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.

Reed is far more positively inclined towards the book than I am.  He writes, for example, "...the book counts as an essential text..." (322)  And he spends nearly a full page (329) making valiant attempts to find some places where Solomon delivered real insights, or dug up new and worthwhile information.  I have declared the book to be "without merit," and so haven't troubled myself with such efforts.  That said, I don't disagree with the claim that it is an essential text, given the proper context.  It's probably something any scholar working on Rockwell will have to deal with.  But anyone not professionally obligated to read it, really just shouldn't.

For all his praiseworthy efforts to find some good in the book, Reed's overall judgment remains strongly negative.  The opening paragraph states that, "Unlike a normal biography, I find that on balance, this book obscures, rather than illuminates, Rockwell's life and art."  (321)  And Reed notes that Solomon's allegations of pedophilia probably amount to defamation.  (324)  Here, Reed more or less joins the growing chorus.

His review is noteworthy not so much because he sees through these baseless sexual claims, but because he takes a new approach--showing how Solomon abused Rockwell by ripping him out of his context as an illustrator and treating him as a "fine arts" man.  Reed draws useful distinctions that ought to be taken seriously by anyone thinking about Rockwell (or illustration, or art in general).  

"Solomon wants to treat Rockwell as a fine artist as opposed to an illustrator, and assumes that this elevates his status; she maintains the transition happened when Rockwell received his 'art-world hug', when his work filled 'the pristine spiral of the Guggenheim' in 2001....  Valuing illustration in the same manner as gallery art is valued implies gallery art's privileged properties are superior to illustration's unique features, which leaves those features marginalized."  (325)

So Solomon wants to raise Rockwell's status, and the way she does this is to treat him as a Real Artist and not a mere illustrator.  But he was an illustrator, and if we are going to properly appreciate him, we ought to see him as such.  

"Vitally, we ought to be talking not about art-for-art's-sake, but about art for publication's sake.  A different purpose calls for different means, and illustration has inherited and developed its own toolbox of traditional signs and techniques, methods and solutions to picture problems....  What is wrong with adding Rockwell's illustration to the fine-art canon is that it is just the same as electing a great figure skater into the Hockey Hall of Fame."  (325-6)

I think there's a lot to be said for this kind of view, and I would in fact agree that in many ways, it is a mistake to group, say, Fra Angelico with, say, Whistler, as though these two men were engaged in basically the same activity when they painted.  They clearly were not.  (I hope to post something sometime about Ananda Coomaraswamy, whose writings on art have been formative for me, along these lines.)  

But Reed's claim does strike me as too strong.  Let the work be evaluated on its own terms--yes!  But still, the analogy of the figure skater being inducted into the hockey hall of fame is not appropriate.  Hockey is a clearly defined sport with rules that determine what is, and what is not, a hockey game.  Figure skating, likewise, is a clearly defined sport.  Nobody engaged in figure skating is engaged in hockey, and vice versa.  One cannot say the same of illustration and "fine art."  We just don't have the kind of clear lines of demarcation here.

A figure skater simply cannot be making a great hockey play at the same time he is executing a figure skating maneuver.  But an illustrator might, in fact, be making fine art at the same time he is making an illustration.  Fra Angelico was not an illustrator (at least, not in the modern sense), but he was also not an art-for-art's-sake fine art painter.  Yet in doing whatever it was that he meant to do, he simultaneously created great art.  I think the same is true of Rockwell.

(There is a complicated connecting point here, that I hope to write about in a future post: Reed puts Solomon in the "death-of-the-author" camp of art criticism, based on something she said in an interview, and thinks that this "fine arts" approach to studying Rockwell's work--which is not "fine art" and hence shouldn't be subjected to the same kind of criticism--has led Solomon astray.  I disagree with this for a few reasons, but as I say, it gets tricky and this post will already be pretty long.  So for now I have to ignore the issue even though it's an important element in Reed's review.)

Rockwell's own accounts of himself varied: sometimes he was careful to call himself "only" an illustrator.  Other times, he laid claim to being a genre painter.  But whatever the label, he always wanted to tell a story in his work.  That was always what he was up to when he painted.  (Almost always, anyway: the most significant exceptions I can think of here are his portraits.  But even there, there's often a story in the face.)  It didn't matter if he was making a magazine cover--where the story was his own--or an illustration for someone else's story, or even a straight advertising image.  He always found a way to tell a story.  I wrote a little while ago about one of Rockwell's advertising images.  Rockwell was no doubt prompted to make this picture because he was offered a contract by the Western Cartridge Company.  But once he'd taken the job, he clearly poured himself into it, and found a way to make the image tell a story.  Is that fine art, or illustration, or something else?  I wouldn't want to judge.  But I wouldn't want to put up walls here, either.

That said, Reed's point is crucially important.  We do Rockwell no favors by pretending he was trying to do the same kind of thing as Picasso--they were both "fine arts men"--and assuming that this is what raises Rockwell out of the muck of the world of illustration.  The world of illustration is not shameful or mucky, and Rockwell, who deliberately chose to live in it, doesn't need to be pulled out of it by us.  Reed points out that the work of understanding Rockwell specifically as an illustrator remains to be done.  Solomon has simply not attempted the task--but neither have better writers about Rockwell, really.  Reed makes a nice start in pointing out some of the directions such a study could go in.  

The review ends noting that such a book needs to be written.  It won't be written by me, since my approach is quite different.  But I would sure love to read it when it comes out.  I'd suggest Roger Reed as its author!

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