Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi). 1965
Today marks the 116th anniversary of Norman Rockwell's birth. Born in New York, Rockwell became best known for his idealized images of small-town life. He was shunned by the art world in his time and that impression has largely continued today. A commercial illustrator for the vast majority of his life, for many Rockwell is associated only with saccharine sweetness and stagnant tradition.
This is wrong.
Rockwell in many ways personified the spirit of the New Deal liberal; a populism that viewed the rank-and-file of American society not as bellowing nationalists or backwards hicks, but as citizens with the potential to reshape the world through honesty and common sense.
While a brilliant draughtsman, Rockwell cranked out plenty of dreck in his time but, especially later in life, turned his hand to powerfully indicting injustice in his own country.
The Problem We All Live With, 1964. Larger version here
The result were stunning masterpieces like the two paintings depicted above, and Rockwell's standing as the artist of the common American helped gain the civil rights movement valuable mainstream acceptance at a time when its call for basic human rights remained controversial.
Of course, Rockwell saw no contradiction between his Four Freedoms series and turning his brush to fight racism. It says something about how times have changed that those who find Rockwell's civil rights works in the present day, myself included, are at first surprised. Like Stephen Vincent Benet, Rockwell's reputation has glossed over his finest, most wrenching creations.
We are surprised because Rockwell's style of liberal populism, to go by the mainstream narrative, seems a contradiction. Narrow-minded jingoism has, often falsely, become associated with rural America by just about all sides of the political debate, whether they endorse it as the true face of the country or turn up their noses dismissively. Both reactions, for different reasons, are disgusting.
So Rockwell's most powerful work seems now the gospels of a particularly faded variety of American Dream. And it was a dream, that much is clear, but it had its accomplishments. It is hard not to regret the day it lifted, or veered into nightmare.
One final piece of Rockwell's sticks with me. It is his 1961 representation of the Golden Rule, including his usual farmer figures standing alongside an array of races and religions. Some of the faces are hardened, old with poverty or work, staring ahead as if to remind us that Rockwell carefully dubbed his freedoms human, not American, and those who violate them do so at their own risk.