by Art Chantry ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
i have a whole stack of old magazine covers in a cardboard box. among them are an awful lot of ‘saturday evening post’ covers of the past. all those shmaltzy fantasy images of an american small town world that never actually existed (like the 1950’s of ‘happy days’ never existed, either.) i looked at these covers and winced. this norman rockwell stuff always sends a shiver down my spine. then i realized that, of the dozens of covers in that stack, not a single one of them was a norman rockwell illustration. in fact. there were about a half dozen different names and they all looked identical to rockwell. that’s a a lot of copy-cats.
well, not really ‘copy-cats’. norman rockwell didn’t invent american realism, not by a long long shot. american illustrative ideas about pictorial realism date back to the earliest days of this country’s attempt at an american art style. how that realism is actually technically portrayed has changed with time, but it’s always been there plugging away. rockwell may be one of those really famous celebrity names associated with the style, but he’s not the originator, nor the only, nor the even best of the lot (the wyeths can probably take the ‘best of’ crown).
the one thing that rockwell DID seem to bring to the table was a cynicism that ran so deep that he commercialized the style into a racket – and got rich doing it. that may sound harsh, but it’s the way i see him. his heavy-handed mythic style of nostalgic sentimentalism is so smarmy that it even tugs at MY heartstrings – and THAT’S hard to do. he was really good at playing his audience in the most insidiously direct fashion. the worst part is that norman rockwell was a great hustler/salesman. he took a common and uninspired ‘craft’ and turned it into a hype-driven commercial machine that gave his name a brand cachet. you wanted ‘norman rockwell’ just because he was ‘norman rockwell’. the fact that his pictures were pretty and cute an tugged a tear from your eye and a smile from your lips is pure gravy. he MADE you want to have one. it made him a superstar.
but norman rockwell didn’t limit his efforts to just saturday evening post cover illustrations. he sold his originals for top dollar even during his lifetime – as if he was a real ‘fine art’ gallery artist, even though he played no real role AT ALL in the 20th century dialog of fine art. he faked it. he also continued to take on big-money clientele and do advertising work for them throughout his entire life. even as late as this ad (1964) he was selling his services to chemical companies, the nuclear industry, insurance companies and anybody who would give him enough cash. in return he’d give “the people” what they wanted (aka, what the client wanted to sell the rubes.) i even found norman rockwell illustrations on the covers of fetish magazines like “gun digest.”
you also have to remember that norman rockwell knew exactly what he was doing. he used to TEACH it to his students. yup, he trained a lot of american illustrators during the middle part of the last century. that’s because he was part owner of the infamous “famous artists” correspondence art school. keep in mind that for the bulk of the existence of this visual language we now refer to as ‘graphic design’, it was a low craft that was taught through the back pages of magazines through correspondence courses. the idea of teaching this stuff in institutions of higher education didn’t really occur until the late 1960’s, when the phrase “graphic design” gained general acceptance along with academic classroom structure. in the old days (all the old masters) were self taught through mail order. and norman rockwell ran the most famous of them all. they even advertised on the back of comic books (rockwell himself was depicted at his easel) calling for you to join up and send him money. remember those notorious “draw binky” ads? that was the ‘famous artists school.’ norman rockwell taught us all to draw that binky crap.
so, this schmaltzy advert literally selling the bereaved a tombstone for their loved dead utilizing a sad little schoolgirl laying flowers on the gave (‘newton”? what the fuck does THAT mean? is she praying? is that a bible in her school books?) is so cynical and insulting and contrived and downright SNEAKY that it’s sort of stunning to look at. ‘rock of ages’ is a huge tombstone company and you can see their deeply inscribed logo in many headstones even in cemeteries around here – an inscription twice as deep as the name of the deceased on the stone! it’s guaranteed to outlive the erosion of the client’s identity by twice as long!. just what i want – a corporate logo on my gravestone. one that outlasts ME. good idea.
norman rockwell goes onto my list of cynical money-grubbing hacks who did their best to swindle us out of our money in exchange for sappy emotional fulfillment. what makes his work a tad worse is that he not only did it for himself and his own pocketbook – like leroy nieman, walter and margaret keane, vladimir tretchikoff, patrick nagel, dale chihuly and peter max (or – and i cringe – that guy who bills himself as ‘the painter of light.’) he knowingly did it to benefit corporate monetary exploitation of all of us – he not only helped, he APPROVED. in my mind, that makes him just a tad worse than the rest of those hacks i just listed.
but, that’s just one man’s opinion.
— with Delia Yzon, Betty Dela Fuente, Jippy Ann, Turs Simsuangco, Rodolfo Samonte, Donato Santos, Cesar Hernando, Ernee
AC:i never said he was a fiend in human form. i just think he wasn’t the grandfatherly saint and american icon that he tried to sell us. every time i see another plate or refrigerator magnet with his crap on it, i sorta feel insulted and pissed on all over again. whose fault is that? i dunno….actually peter max used to be a perfectly acceptable advertising illustrator of the copycat school (no real style of his own, but good at faking anybody else’s work). that’s a time-honored tradition in american illustration careers. but when he decided to ‘go hippie and cash in”? well, how did donovan put it in ‘season of the witch – “these hippies out to make it rich. must be the season of the witch.” he must have been singing about peter max….