Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Rockwellian farmer

Norman Rockwell was a city boy, but he always loved and indeed idealized the countryside.  He did not idealize the wilderness, like so many of America's environmentalists have.  No, he idealized the country, in the sense of the farmed world.

For all his love of the farmed world, though, he surely didn't paint an awful lot of farmers.  At least, not as farmers.  There are remarkably few pictures of people doing any farming.  This one above--a Post cover from 1923--comes pretty close.  The farmer is pausing to move a baby bird he came across as he cut hay with his scythe.  We might assume that, right at this very second, he's not farming: it might appear that at this very second, he's taking a break from farming.  But I think that's a mistake.  Caring for and appreciating the wildlife that helps you steward your land is a part of farming.  Or it has been, and should be.  A farmer sitting on a giant tractor isn't going to see the little bird.  He'll just chop it to bits and never know it.  Along with fawns, turtles, snakes, or any number of other little critters.  But that's not farming at its best--what this fellow is doing is.

Anyway, apart from this scythe, just about the only farm implement that shows up in any Rockwell work is an ox-drawn plow in a Peace Corps picture.

There are occasional hoes and such things.  One that shows up on a Post cover is in the hands of a napping boy.  Another shows up in the grip of a man wearing a jacket and tie, eagerly calling to (I imagine) his wife as he notices the first daffodil of the season.  In other words, while the man is a happy gardener, he's no farmer.  I cannot find a single tractor anywhere in any Rockwell work--which is odd, considering he painted all through the time that the tractor arrived on the farm and took over.

The paintings that come closest to really showing farmers at work are the images for the County Agricultural Agent story that Rockwell worked on for the Post.  I talked about one of those pictures here.  But the real subject of these pictures is the agent, not the farmers.

In fact, Rockwell painted many, many rural scenes, but the vast majority of them were not related to the work of farming at all.  It seems like half of them are fishing scenes.  I probably exaggerate.  But still, there's a lot of fishing going on in Rockwell's countryside.  On the other hand, the suburban and urban images don't tend to focus very much on people doing their jobs, either.  There are plenty of exceptions.  But even the people depicted "doing their jobs" are often actually doing something else.  There are nearly as many lunch breaks, for example, in Rockwell's urban scenes as there are "gone fishing" moments in his rural scenes.

And then there are the very many distracted workers.  On the job rather than on a break, but not, shall we say, fully attentive to the work at hand.

Three workers, only one actually engaged in his work.  And not the one we're invited to like.

So I stick to my point here: we don't see a lot of workers actually engaged in their work in Rockwell's pictures.  Actually, the one person we get to see at work an awful lot in Rockwell's paintings is Norman Rockwell (along with other painters).

Rockwell was by all accounts a workaholic.  In his studio all day, every day, including Christmas.  It's not that he himself didn't love his work.  He just somehow doesn't seem to have been gifted at depicting others deeply engaged in their work.  I'm not saying he never does it.  I'm just saying it doesn't happen all that often.

To some extent, his shyness of showing workers at their work smacks of a trait noticed by Orwell in Charles Dickens.  Orwell wrote:

And here one comes upon something which really is an enormous deficiency in Dickens, something that really does make the nineteenth century seem remote from us--that he has no idea of work.  With the doubtful exception of David Copperfield (merely Dickens himself), one cannot point to a single one of his central characters who is primarily interested in his job.  His heroes work in order to make a living and to marry the heroine, not because they feel a passionate interest in one particular subject. Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance, is not burning with zeal to be an architect; he might just as well be a doctor or a barrister.  In any case, in the typical Dickens novel, the deus ex machina enters with a bag of gold in the last chapter and the hero is absolved from further struggle.  The feeling, "This is what I came into the world to do.  Everything else is uninteresting.  I will do this even if it means starvation," which turns men of differing temperaments into scientists, inventors, artists, priests, explorers and revolutionaries--this motif is almost entirely absent from Dickens's books.  He himself, as is well known, worked like a slave and believed in his work as few novelists have ever done.  But there seems to be no calling except novel-writing (and perhaps acting) towards which he can imagine this kind of devotion.  (All Art is Propaganda, "Charles Dickens.")

