Thursday, April 30, 2015

Follow-up on the death of the author

In a recent post, I wrote about the idea of the "death of the author."  In a different recent post here, I mentioned that Roger Reed's review of Deborah Solomon's book on Rockwell put Solomon in the death of the author camp of art criticism, and I mentioned in passing that I wanted to address this claim in a later post.  This is that later post.

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Movie with Rockwellian sensibilities

The makers of "Little Boy" say that their movie has a Norman Rockwell sensibility.  I've wondered before now whether Rockwell's work itself is really all that "Rockwellian," but I'll leave that issue aside for today.  I will also have to leave aside any questions about the merits of "Little Boy," or whether I think it is Rockwellian in any sensible way or what have you.  I haven't seen it.

This post is prompted by Michael O'Sullivan's Washington Post review of the movie.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Rockwell and the Post: at Odds?

Is there a contradiction at the heart of Rockwell’s work?

Consider: he painted many images of charming small-town life, and may possibly be sensibly classified as a regionalist painter.  There is something about him that seems to favor the small, the local, the unique.

And yet, he is perhaps best known as a cover artist for the Saturday Evening Post, which was a massive agent responsible for the flattening of American cultures—sort of the cable TV of its day.

Rosie the Riveter model Mary Doyle dies at 92

The Rutland Herald has the AP account.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Art Criticism and Gun Culture 2.0

My WFU colleague David Yamane is a sociologist working on America's gun culture.  He has a great blog on the topic, and a couple of his recent posts were--oddly enough--remarkably relevant to art criticism as it's currently (too often) practiced.  In these two posts (One and Two) Yamane was writing about Warrior Dreams by James William Gibson.

The very short version is that Gibson apparently sees not only firearms themselves, but various gun-related items (including ammunition and holsters) as sexually charged.  Guns are phallic, holsters are vaginal, etc.  Even the wound channel produced by a bullet strike is suggestive of a vagina to Gibson.

Now, this is all very silly.  And it's hard to know what to make of such silliness.  Yamane does as well as one probably could do, saying, among other things,

"Although I do not want to dismiss Gibson’s work entirely, in this case I think a picture of an expanded hollow point bullet or a drawing of a wound channel is like a Rorschach test.  In Rorschach tests, people’s perceptions of various inkblots are understood as projections of their own personality characteristics and emotional functioning. Gibson’s psycho-sexual analysis of defensive ammunition, therefore, probably tells us more about Gibson than about gun culture itself."

Yep, I reckon so.

The reason these posts jumped out at me is quite simple: you find so much of the same kind of thing in art criticism.  I write a good bit about this in my book.  While I don't want to put too much of the book on this blog--else, why bother publishing the book?--I think I can spare a snippet.

Here is part of what one critic had to say about [Winslow Homer's] The Gulf Stream: “The sharks in The Gulf Stream …, encircling the helpless boat with sinuous seductiveness, can be read as castrating temptresses, their mouths particularly resembling the vagina dentate, the toothed sexual organ that so forcefully expressed the male fear of female aggression.”   Here again, the silly fixation with importing Freudian worries about castration.  The two visible shark mouths don’t look especially vaginal.  (They do, however, have an uncanny similarity to a certain toothed orifice—a shark’s mouth.)  It’s hard to see why anyone would take this kind of thing seriously.  (The quotation is taken from Roger Kimball's The Rape of the Masters, Encounter 2004, 123.  Note, however, that Kimball is not the critic in question: Kimball is mocking the critic in question.)

And yet, this style of "criticism" continues to be published, and continues, apparently, to be taken somebody out there, somewhere.  In an earlier piece, I called this the "that's what she said" school of art criticism.  Still seems an appropriate label to me.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Death of the Author

For quite a long time, many art critics and other professional interpreters have accepted the doctrine of the “death of the author.”  There are several related but subtly different notions—the “intentional fallacy,” or the “personal heresy,” for example—that all converge on roughly the same idea: the artist’s intentions, desires, personal history and so on are irrelevant to the meaning of the work, and hence access to the author (and his or her intentions or desires in creating the artwork) is not merely unnecessary, but is in fact a distraction to be avoided.

GK Chesterton wrote:

"The function of criticism, if it has a legitimate function at all, can only be one function—that of dealing with the subconscious part of the author’s mind which only the critic can express, and not with the conscious part of the author’s mind, which the author itself can express.  Either criticism is no good at all (a very defensible position) or else criticism means saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots."  (Appreciations and Criticisms of Charles Dickens, 272)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Rockwell was a New York City boy, you know

We generally think of Rockwell as a small town artist, but in fact, he's from New York City.  Manhattan-born in 1894.  His family used to escape the city when they could, taking little trips to stay with nearby farmers in the summer, taking weekend rides to the country at the end of the train lines, and so on.  And Rockwell always preferred the countryside to the city.

