It turns out that Paul Simon wasn’t wrong. Everyone in this country has come to look for America, each in his or her own way.
The timing is up to you. After being raised by our public education system to view the nation as a benevolent father figure to whose symbols you must daily pledge allegiance, an aperture appears at some point for most thoughtful people. It might have been the day you saw one of your elementary school teachers smoking; it might have been the day you first saw a friend or family member get arrested; it might have been your first run-in with an abuse of authority, whether from an overweening gym teacher or a haughty bureaucrat. With each incident, that aperture grows. Your faith in the story you’ve been handed dwindles, and you’re responsible for finding your own replacement.
I began looking for America at sixteen, which seems to me the right age to start. It’s enough for some people to count cars on the New Jersey Turnpike; I was looking for an America with amber hair and a mysterious smile ripe with promise. This is one of the last frontiers we have as Americans, but it was one of the first, as well.
You might look for America as a clean, well-lighted place of quiet constancy. On the other hand, being unable to find your ideal America may fuel your easy cynicism. This romance, unique to each of us in this country, is a lucid dream uniting a diverse nation more individualistic by nature and by creed than any other. It is an American Brigadoon, in which we hope to stumble upon an answer only to watch it recede in the dissolution of our memory.
It’s this search for America that will bring people, often for entirely different reasons, in droves to perhaps the biggest art show this year in Alabama: Norman Rockwell’s America, a rare ticketed exhibition at the Birmingham Museum of Art premiering on Friday, September 14 before opening to the public the following Sunday.
Not that Rockwell needs symbolic resonance to appeal to people. As Ned Rifkin, former director of Atlanta’s High Museum, once said of Rockwell, “Whether [he] is an artist or a great artist is immaterial…he is a force.” He was inarguably the most popular American artist of the last century, as well as the most commercially successful. His technical ability as an illustrator was peerless, as his Saturday Evening Post covers—all of which will be on display at the BMA during this exhibition—amply demonstrate. But the BMA’s Curator of American Art Graham Boettcher is careful to note that Rockwell was also a “highly skilled and extremely versatile painter,” deeply influenced by masters old and new alike from Rembrandt to Repin.
Perhaps the most consistently striking feature of Rockwell’s work is that each of his illustrations and paintings conveys a story. It might be obvious, blazing in a neon sign or a newspaper headline. It might be subtle, in the slumped shoulders of a weary GI returning home or in the quiet dignity of a man’s stoic face. Regardless, the secret to Rockwell’s enduring popularity is that you don’t need a refined artistic eye to understand him, the way you do to tell the difference between countless Renaissance Madonnas. You just need a heart that doesn’t recoil from humanity (and yes, sentimentality).
“The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be,” wrote Rockwell in his 1960 autobiography. Life as Rockwell would like it to be became the foremost expression of middle-class white America’s vision of itself in the 1950s. As cultural critic Clement Greenberg noted in his famous essay “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” Rockwell didn’t merely represent middlebrow taste in America; with each new work, he reinvented it.
It was a personal ideal for Rockwell as well as an American one. Having grown up awkward and unpopular in inner-city New York, Rockwell pined for the rustic New England ideal of small-town values. His portraits of a simpler time, made all the more real by his keen eye for the detail of modern fashions, were the truest sentimental nostalgia: fond memories of experiences he only imagined. It should come as no surprise that the audiences who pined for this Mayberry of the soul—tranquil, patient and decent—during Rockwell’s lifetime, were no different than the majority of those likely to attend Norman Rockwell’s America. Like them, Rockwell spent his career looking for America.
Inside the community of art critics, however, exhibitions of Rockwell’s work are as controversial as modern art iconoclasms like Andres Serrano’s infamous Piss Christ are outside of it. A cursory JSTOR search will show not one, but two poems—one of which is even entitled “On the Capitulation of Critics to the Cult of Rockwell”—decrying the “painter of Pork.” In the tradition of Clement Greenberg, Rockwell represents for the avant-garde community the worst depredations of insipid, harmless bourgeois taste, perhaps second only to recently deceased “Painter of Light” (and Rockwell disciple) Thomas Kinkade.
