Seventy-two hours that included pipe bombs, an assassination of two African Americans, and a synagogue massacre. What country do we live in?
Strangely enough, I find myself thinking about Norman Rockwell–much the way people have been reflecting upon Mr. Rogers–who was from the very Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the Tree of Life Synagogue is located.
On a recent visit to the museum dedicated to Rockwell’s work, I was reminded of how, at twelve or thirteen, I became obsessed with Norman Rockwell. There had been a retrospective of his work, perhaps at the Whitney, and my mother bought me the catalogue. It was a slender book, but I would pore over those images, every detail, ever shoe lace and grimace and expression. At the time I studied painting with an artist from Europe, a neighbor, who gave classes to teenagers and adults in the back of his framing store. What we studied was utterly different—the Fauves, whose vivid and savage colors I imitated, those images of European seasides and women bathing on the banks of a river, the gesture toward brush stroke and shimmering intensity, not realism.
So what compelled me toward Rockwell? I had no real contact with small town America—I was a city girl, through and through. I’d barely traveled in America, since my family used vacations to go to Canada, England and Europe. I did not even know the suburbs very well, since my mother had a near allergy to them, and both my parents had a fear of communities that were unwelcoming or racially homogeneous.
Perhaps Rockwell made America accessible to me in a folksy, human way. It’s no surprise that one of the paintings on display at the museum—of men playing music in the back of a barber shop, as seen through the window—normally resides at the George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Like Lucas and Spielberg, Rockwell gives us back our cultural America, its mythical images. Though the images are not really all that mythical—he drew from the quotidian details of his own small town experience in Vermont and later the Berkshires. Even though Rockwell was quite modest, and considered himself nothing more than an illustrator, he seems to get at some essence that is deeper than simple depiction or sentimentality.
Perhaps it’s the comic and warm postures of his figures—the three boys dashing with their clothes clutched, fleeing a No Swimming area. An entire story, a context is in that moment, and maybe I, the budding story-writer and novelist, loved these images for suggesting whole stories behind the singular image. (It’s no different than the fascination I had begun to develop for photography and photojournalism). Rockwell’s loving attention to detail is similar to the hyper focus a realist writer gives to our world and character building—be it the little boy’s runaway bundle slumped on the floor while he sits on a diner stool with a kindly police officer; or the young woman in her yellow pumps standing on tip toe while she and her husband register to be married.
Of course Rockwell’s world is the cozy and reassuring atmosphere of whiteness. His illustrations return us to a time of gentle safety and human connection, unstained by any alienation or outsideness or race. Perhaps again, as a little girl growing up removed from the ‘center’ of America, I was looking for images that folded me into that heartland, allowed me in, too. His illustrations reassured me that even if my family did not look the family setting down a turkey at Thanksgiving, we shared an appreciation for bounty, togetherness. There was a common humanity.
Yet Rockwell also took on whiteness and the complacency of his country. Two of his very best paintings are about integration: one gentle, the other stark. One, “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” was painted in 1967, the year of the Loving vs. Loving Supreme Court decision. Two black children, moving into a suburban community, in the driveway of their new home; two white children, who reside there, staring at them with curiosity, hope. An adult peeks through a curtain, perhaps implying far more wariness, even prejudice, but the children’s body language is one of simple Who’s moved in next door? What do you play with? Will you be my friend? The wariness is there in the children – even the new little girl’s expression, which seems to say – Will I get to just be me?—but it is most certainly an image of tender beginnings and subtle social change. The chasm is tenderly, quietly, being crossed.
The other image, titled “The Problem We All Live With,” is based on true events and is far more confrontational: it is of Ruby Bridges, who integrated the Louisiana schools. Our view is of the little girl in her starched white dress, carrying her notebook and ruler. A tomato has been splattered on the wall. To her front and back are U.S. marshals, who must escort and protect her to school. We only see their torsos, no heads, nor faces, and most striking are their yellow arm bands. That choice—to keep the focus steadfastly on Ruby–underscores the theme of integration in the same way as the other painting—it is the children who will bear this change.
Why return to Rockwell now? Perhaps because I need to return to the humble goodness that can lie at the center of America, however corny. Day by day we are flooded with the sinister menace of an administration wrenching us apart as a nation, a culture. We are living in dystopian times—crass, craven, shocking, violent. Day by day we live with hysteria being whipped up about invaders destroying our nation. The folksy realism of Rockwell might seem out of date, like an old man sitting weakly on the porch, lost in some bygone era. But for me, his images return us to solid ground; to the small, quotidian ways that human community is built, lived, and laughed at.
Nowhere is this more felt than in his ‘Four Freedoms’ sequence—Freedom from Fear especially—a mother and father tucking their children into bed. Commissioned for one of the most successful bond drives during World War II, the series served as a kind of addendum to Roosevelt’s fireside chats, visual reminders of why Americans were fighting overseas. Sure, we could regard the image cynically, from the other side of the breach. Have all Americans been able to live without fear? Those who are evicted, discriminated against, lynched, dispossessed?
But I think that would be missing the point. His images are not just what is, but what we aspire to. They enter the realm of the mythical, a national sense of identity. One might not experience that cozy sense of safety, but it is something we aim for. It is also a plea to stand up against demagoguery, fascism, which threatens to poison our homes. Rockwell made those images as a lesson, a reminder of our core values. He used his position, as a creator of American imagery to nudge us forward, not backward. Not so different from Mr. Rogers, whose simple gesture of cooling off his feet in a wading pool with a black actor quietly raised consciousnesses.
And so, in a week when we wake to horrific cleaving of our nation; to a president’s goading cruelty, I don’t mind the reminder.
May we all live with freedom from fear.