Last week, I finally visited the temporary Rockwell exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum: “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.” You may look at some online images of the works shown, though pictures of pictures never do the originals justice. Among the collection were two versions of “Happy Birthday, Miss Jones.” Lucas and Spielberg both owned a copy, one the sketch and one the painting, though I forget who owned which.
I have always enjoyed Rockwell’s work, and I have a devotional attachment to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Therefore, I appreciated the exhibit immensely on many levels. Not only did I get to see some of Rockwell’s paintings and drawings up close, but I also venerated contact relics of popular culture’s hallowed saints. It was especially interesting to me to see which man owned which works, and some of the informative descriptions for the paintings contained commentary by Lucas or Spielberg about the works. I liked learning a bit more about these movie and myth makers through their love of Rockwell.
I visited Thomas Jefferson’s library at the Library of Congress last week. Jefferson’s collection reconstituted the Library of Congress after the British destroyed the original collection in the War of 1812. Looking at the tomes, I felt as though I was surveying the intellectual world in which Jefferson thought and worked. To see a man’s books is to see his soul. I think that something similar may be said of one’s art collection. I am thus thankful for Lucas and Spielberg’s generosity in sharing some of their Rockwell collection. To offer the public these works is to offer the public themselves in a significant way.
The exhibit also contained a short documentary that features interviews of Lucas and Spielberg about Rockwell and his works. Lucas and Spielberg stress Rockwell’s cinematic brilliance as a story teller, even though he only did drawings and paintings. Nonetheless, both men agree that they relate to Rockwell as directors and as story tellers. They also offer comments about Rockwell’s other qualities, and I certainly agree with their assessment of Rockwell as portraying for Americans their values and ideals—even in “lowly” commercial advertisements and magazine covers.
Much of the press coverage of the Rockwell exhibit deals with the resuscitation of Rockwell’s reputation as an artist. During those hideous years in the mid twentieth century, the establishment was not kind to Rockwell, which dismissed his work as fodder for the ignorant and vulgar masses; he was for them the Thomas Kinkade of the post war generation. Transgressive art was the way of the progressive, future man. Rockwell was stuck depicting silly people engaged in ordinary life. How bourgeois.
Fortunately, more and more Americans are growing beyond the childish rejection of beauty, form, and goodness in the arts. People now commonly value older architectural, musical, and visual artistic works, having suffered enough the nihilistic pretensions of the past few generations. Thank goodness. Nature will have her way, and man by nature loves the beautiful, Mencken’s commentary about Americans’ tastes notwithstanding. Man also loves the good, and he finds such good in the best of his social order. Not all art has to be that of social criticism and protest. Euripides was an unlikeable fellow, genius though he was, and the West has long had far too many unworthy Euripides’ posing as Socrates with a jarring aesthetic. In addition to the scornful chastiser from on high—the artist as angry prophet and revealer of society’s faults—a nation needs artists who incarnate in their works the beauty, love, and insight of their own civilization. The art of the last century, like the intellectual movements that defined it, was strong on hatred and rejection and weak on love and celebration.
Rockwell stood out from this nihilism and despair. He fulflled the ancient role of the artist as servant of the people who manifested in his works the greatness of his people. To see his work is to see ordinary Americans at their best. It is to recognize the goodness of life and to smile at the little, quirky absurdities of society and of common living. We do not need a scathing critic in order to laugh a little at ourselves. We always laugh at ourselves. To be human is to be a wee bit ridiculous—and to be aware of it. Nonetheless, or, rather, as such, we are full of life and thus of loveable goodness. One who cannot see the divine splendor even in banal, domestic settings suffers from demonic blindness. Rockwell had no such defect. Like all good artists, he saw the beauty in the world and reflected it in his images with wit, delight, mercy, love, and a profound sense of humanity.