I've tried to show elsewhere.)  But a positive view.  Even when he's critical of the status quo, he tends to be critical in ways that encourage us to be better, rather than in ways that simply denounce the evil.  Let me give you an example.

This is Union Station in Chicago, and the picture was the Post cover for Christmas 1944.  It's wartime, and Rockwell has included lots of soldiers in the image, along with jolly old St. Nick ringing his bell, a couple of nuns, and so on.  Lovely little picture of Christmas joy.  Joy, I say, because as you can see if you look carefully at the picture, these are folks getting off the train--and folks meeting them.  

The other side of life in a train station is included in the picture, hanging over the heads of all the people in the station: the signboards proclaim the upcoming departure of the Milwaukee train.  It leaves at 10:20.  The clock tells us it's now 10:03.  Separation looms.

But not for the people in our picture.  These people are captured at a joyous moment.  

There are, however, a couple of exceptions.  Not everyone is having (or eagerly anticipating) a Christmas reunion.  Right smack in the front of the picture is a redcap, lugging some bags.  And if you follow the line that begins in front of him, with the railing, and goes through Santa and the Sisters, you'll see another redcap way off in the back.  Both are black.  

In itself, there's nothing surprising about that.  I imagine it wasn't unusual for redcaps to be black.  So it's just simple realism to make the redcaps black in the picture.  And you might also say that since redcaps are a common sight at train stations (or were, anyway), it's also simple realism to include them.  

These redcaps, however--especially the man right in front--seem to stand out.  The man in front is not just another part of the crowd.  I think it's fair to say that in terms of the space allotted to him, and his position in the front of the crowd, he's set up as the most important person in the painting.  Nobody else has a position that equals his.  His only competition is the smiling guy with the pair of giant packages under his arms--but he seems more just a part of the crowd than the redcap does.  He actually forms part of the border of a little frame circling the redcap: in effect, a halo around him.

The redcap stands out for another reason.  He's not arriving at the station.  Nor is he greeting someone arriving at the station.  He's just there.  He's one of the fixtures--one of those things that makes all this coming and going possible.  Nobody is paying him any mind.  Sure, someone had to talk to him to get him to carry his bags.  And he'll probably get a tip and maybe even a smile or a "Thanks!" when he hands off the bags again.  But this man isn't part of any of the stories going on in the picture.  He's nothing but a common laborer.  There, like the railing is there, to be used when necessary but otherwise ignored.  

Rockwell isn't ignoring him, though.  Rockwell has put him in the heart of the picture, saying to the Post readers, this man's life is worth as much as yours.  He's worth making a picture of, he's worth paying attention to.  He's a child of God, like you.  These people you're walking by without seeing--they matter.   

This is why I say Rockwell's approach is generally positive.  He hasn't depicted something awful or alarming.  He's depicted a joyful scene.  But for those with eyes to see, it's a scene that urges its viewers to see the dignity and importance of each person.  Rockwell is clearly not trying to pretend that all is well.  This isn't a picture that tries to lie to its audience about the state of things.  Quite the contrary.  An important part of this picture's "lesson," if I may call it that, is that all is not well.  People are insufficiently attentive to each other.  This picture is urging us to change that.  It's not an image of an idealized America that never was, as the critics always say of Rockwell's art.  It's an image that urges you to make things better, starting with yourself.

For some, that kind of thing is insufficiently aggressive.  Orwell, for example--writing about Dickens, not Rockwell, but I think it applies equally to Rockwell--said, ""His whole 'message' is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: if men would behave decently, the world would be decent."  Orwell contrasts such an approach with, roughly put, a more revolutionary approach.  Clearly, despite Dickens's blistering attacks on British society, he's no revolutionary.  Orwell, I think, more or less chides him for that.  Others might agree.  Such people would no doubt wish to chide Rockwell, as well, for he, like Dickens, is no revolutionary.  I'm not sure, however, when being a revolutionary became essential to being a great artist.  If we let Rockwell be Rockwell, instead of wishing he were something else, we're going to do much better at understanding him and appreciating him.

Related to this post: Jane Allen Petrick's book Hidden in Plain Sight argues that Rockwell always never painted a purely white America (as is so often said).  She makes a convincing case, and uses Rockwell's picture of the repair of the Statue of Liberty as a kind of special case study to support her claim that those making these kinds of remarks about Rockwell are not bothering to look at his art first.
UPDATE 3/5/15 PM: The Norman Rockwell Museum just shared this story on facebook.  Maurice Peterson is having a show at a gallery in Lenox, MA, featuring some "reimagined" Rockwells.  Unfortunately, Peterson makes the very mistake that Petrick's book so effectively attacks.  Here's what I mean.  The story reads, in part, "Growing up in Queens, Peterson imagined himself in Rockwell's country images.  'But the only time you saw someone black was in the controversial images,' he said."    

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