Rockwell. Norman Rockwell. Kitsch. Sentimental. He helped define American popular culture in a manner almost as influential as Walt Disney. His recreation of a phony artificial world that never existed. A fantasy world tailor made for the peculiar form that American disavowal seems to enjoy as a natural habitat, a nature preserve of innocence that is a total fabrication. An idealization of desire that artistically perverts the tradition James McNeil Whistler, John Sargent Singer, Whitman, Winslow Homer and others into slick merchandise, slices of the American vignette sold off the rack.
What Rockwell did know, even if he was almost blinded by the money he was making, was that there is an ambiguous relationship between what is artifice and what is truth. Fantasy and fact in which the great American drama plays itself out, or is killed and in what Harold Bloom would call “american religion” rises for another new day in a cycle of resurrection and redemption in an endless cycle. There is always an unlikely proximity, a closeness between truth and kitsch, as if each are co-dependent on one another. As if there is an essential degree of truth found within, inside and almost intrinsic to kitsch. A pure “veritas” like religious ecstasy or epiphanic energy at the tail end of a long train of thought and emotional sublimity that was initiated with falsity.
As if the parody and affectedness of kitsch is unstable and transitory. Its semantics mean it emancipates itself and seeks liberty or embeds itself in a slave like relationship. Freedom means breaking the boundaries of excessive artifice, transgressive so that the suffocating, smothering social constraints at work become exposed and the cowardice of a lack of desire to “go wild” becomes painfully apparent. Which brings us to the issue of desperation whether the quiet variety of searching for real love or radical anger: a desperation complicit with a deep concern over the destruction that social structure and power dynamics impose on the individual by enforcing the repression of passion, desire and significantly, creativity.
The takeaway from Rockwell is what defines America is tragedy with smoldering embers of hope. That society is threatened by passion and by male-female relations let alone inter-racial ones. If you take Rockwell covers and juxtapose them with say Jack Levine paintings, you see the gamut of the power of the military-industrial-entertainment complex and its snake oil salesmen pitching patriotism, god, family of which the collateral damage is anxiety, depression, suspicion and fear bordering on the paranoid. After enough exposure to Rockwell one is tempted to concur with a quote from Fassbinder concerning what we consider to be quintessential small town America: ” the very last place in the world I would want to go.” A Rockwell cover shows how far away from paradise we really are.
Richard Halpern ( see link) :
While repression divides the self into largely noncommunicating realms of light and darkness, disavowal occupies a murky grey area, neither fully repressed nor fully acknowledged. The philosopher Bernard Williams observed, “One symptom of deep-seated problems of the Freudian kind may be self-deception. But . . . there is a level of self-deception more subconscious than unconscious that can be dealt with by the virtues of accuracy and sincerity. That’s what we have those virtues for.” I would argue that Rockwell’s paintings occupy this level, and do so in complicated ways. Rockwell’s paintings do produce an innocent world, and to that degree they are acts of disavowal. But at the same time, under the guise of innocence, they often present potentially disturbing materials that they then dare the viewer to see and recognize. Rockwell’s work thus lays bare the mechanisms of disavowal. What Rockwell paints is not innocence itself but its manufacture. And his work confronts the viewer with the ethical choice of seeing or not seeing….
To be more specific: the “potentially disturbing” materials Rockwell offers to view are often sexual in nature, even perverse…
…Repainting Rockwell’s Girl at Mirror , whom Lacke transforms into a figure out of Balthus, she “found it impossible to render the flesh without sensing the erotic charge that Rockwell must have felt in painting it.” “I suddenly realized,” she said, “that the paintings are already pornographic, and that only the slightest changes were needed to bring this out.” …Brilliantly, she signed one by condensing the famed “Norman Rockwell” signature into the word “Normal.” In a sense, my whole argument is summed up in that one gesture: the containment of the perverse under the sign of the normal.
…I used to think that disavowal always begins in the sexual realm, and that then, having learned its alphabet there, we go on to apply it to a wider field, including such uncomfortable social facts as racial or class difference. I no longer think that sexual disavowal enjoys any such temporal or logical priority. We learn to disavow in many ways from a very early age, and our different forms of disavowal soon become hopelessly entangled. But sexual disavowal is nevertheless a very potent form of it, and people under the sway of sexual disavowal are, more often than not, unusually vulnerable to other forms as well.Read More:http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/314405.html
But American culture is particularly addicted to this sense of itself, and thus has refined disavowal into a high art. It is for this reason that Rockwell is such a valuable if unrecognized analyst of the American condition—or at least, the condition of the white middle classes in the decades from the 1920s through the 1960s….our impulse to dismiss Rockwell’s work as the kitschy waste products of an earlier, naive time allows us to avoid a confrontation that may be somewhat less soothing to our sense of superiority. A false belief in our own sophistication or knowingness is just another form of innocence. We disavow no less than did the most sanitized products of postwar culture. We have simply devised new strategies for doing so, and our ability to see though some of the older ones only makes us patsies for our own.( ibid.)