Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Class Tomorrow: Greenberg and Rockwell, Together Again!

I’ve been flummoxed by a failure to find my copy of Thomas Buechner’s Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator, an elephantine coffee table book I’d meant to put on reserve for my Postwar American Visual Culture course. In the meantime, I’m going to use this space as a means to get a few images in front of the class in advance of Thursday’s session, which will explore terms of argument and judgment between Clement Greenberg’s classic essays, “Toward a Newer Laocoon” and “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (both 1940, so neither postwar, but together they set the terms of thinking about artistic mediums for a generation, not to mention the structure of the postwar American art school) and the artistic bugaboo himself, Norman Rockwell–who, without fail, merits exasperated mention in seemingly every significant piece of writing about art and culture in the mid 20th century. In a few weeks, we’ll read Dwight MacDonald’s “Masscult and Midcult” (1961) which provides, among other things, an updating of Greenberg’s assessments of 1940.

Last week, many of the students (a mix of illustrator-designers and a painter or two) objected strenuously to what they saw as Greenberg’s prescriptions. Others weren't so sure. So we’re teeing the ball up for tomorrow.

As a given, say we’re to consider the periodical illustrators as a group, and Rockwell as a representative (though in many ways he shouldn’t be seen as such–his career was dominated by cover work, unlike his contemporaries, most of whom toiled on fiction spreads inside the mags, without the opportunity–or pressure–to sell the printed product). How to select a set of Rockwellian hallmark postwar works? I’d be curious to hear from Joyce Schiller, Stephanie Plunkett and Laurie Norton Moffat on this question. In the meantime, I brought the question up with Jeff Pike the other day, and our lists were very similiar. The group I’m presenting here reflects that discussion.

They are all Saturday Evening Post cover paintings: New Television Antenna (November 5, 1949), Shuffleton’s Barbershop (April 29, 1950), Saying Grace (November 24, 1951), The Connoisseur (January 13, 1962). Pike also suggested the cover of two women having cleaned a theater, reading Playbill, brooms in hand–an indicator of Rockwell’s class consciousness–but I had neither a scan, nor time to make one.

Discussion questions:

Do you think these pictures are examples of kitsch? Why?

Greenberg argues that images like these are examples of “ersatz culture, pictures offered up to those who [are] insensible to the values of genuine culture.” True? False? What’s the difference between genuine culture and other culture? If you have answer to that question, how would you apply it to the stuff referred to as “underground” music versus what you hear on mainstream radio?

How does the the discussion of media use in the “Laocoon” essay apply here?

Can you conceive of a contemporary Norman Rockwell in any medium? Can you identify one?

What values do you see represented in these images–both in terms of what they show, and how they are made?

What do you want to know about these images and the SEP issues in which they appeared that you do not? Why would it help, if you did?

Class, see you tomorrow.

Comments welcome. Both home and abroad....


laurie norton moffatt said...

I'd like to offer a thoughtful response to your question, DB - what a wonderful post. Be back soon....

Laurie Norton Moffatt

Joyce said...

Doug, my preference is to look at any and all art and evaluate it on its own merits, not ask if it addresses genuine culture. I was taught that all art reflects the time and place in which it was made. Greenberg’s writings were an essential function of his time when American art was trying to see itself as valid in itself and not in the shadow of its European cousins.

What makes Rockwell great as an illustrator and as an artist was his skill as a painter, his attention to the details of life, and his insight into poignant moments. Rockwell’s great illustrations speak just as truly of the human spirit as Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, 1942, or Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, 1938, or any of the variety of American artists and art I might name.

For me, kitsch might refer to a Norman Rockwell image turned into a snow globe or a holiday sweater. But that would also apply to Betty Boop salt shakers as well.

It’s the choices Rockwell made as he constructed his images and the clues he liberally salted the images with that make them timeless on one hand and time machines on the other. So many critics and historians continue to address these images because they are so layered, so rich, and so multifaceted. No matter the time frame for the illustration Rockwell produced, they each excel at telling a story so well, that we look at them and each see something to respond to.

By the way, one of my favorite postwar Rockwell’s was never published. It’s called Marriage Counselor, 1963 and was intended as a cover for The Saturday Evening Post, c. 1963. They did not want it and in 1972 it was offered to Ladies Home Journal, 1972 who declined it as well. [See, for my analysis of this illustration.]

DB Dowd said...

Laurie, looking forward to your thoughts.

Joyce, I appreciate your catholic (small c) approach.

For purposes of discussion, that all art expresses its time may be true, but so general as to bring things to a halt. In a discussion like this one Greenberg makes us uncomfortable by insisting upon distinctions of value--this is worth more than that, in cultural terms. Criticism is an important pursuit on this basis alone, because we have grown awfully comfortable with that flat declaration, "cool," as if low-grade validity were the only question to be answered.

Sure, Greenberg's conclusions are of his time, too, but the questions persist. As people who study popular art, we're inclined to find value where he did not, but there is dreck in the world, in all categories.

Distinctions between categories, between qualities, the weighing of value, these are things which keep us sharp.

By the way, in "Masscult and Midcult", Dwight MacDonald lambastes Our Town as a perfect example of midcult. I'm sure he would have detested Copland, too...

Thanks so much for engaging these questions! I will bring your perspective to today's discussion and report back...

Also, I am really behind on the maintenance of my links and updating things generally. Working on that. Intend to highlight RCAVS as a crucial resource, link to ongoing commentary there.

Joyce said...

Doug, I guess my teeth grind at Greenberg's dicta regarding kitsch and high art because at heart I am really an anti-authoritarian. I dislike someone else determining what I should or should not like or value. Taste and authoritative valuation shift and change, and so too does our assessment of good, better, best. Greenberg’s dialectic assessed non-Modernist art as past because it did not embrace the two-dimensionality of the canvas. The habit of painters to challenge the flatness of the canvas space with their illusionistic application of paint is as old as time, or why would we still learn about the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius to prove who could paint more realistically as related by Pliny the Elder.

DB Dowd said...

Joyce, I understand your anti-authoritarian instinct. There is a degree though, to which we subcontract what we are supposed to like and value to all sorts of cultural filtration systems, including museums and academics. Inclusion is not infinite, and qualitative judgments are made all the time without anyone calling attention to them.

Suppose we were to ask five people to make a list of the most important/significant/greatest (not synonyms, I know) American illustrators of the 20th century. Such a list would leave out significant people, to be sure, and would create the impression of what we are supposed to value or like within our field. I don't know how one escapes it. At least if the terms are explicit, the judgments themselves are subject to evaluation.

(It would be fun to ask for such a list, just to see how much agreement and disagreement there might be...)

Thanks for the fun discussion!

Don Cox said...

By "illustrators" do you mean to include comics artists such as Will Eisner or Jack Kirby, or are you thinking only of book and magazine illustration? How about the people who did concept art or backdrops at Disney?

If we keep to book and magazine illustration, off the top of my head:

Joseph Pennell
Robert Fawcett
James Gurney
Albert Dorne
Bernie Fuchs

- but ask me in ten minutes' time and I might come up with a different five. How could we leave out NC Wyeth, or Clement Coll, or Pogany, or Booth, or Sendak?

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