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.

So the short answer to my opening question is: yes, sort of.  I don’t think Rockwell considered early on that the Post might have had any kind of social impact, and I don’t know whether, early on in his career, he would have found its influence pernicious had he been aware of any.  But by the later stages of his time with the Post, he might well have observed this flattening of our cultures.  The Post wasn’t alone, and was probably not the most influential cause of this.  But it played a part.  And at least occasionally, you can see a hint that Rockwell felt it.  I mean, at least occasionally, things showed up in his paintings that appear to me to indicate a real concern with what the Post was doing.

 Rockwell paints a young college woman holding a copy of the Post.  The magazine covers the woman’s face.  Not to worry.  In place of her face, there’s a glamorous woman’s face on the cover of the Post.  The young woman has been swallowed up by the magazine—replaced by the cover model.  The Post cover announces its circulation of over 3,300,000 (though that can be seen only in the published version).  You will be assimilated.

This is a playful picture (and notice that Rockwell signed the canvas and gave it to Walt Disney!), and can certainly just be enjoyed at that level.  But the faceless girl, turned into another person through the intervention of the Post, can also be seen as a pretty disturbing phenomenon.  The mass media steals her individuality, and turns her into a copy of the covergirl.

You might think of this as a kind of scary version of “Girl at Mirror,” if you take that latter picture at simple face value: the young girl is somehow striving to be like the movie star—the major, national figure.  If she aims too hard at this, she can be swallowed up by it, as the faceless girl shows.

In my post about the death of the author, I quoted Chesterton's claim that the function of the art critic is to tell the artist things about his work that would make him jump out of his boots.  Perhaps this is such a case.  Perhaps, I mean, Rockwell was to some extent aware that he and the Post were at odds--that his small, local vision of things was irreducibly opposed to the Post's commitment to the cult of the large.  And perhaps that awareness crept out in pictures like this without Rockwell's conscious intention to put it there.  Be that as it may, it's hard not to see something a bit disturbing in this image.

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