But he stayed near New York City for a long time.  His parents moved out of the city, first to Long Island, and later to New Rochelle (after an interval back in the city).  Rockwell lived in New Rochelle until 1938--well into his forties.  Then on to Vermont, and ultimately to Stockbridge, Mass.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

I wouldn't call this "copying"

In the "old and minor critical comments about Rockwell" department, here's a little blurb on Rockwell's "photo realism," prompted by Ron Schick's fine book about Rockwell:

Norman Rockwell’s rosy illustrations of small town American life looked so photographic because his method was to copy photographs that he conceived and meticulously directed, working with various photographers and using friends and neighbors as his models.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The World Turned Upside Down

GK Chesterton wrote, “We were talking about St. Peter.... [Y]ou remember that he was crucified upside down. I’ve often fancied his humility was rewarded by seeing in death the beautiful vision of his boyhood. He also saw the landscape as it really is: with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills, and all men hanging on the mercy of God.” (The Poet and the Lunatics, 14)  You might say that if Chesterton’s fancy (or that of his character Gabriel Syme’s) is correct, that St. Peter’s head-down crucifixion provided him with a proper vision of the world.  Call it a "fresh perspective," to borrow the title of Kralik's picture.  St. Peter saw all men hanging on the mercy of God—which is the way things actually are, even though he couldn’t see it before.  

JRR Tolkien called this freshness of perspective “recovery”:

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness and familiarity—from possessiveness.  (“On Fairy Stories,”146)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Rockwell as Illustrator: Painting "that which was to be expressed"

Norman Rockwell is closely connected to the Saturday Evening Post--so closely connected in the public mind that some people think he painted all the Post's covers during his time with them.  Of course, he did not: it was a weekly magazine!  But he painted many Post covers, and many of his best-loved images were painted for the Post.

Rockwell is also widely considered to be a kind of chronicler of classic ("nostalgic"!) small-town life, or of an idealized rural world.  His Rockwellian view of things presents cute, folksy, happy people doing cute, folksy things.  Happily.  And he denies the intrusion of the ugly or the sorrowful into this idealized world.

This latter view of Rockwell is just as erroneous as the former--the view that he painted all the Post's covers--even though they're both understandable errors in some sense.  And in a funny way, I think they're connected.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Roger Reed's Review

It seems I must write again about Deborah Solomon's deplorable book American Mirror.  Or, at any rate, I must write about someone writing about it.  In an earlier post, I noted that the book is an inexhaustible source of material subject to devastating objections.  That this is so is well demonstrated by Roger Reed's piece on Solomon in the Journal of Illustration.  (The piece itself is not freely available, so I won't bother to try to link it.  But it's worth tracking down or buying, if you're really keen on such matters.  It's "American fun-house mirror," in volume 1, issue 2, 2014, pp 321-332.)

Although I dislike having to write about Solomon, I'm very glad to be writing this post, because Reed's review, quite apart from its critical evaluation of Solomon, offers tremendously valuable insight into Rockwell himself.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Lift Up Thine Eyes" in the Blogosphere

My book and blog are named after a lesser-known Rockwell.  The painting has not been reproduced very often.  It was in a private collection, I believe, for many years.  And now it belongs to Brigham Young University.  Because the picture isn't all that well known, it's not talked about very much by Rockwell lovers.  So it's a delight to find a (somewhat) recent post about the picture on a very nice blog by Theresa, a Catholic homeschooling mom of five.  As it happens, I am married to a Catholic homeschooling mom of five (not Theresa).  So she and I have a fair bit in common.

Here's a little bit of what Theresa wrote:

"Rather than see this painting as a depressing commentary on the busyness, self-absorption, and distracted preoccupation of modern life, I actually find this image full of hope and encouragement.  Someone is about to look up.  Who will it be?  Which fortunate passerby will raise his eyes to the majesty of the church and be simultaneously overwhelmed and comforted by its immensity, its enormous presence?  Someone is about to realize the awesome presence of God in the midst of the busyness, in the midst of the crowd, in the midst of his very own simple, but significant, life.  That someone will continue walking down the street, but will not be lost to the drudgery.  Instead, he'll continue on transformed.  He will go about the same tasks, but now with his eyes fixed on that which sanctifies them - the holy presence of God in every bit, every tiny, seemingly insignificant corner, of our lives."

This take on the picture is remarkably similar to mine.  (I'll post more about my views later.)  But here are a couple of questions.  Did Rockwell intend the viewer to draw this kind of meaning from the picture?  If not, does that make it wrong to see the picture this way?

To the first question, I'd, I don't think so.  It's a little bit too spiritually-charged as Theresa puts it.  Rockwell does want us to appreciate the things around us, and I believe that ultimately this is connected to his belief in the Goodness of the Created world.  But I think Rockwell's view is not religious in itself.  He wants us to be grateful, and that's a profound basis upon which to arise to an explicitly religious appreciation for things.  But I am not sure he quite got to that point himself.  You'll have to decide, when I get around to posting more clearly about my own views, if the distinction I'm hastily drawing here really holds up.

To the second question, I'd also say no, at least not in this case.  Even if Theresa is taking the picture a bit more spiritually than it was intended, she's doing nothing to violate the obvious sense of the picture.  Adding a bit of specificity that the painter might not have intended is no abuse.  Theresa has produced a lovely meditation on a beautiful and inspiring painting.