Monday, August 8, 2016

Rockwell's Chickens

A few years ago, Gene Logsdon had this to say about the rise of the backyard chicken:

Chickens are winning over the world again, as they have always done throughout so-called civilization because they are such a cheap and easy source of good food. So handily can they produce eggs and meat on a very small scale that it is difficult to make them profitable as a commercial venture.  If you raise the price to a commercially profitable level, more people will just get their own hens. The egg factories keep out of the red only by not paying the full environmental cost of their operations, by resorting to constant expansion in a vain effort to keep down the per unit cost of production, and by taking advantage of generous direct and indirect subsidies. Small commercial flock producers make a go of it only when they can charge more for their product than the going rate. The only really profitable way to produce eggs and fried chicken is to do it on a very small, not-for-profit scale. The hen is a distributist. Distributism is an economic philosophy that gained much attention a century ago and is now drawing attention again. It champions the decentralization of the means of production into small, privately owned enterprises, not owned or run by the state or private wealthy oligarchs. It is neither capitalistic nor socialistic. It is chickenistic.

I've seen Logsdon mention Distributism favorably in at least one other place.  I don't know if he considered himself to be a Distributist, but he couldn't have been super far off.  If you're not familiar with Distributism, you can find some basics here, and you can find some pretty wide-ranging discussions here.  For the practically-minded, there's a new political party called the American Solidarity Party where a Distributist might feel more or less at home.

I like to think of Rockwell as a Distributist artist, though that's a bit of a stretch.  And as I've pointed out in various places (such as here), you can find some real tensions in Rockwell's work, where his instinct for the properly human-scale is somewhat swamped by other factors.  But Logsdon's chickenistic claim finally prompted me to do something I've been meaning to do for awhile--namely, look for chickens in Rockwell's work.

I had formed the belief that chickens are pervasive--that they show up all over the place.  But having now looked pretty carefully through the Definitive Catalog, I can say that I was wrong.  Chickens are pretty scarce.  In fact, the two pictures I mentioned in this post on Logsdon are two of the only really significant Rockwell pictures that feature chickens.  Now, I think I know at least part of the reason I came to form the belief that chickens were everywhere in Rockwell's work.  Part of the basis for the belief was that he kind of half implied so himself.  In his autobiography, he talks about the difficulties of painting chickens, explaining some techniques he used, as though he put them to use pretty commonly.  "It's very strenuous painting a chicken, what with rocking him, placing him, running behind the easel, and rapping with the stick," he writes.  (My Adventures as an Illustrator, 95)  To me, it just kind of sounded like it was something he did pretty often.  Though I must admit, going back through the passage, he actually prefaces it by saying "Occasionally, I'd need some other kind of animal..." and then talks about ducks, chickens and a turkey.  Occasionally.  I must have missed that.

So here I am, making the same mistake I so often accuse other Rockwell critics of (like here or here): forming a half-baked opinion about Rockwell's art based on thoroughly inadequate evidence.  It's pretty easy to do, apparently.  I wonder how much of my mistake was based on the problem I address in that second link just above: did I think that because his art was "Rockwellian," (read: nostalgic, pastoral, barnyard cutesy) that there must have been plenty of chickens running around?  Not consciously.  But I expect something like that was going on somewhere.  It's hard to really be docile to the art.

One upshot of all this is that if you like chickens and Rockwell's art, you won't find the one in the other, so you'll have to get some in real life.  Gene Logsdon would approve.  I think Rockwell would, too.

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