Few people could point to a more renowned American artist than Norman Rockwell. His works stretch across the 20th century highlighting the ideals of contemporary America. Exploring the themes of masculine virtues, literature, Presidents, Civil Rights, American liberties, and Space Exploration. Rockwell’s brush has told the story with vividity, solemnity, and most importantly, accessibility. His works can be understood and felt by everyone from illiterate farmhands to Billionaires completely detached from the lives of common men. They could easily be regarded as secular icons of 20th-century America. As of today, Americans have become almost entirely detached from his art beyond the occasional Baby Boomer looking at them with a sense of longing and nostalgia.
Rockwell and His Art
Rockwell’s background could best be described as a proper American Yankee. Tracing lineage from some of the founding stock of Colonial America to where he lived and worked in New York and New England. He was from the “lost” generation of WW1 and he served as an illustrator during that time. His paintings may currently be associated with out-of-touch Baby Boomers, but he was speaking from a much older American vision born before their time.
He spoke to a broad audience with his work. During his whole career, he illustrated images for the Boy Scouts of America: displaying virtues for young men to emulate and traditions to follow in Boy’s Life magazine (I grew up with these as a Boy Scout myself and remember several having an impact on me). He contributed to the Second World War with some of his most famous works like the “Four Freedoms” illustrations that depicted critical values to distinguish American legitimacy in the war (the Freedom of Speech painting is something that made the rounds very recently on Social Media to show its lasting impact). Rockwell’s view on Civil Rights can be best envisioned with his work The Problem We All Live With that is echoed commonly to this day on both the left and the right (in 2017, a controversial illustration by a right-wing cartoonist used the imagery to compare it to Betsy Devos’ confirmation to run the Department of Education). He even inspired the optimistic future of America conquering the stars with From the Earth to the Moon.
Rockwell’s work has been described as kitsch, even by his contemporaries. These illustrations are incredibly idealistic, and I believe it’s the broad audience appeal also lends to the kitschy reputation. While very colorful, the color itself is so rich that it makes the images seem too warm, too cozy, and too comfortable. Many of the illustrations show very personal moments for the characters depicted, but in some of the most convenient ways, as if to capture the figure’s most idealistically heroic appearance possible (such as the blue-collar worker standing up to speak his mind in Freedom of Speech). While others come off as straight-up propaganda pieces such as From the Earth to the Moon as the members of NASA look to the stars in something that echoes a Soviet Propaganda work of Engels, Lenin, Marx, and Stalin looking leftwards.
Despite this, the works are still iconic. They still speak very powerfully to contemporary America. The rich colors and heroic private moments are supposed to be that way. They are meant to communicate an ideal. His art is not there to challenge you in a transcendent spiritual way for all time. It is meant to inspire you to be the best American that America could ask for in the 20th century! When American youth started losing touch with their roots as they became more accustomed to urban living as opposed to the hardier rural lifestyles, the Boy Scouts of America arrived (shortly after it started in Britain). Not only did this organization teach simple material and survival skills, but they also provided important masculine lessons for boys, teaching them to be men, citizens, patriots, and Americans. Boy’s Life illustrations stressed this through works such as his illustrations for the different virtues in the Scout’s Law, but also work such as Our Heritage to help fuel the ongoing ethnogenesis of Americans in the early 20th century. The most overwhelmingly obvious one is his Rosie the Riveter, unironic propaganda work to get women to work in factories for the war effort. He never really regarded himself as a high artist; making illustrations for the people that paid him to do it for the most part. So it is pretty clear that the American Government and the Boy Scouts of America would be looking for particularly inspiring work for their institutions.
This in part leaves Rockwell’s work as what could be best described as a court artisan for America. He never really broke ranks with the zeitgeist of America. For instance, he broke his relationship with The Saturday Morning Post to be more outspoken on the American Civil Rights movement in the 60s. Which is when he made one of the most striking images of the Civil Rights era, The Problem We All Live With. This is probably one of the more interesting pieces of his because it also breaks from his style the most. Abandoning his heroic images of discovery, ambition, and tradition with bold colors. It is instead much more muted, almost desaturated, with figures that seem nearly defeated walking with slurs and trash on the walls in the background. As the court artisan of America, this was exactly what was wanted; instead of showing a noble future, it instead shows a desperate problem needing to be solved. This is an excellent example of how Rockwell could communicate to any American of the 20th century, because he was making art for the most popular movements of that era.