It’s less Rockwell’s body of work that so rankles this artistic community than what he appears to say about American society. Rockwell’s ideal vision was hardly all-inclusive; it was a basically white, middle-class vision of American perfection. His pastoral idylls were not universal. There is no sense of grave consequences for the privilege Rockwell’s subjects enjoy. The very rare occurrence of a person of color in Rockwell’s work is pushed off to the background, often in some degree of caricature–or so the critics claim.
Yet Rockwell’s reputation could not be farther from the truth. It wasn’t simply that Rockwell never met a punch he wasn’t willing to pull. He was deeply progressive at heart, especially when it came to issues of race; his letters to civil rights activists and integrating Greek organizations overwhelmingly indicate his liberal conscience. While at the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s editor George Horace Lorimer—a “very liberal man,” in Rockwell’s estimation—commanded Rockwell never to depict African-Americans as anything other than servants out of practical considerations, and rejected multiple egalitarian covers Rockwell proposed.
A more fascinating dilemma undergirded Rockwell’s struggles depicting issues of race. He had indeed become a force, an unstoppable engine of nostalgic ideals. But where he had depicted touchy issues such as wartime trauma delicately in paintings like The Homecoming G.I., Rockwell struggled to replicate the same subtlety with race despite his good intentions. Though one of his most enduring images hails from his so-called “black period”—the rightly hailed The Problem We All Live With, depicting little Ruby Bridges’ first day of integration in a New Orleans school—Rockwell often overreached in his allegories.
The most famous is probably Blood Brothers from 1968, which depicts two fallen soldiers— one black, one white—staring glassily into the ether as their blood intermingles on the ground. The lesson is obvious: whatever our surface differences, we’re all united by blood in the same brotherhood of man. But when Rockwell’s editor at Look magazine, himself a black man, suggested that his message was patronizing, the artist was deeply shaken. Rockwell’s shock derived less from the criticism than from his own inability to understand it; he felt he simply couldn’t comprehend where he had veered into condescension.
The effortless juggling of insight and gentleness that characterized his work with the Post simply couldn’t translate once Rockwell branched out from his own experiences. In his element, the artist was a juggernaut of New Deal faith; the race issue required a far greater subtlety and level of personal understanding than he could ever become comfortable with. He had traded the dreams that had served him so well as guideposts in his search for America for the very real prospect of violence, prejudice and invisibility that confronted black America. He had traded the illusion of the past for the truth of the present, only to find that this was not his romance to borrow.
Norman Rockwell’s America will yield different answers to the many different people who come looking for them. On the one hand, his illustrations and paintings will reveal a pristine image of America at its most idyllic, presented by a master of uncommon skill and grace. On the other, his art will show a world many will feel excludes them for no reason other than the color of their skin, and will take it as evidence of prejudice.
More important, though, are the questions the exhibit will raise. Ultimately, even the great artist—the force—had no answers. He, too, was just looking for America, the same as the rest of us. As we continue our unique journeys, it’s Rockwell’s questions, not his answers, which should move us to understand one another. In the presence of heaven, it’s the cracks in the firmament where we find our common humanity. In frailty, in the in-between spaces, we can try answering those questions that escaped Rockwell with clear hearts. And even in a town as haunted as Birmingham, we can communicate and—if only for a fleeting moment—find an America to call our own.
Norman Rockwell’s America premieres on Friday, September 14 with a sneak peek, lecture, and dinner party from 6-10 p.m. The event is free for BMA members and $25 for non-members. The exhibit opens to the general public on Sunday, September 16 and will conclude January 6. General admission will be $15. For more information, call (205) 254-2565 or visit artsbma.org.