Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Rockwell and the Gun Culture revisited

The standard-issue view on Norman Rockwell is that he painted nostalgic scenes of the countryside—scenes of an America that never really existed.  But here’s one thing that’s not often noticed about Rockwell’s pictures: they contain an awful lot of firearms.  In a recent piece in The Federalist, I called Rockwell as the artist of the American “gun culture.”  

But which gun culture?

It’s now widely held that there are two gun cultures.  (Some say three, distinguishing the criminal gun culture from the law abiding gun cultures.  That’s worth noting, but having noted it, I’ll now ignore it.)  Gun culture 1.0 is the traditional, masculine, hunting/military/police gun culture.  Think of Atticus giving Jem his air rifle.  Actually, Atticus gives Scout an air rifle, too, but that’s a bit unusual in the world of gun culture 1.0.

Gun culture 2.0 is less masculine—still plenty of men in it, of course, but also a large and rapidly expanding group of women—and more devoted to self-defense and competitive “defensive” shooting sports.  It’s connected to the world of concealed carry, but also to things like AR-15’s with suppressors and other neat gadgets like that.  My WFU colleague David Yamane writes about GC2.0.  (I wrote about him before, sort of.)

The bulk of Rockwell’s gun pictures of guns are straightforwardly GC1.0.  Let me lay out some numbers.  Of the nearly 4000 images in the Definitive Catalogue of Rockwell’s works, approximately 96 include guns.  62 of these pictures are “historical.”  They’re images of the American frontier, or of colonial America, or even, occasionally, of pirates and such.  34 were images of times contemporary to when they were made.  Half of the contemporary pictures are military, which is unsurprising, given that Rockwell worked through four wars.  Four are hunting pictures, and six are police images.  The remainder are a variety of things.  Of all these pictures, I saw only one that put a gun in a woman’s hand, a Peter Rockwell bronze I discuss in the Federalist piece.

The rest of Rockwell’s gun wielders are men or boys, and all the other images (save one) are military/police/hunting-related.  This all places him pretty squarely in GC1.0.  But there’s one image that crosses over: an advertising image for Edison Mazda.  I talked about this one, too, in The Federalist, but I'll go ahead and reproduce it here as well.

He’s well-armed with both revolver and light, as he comes downstairs in the middle of the night, presumably to investigate some alarming noise.   In a GC2.0 version of this picture, the model might have been a woman rather than a man, and she might have been holding a Glock with a weapon-mounted light, rather than a revolver with a lamp.  But the idea is just the same.

And notice how Rockwell as a commercial artist, putting together a picture meant to help sell lamps, was forced by the nature of the story to use a handgun.  He couldn’t depict his model carrying a double barreled shotgun, as Joe Biden might have advised, because the shotgun is a firearm that takes two hands to run.  No hand left over for the lamp!  The handgun is perfectly suited to some jobs, and Rockwell discovered one here.

So, in this picture, Rockwell puts a gun to use in a way that has nothing to do with the police, or the military, or with hunting.  This is a self-defense use of a handgun by a private citizen.  As I point out in the Federalist, the thing that really stands out about it is that this was done as an advertisement for a major national company.  And it was simply taken in stride.  (Imagine such a thing today!   It's dark.  All is still.  Suddenly, a window breaks.  The homeowner awakes and retrieves a handgun from a bedside biometric safe, dials 911 and switches on the light.  As the lights come on, the criminals flee.  And we're told in the voiceover that our new LED lightbulbs are wonderfully reliable and bright.  Yeah, there's a commercial that'll never get made.)

This suggests that the division between GC1.0 and GC2.0 is rather fluid.  GC1.0 wasn’t made up of people who thought “guns are fine for hunting birds or deer, and cops and soldiers need them, but we don’t want ordinary citizens toting them around.”  Though there were certainly people with views like that out there (and still are)!  No, the members of GC1.0--many of them, anyway--could see the legitimate need for defensive handguns.  So, apparently, could Edison Mazda, who did not suppress this image or fire Rockwell for his insensitivity.

(People have commented on my Federalist piece that there are tons of guns in the US, and hence I can hardly say that guns aren’t mainstream here.  I think that is a manifest confusion.  There are plenty of people who are willing to put guns to use—think of Democrat politicians who always travel with armed guards, while incessantly calling for citizens to be stripped of their ability to carry handguns for self-defense—while nevertheless treating guns as some kind of shameful secret.  In some sense, in our attitude towards guns, we’re like a publicly puritanical nation of private alcoholics.  We have guns, but we don’t want to talk about them publicly.  A nation where the open demonization of gun owners goes on as it does here—again, often by people well protected by armed men, and I don’t mean our military or street cops, I mean a travelling entourage of gun toting guards—isn’t a nation where the gun culture is fully socially acceptable, let alone triumphant.)

I have argued before that we can’t reasonably place Rockwell into current controversies and try to figure out which “side” he’s on.  So nothing I’ve said here, or in the Federalist, should be construed as an argument that Rockwell, were he with us today, would be with the NRA, or any such thing.  I have no idea what he’d think about GC2.0, or Heller, or any other contemporary issue.  Neither do you.

But I do think we can say that his attitude towards guns is far healthier than our current dominant attitude.  He wasn't afraid of guns.  He saw them as tools to be used as needed, and enjoyed as appropriate.  Not as demonic beings.  Whether he would take the same position I do on gun control, I couldn't say.  But I can say that his kind of healthy attitude towards guns needs to come back to the fore, before we could hope to have any kind of rational discussion.  Along with the fear, the ignorance is painful to behold.

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