Regardless of his success in riding the wave of American pop culture, the contemporary character of Rockwell’s work rings hollow today. The only people that still honestly resonate with it are those that lived during its heyday, Baby Boomers. Who even then, were detached from much of his work as their experience with Rockwell would have been well into the later years of his life and works.
His Boy’s Life illustrations may still be interesting; I liked them as a millennial growing up. However, a great deal of what was being communicated would be lost on a modern audience. The virtues of what it means to be an American man following the traditions of our grandfathers have become lost in a world that decries our grandfathers as evil and racist. Much of the masculine ideals that he pushed are similarly difficult to follow by a younger generation that is ever increasingly urbanized, cynical, and addicted to technology.
Rockwell’s Four Freedoms are ultimately a Ghost Dance of American politics. One can look a little further into the modern reimagining of them by the not-too-subtle criticisms that they imitated white and Christian imagery too much for progressive audiences. All the while the freedoms in question are hardly guaranteed in a neoliberal world order. Between the neurotic clutching of pearls at online speech, the celebration of dying Christianity in America, or the scorn at any imagery of traditional family relationships, it is hard to find this kind of vision of Freedom for American life in the 21st century to resonate. This is not to say that these themes are not used in the 21st century, but you can read the Smithsonian’s account on reimagining these works for the 21st century to understand why they don’t like Rockwell’s version of it. With that said, the reimagining of Rockwell at this point is good enough to say that his vision of America from before Civil Rights is effectively dead; prestigious American institutions can’t admit to even regarding the imagery of America he described as real, opting to recast it as more black, brown, queer, and non-Christian.
Probably the only thing that has lasted from Rockwell that can be respectable at all to modern America is The Problem We All Live With. The story being told by that image is still the same story being told today. It is still the same call for action as it was then. It is still the same lifeless, defeated image that we are expected to revere and atone for. Which frankly doesn’t leave us with a lot of options when trying to think of him communicating to the 21st century.
21st Century Reactionary’s Norman Rockwell
This is not to say that nothing can be salvaged for a reactionary vision of America. It is just that you would need to salvage it as opposed to commenting on Four Freedoms as if it was the ideal America to strive for. While it may not explicitly communicate with modern audiences, it could be something to inspire a new aesthetic vision using the cues that he was working with.
The Boy’s Life work is impressive for this purpose. There is a communication between the boomer vision for American youth that can be painfully seen in Our Heritage, and in the Carry On illustration. Where a young man, who has worked a lot to get to where he is, is being guided by an older man to see where he is going. The older man honestly doesn’t even look like he can make the journey to wherever their destination is, leaning on a staff and weakly pointing to their destination in what seems to be a desert. This kind of attitude of showing a more optimistic, but realistic struggle that younger Americans will have to deal with. His other works in Boy’s Life are littered with a lot of interesting themes that can be picked up on, I’d honestly recommend anyone to look through them. He has done countless illustrations for them for some 60+ years. Maybe it is worth another article, but the BSA, despite its failings, has probably been one of the most reactionary institutions in America under people’s noses.
A crucial thing for any reactionary trying to revive Rockwell is to avoid the nostalgic gaze of him that Baby Boomers are known to do. His imagery has already been coded in modern memetics to be too white, Christian, and masculine. Not to mention that even his work rode what was popular for his time; it will reap what was sown in those times like anything else. Fixating too much on American war propaganda and the work that was a mouthpiece for the elites of older generations will not only get you caught in a nostalgic loop but a particularly bland and easily revealed nostalgic loop.
What any reactionary should take from Rockwell, is who and how he communicated with his art. His work was heroic, idealistic, attainable, and accessible. It didn’t show a barbarian defeating his enemies, it showed a common man or boy acting out a virtue, even one that would not be in vogue to discuss such as cheerfulness or loyalty. Showing something that someone can do and connect with is a value that they too should revere.