I don't know if this is quite fair to Dickens.  I think it might be that Orwell's snobbishness blinds him to some characters who do indeed seem quite devoted to their work.  Just for example, think of Sam Weller, who devotes himself singlemindedly to his work as Mr. Pickwick's servant.  (Not an exalted enough field to be noticed by Orwell?)  But Dickens is not my subject here.

To a great extent, you could rewrite that paragraph substituting "Rockwell" for "Dickens" and "painting" for "writing," and it would come out true.  But I don't know if the 19th century is different from the 20th or 21st in the sense that matters here.  What Orwell is apparently saying in his temporal reference is that in Dickens's time, it was understandable for a person to not be able to grasp the importance of work, but in our time, it no longer is.  I don't see this at all.  For the occasional person like Dickens or Rockwell or Orwell (all artists), there is clearly the kind of deep devotion to one's vocation that Orwell praises.  But for most workers, there is not.  This was the case in the 19th century, and it's the case now.  Call it alienation if you like.  Here's what Ananda Coomaraswamy had to say about it:

We need hardly say that from the traditional point of view [ed. that is, from the view of the traditional east, as well as the traditional west] there could hardly be found a stronger condemnation of the present social order than in the fact that the man at work is no longer doing what he likes best, but rather what he must, and in the general belief that a man can only be really happy when he "gets away" and is at play.  For even if we mean by "happy" to enjoy the "higher things in life," it is a cruel error to pretend that this can be done at leisure if it has not been done at work.  For 'the man devoted to his own vocation finds perfection.... That man whose prayer and praise of God are in the doing of his own work perfects himself.'  It is this way of life that our civilisation denies to the vast majority of men, and in this respect that it is notably inferior to even the most primitive or savage societies with which is can be contrasted.  (Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, chapter 2)

Or as EF Schumacher wrote,

That soul-destroying, meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic work is an insult to human nature which must necessarily and inevitably produce either escapism or aggression, and that no amount of "bread and circuses" can compensate for the damage done--these are facts which are neither denied nor acknowledged but are met with an unbreakable conspiracy of silence--because to deny them would be too obviously absurd and to acknowledge them would condemn the central preoccupation of modern society as a crime against humanity.  (Small is Beautiful, chapter 2)

How could Rockwell lovingly depict work that is so alienating?  He understood his own work well enough to depict it as fully engaging of himself as a whole man.  But perhaps he could see that so very many other jobs weren't likely to be so engaging.  It's not that washing windows is something shameful or undignified for a person: it's good honest work.  But is it what anyone really likes best?  Isn't it meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic?  (Not that the person doing it is moronic--the work itself is moronic.  It calls for no creative contribution from the worker, no really personal contribution.  It could, without any loss to anyone, given the proper technology, easily be done by a machine.)

The farmer we started out this post with, however, is not doing such work.  True, the cutting of hay itself was traditionally one of the biggest farm jobs.  Not generally done in isolation, though, as farmers would come together to help one another with the haying.  But I mean the farming considered as a whole.  Farming, considered as a whole--traditional, diversified, peasant farming--is indeed a work that engages the whole person.

It's commonplace for defenders of industrial farming to talk scornfully about claims like this, brushing them off with the claim that traditional farming was backbreaking work.  It's true that it involves a lot of hard work.  But as someone who really did receive a lifelong back injury working in a factory, I can tell you that hard physical work isn't limited to the farm.  I can also say that hard work, even "backbreaking" work, isn't necessarily a bad thing.  What's bad is soul-destroying, meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic work.  The peasant farmer's work isn't that.  I'm afraid a good part of industrial farming does, however, appear to be precisely that.  As above, that's hardly meant as a crack against the farmers.

I think that one reason Rockwell has such an ambivalent relationship to work--to other people's work, anyway--is that he lived, as we do, in a world where work had become so awful and alienating, and he could see this fact.  I don't believe he quite knew what to make of it.  In fact, I doubt he ever fully formulated the thought.  But I think that occasionally, something of his sense of it breaks through in his work.

The farmer pausing in his work to appreciate the little bird--he's not rushed, he's not harried, he's not stressed, he's not "busy" (even though he's no doubt got a large field to cut, by hand), he's able to pause and simply enjoy and appreciate nature and nature's God.  This is part of his work as caretaker for the land and its creatures.

And the upshot of all this is that Rockwell's vision of agriculture is a Distributist vision.  Since this is a blog post and not a philosophy paper, I'll leave the argument there.

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