How To Talk About Art

How to Talk About Norman Rockwell

by Cat Weaver on April 8, 2014

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The “Four Freedoms” gallery at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Photo courtesy Berkshire Visitors Bureau. All rights reserved

You must, and shall, begin every single conversation about Norman Rockwell by addressing the question: “Is it art?” And then you must, and shall, say: “It is illustration.”

No talking point for any artist has ever been this tenacious: it sticks around like a haunted stain and will not be released by the soapy suds of repetition. “Out! Out damned spot!” you cry, but to no avail. You are cursed to begin every Rockwell conversation with the ritual: a question to which we all know the answer, and the empty answer which we must perpetually repeat. Guardians of aesthetics will stand by it, pretend to defend it against an onslaught of imagined hayseeds and phonies, and raise a red flag any time someone admires a brushstroke or appears overly enthusiastic about charm or expression or even facility.

To begin a conversation about Norman Rockwell, start with feet at least shoulder width apart, arms folded in defiance of sentiment, jingoism, and poor composition, and in a contentious tone say, “Indeed, he was one of the most revered illustrators of his time,” — and then you must hope like hell to be done with it, for God’s sake.

Still, every once in a while there will be a need to delve into greater depth. And by greater depth, I mean money. And by money, I mean an upcoming auction at Christie’s.

And so here we are: the Rockwell-was-just-an-illustrator phoenix rears it’s unflagging head once again as Christie’s prepares to place “The Rookie” (1957) on the block in its May 22 American Art sale.

Chrisite’s is estimating “The Rookie” at $20 to $30 million, a range which belies much higher expectations. Inflating Rockwell market confidence is the “record price” fetched by  “Saying Grace” (1951), which went for for $46 million at Sotheby’s in December. Not unlike “The Rookie,” it had been valued at a mere $15 to $20 million.

Demand, Renewed

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The Norman Rockwell Museum. Photo by Sarah Edwards. © Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved

The problem is, you have to take Mr. Rockwell seriously while he’s on the block. The artist was winning-winning-winning in December, with 17 works sold at auction — all for tidy sums. With such a clearly enthusiastic market, the auction houses have to find ways talk about Rockwell in a respectful manner.

Christie’s, perhaps anticipating the need to nip snobby criticism in the bud, made sure to insert into its press release a few choice words from senior specialist of American art Elizabeth Beaman:

“During his lifetime, Norman Rockwell was witness to such important artistic movements as Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. In choosing a path of illustration, however, he became as ubiquitous to the American public as the images he created. With over 800 magazine covers to his name, Rockwell earned the reputation of America’s preeminent illustrator and helped forge a sense of national identity through his art.  The renewed demand for these uniquely American works of art is evidenced by their increasingly strong prices in recent seasons and this particular painting, capturing America’s favorite pastime, will surely have wide ranging appeal among collectors.”

In a nutshell that near-disclaimer provides another some very useful new tropes to stuff into your bag of much-to-be-avoided Norman Rockwell conversation extenders: Rockwell was an illustrator. He said he was an illustrator. He is marketed as an illustrator. And an illustrator is an artist. Therefore Rockwell was an artist. And he’s one experiencing, as Beaman nicely puts it, “renewed demand.”

Good Art/Bad Art

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Norman Rockwell Museum (interior). Photo by Art Evans. © Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved

If you like what Rockwell did, you may be tempted, in your onerous conversation, to say that he did what he did very nicely. You may be tempted to say he was a top illustrator, or even a very good artist.

Be warned: your friends, colleagues and fellow gallery visitors have been standing about for a while now. Some of them need to pee. Some of them just want to go home. They were not prepared to be taken seriously. So you’ll have to be quick about it.

Still, if you must persist, there are other adjectives you can place in front of the word art which may be helpful. Those would be ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Now the word ‘art’ is troublesome when aesthetic value is being questioned because too many of you insist on equivocating ‘art’ and ‘good art’ — as if the possibility of art being bad is not to be considered. That’s because it has become popular to use the word ‘art’ as an honorific term, like ‘hero’ — something that is good in itself. Let’s dispense with that, okay, Wittgenstein?

Look, it’s art no matter what. If the author calls it art, it’s art. It’s art if Larry Gagosian sells it. My niece’s macaroni portrait of her cat, Snoozles, is art. (To be sold in the Adorable Art Fair.) It’s all art.

So, even if it’s not “fine art” but commercial art, or decorative art, or design, we can still ask, “Is it good art, or is it bad art?”

I say you can ask this. But I suggest you don’t. Your audience has grown weary and are likely not up for discussing the nuances of style and historical context.

Historical Context

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Norman Rockwell model Wray Gunn gives a tour to visitors at Norman Rockwell Museum. Photo by Jeremy Clowe. © Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved

Once you’ve knocked yourself out making clear that you know that Rockwell was an illustrator, but that illustrators are artists too, and that you still think he’s a good artist, you might have to justify yourself. You’ve knocked over the straw man that the snobs pretend to joust with: you don’t deny that he was doing work for hire; you acknowledge the sentimental quality of his subjects; you don’t imagine his paintings have the heft or the complexity of fine art. You are also getting on our nerves.

Time to liven things up: get controversial and discuss Rockwell in the context of his peers in American illustrative painting.

Norman Rockwell began his career with illustrations for the covers of Boy Scouts journals. His next gig was The Saturday Evening Post. He followed in the footsteps of many illustrators who’d already set the tone. The branding was in place. And most of Rockwell’s career was spent producing 322 of these covers and similar illustrations for other publications like The Literary Digest, The Country Gentleman, Leslie’s Weekly, Judge, Peoples Popular Monthly and Life Magazine.

His own brand — idealistic, sweet, lightly humorous, and easily digestible — was nailed down by the time he was in his mid-twenties and it barely changed over the years. Even those who like to point out that his work turned somewhat topical in the 60′s have to admit that he kept it simple: racism is bad, space travel is good.

Still, those who appreciate the Rockwell style will discuss his cinematic knack for costume, expression and movement. His characters were very human, very fleshy and boney. And he really did know how to choose details, like the nearly photo-real reflections in a nickel plated bar stool in “The Runaway” (1958).

Those are the sorts of things one likes when one is looking at illustrations.

Changing the Subject

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Norman Rockwell’s Stockbridge studio (interior). Photo by Jeremy Clowe. © Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved

What I like to do, personally, when faced with a Norman Rockwell conversation, is to change the subject. This, next to “say ‘gesture’” is my favorite How to Talk About Art™ tip! With Rockwell it’s easy to steer the conversation away. Just bring up J.C. Leyendecker. Now that guy’s a lot more fun!

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  • Eddie Arroyo

    This article is deeply flawed. Simply by stating the obvious tired question of any object in its relevance to “is it art” is extremely lazy. Especially in today’s age of Damien Hirst, Tom Sachs, and Kehinde Wiley. I am far more troubled that this an article like this was allowed to be given credence given that the entire purpose of art rests upon its very intent. Weaver’s article should have investigated more the conceptual motivation for Rockwell’s work. This idealization of American moral belief’s and why it remains relevant to people today. Not simply on a national interest but on an international market. I find it challenging for any artists of this time to encompass this American sensibility as well as Rockwell did. It is part of our past for better or for worst and I have always felt that it needs to be preserved. Instead we got a silly lecture of terminology in reference to illustration and artist.

    Weaver I suggest you look past aesthetics in the future and focus on content.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      You may be unfamiliar with the series (I suggest you look at the others) but it is a tongue-in-cheek look at art being talked about at the moment.

      • Guest

        Unfamiliar with a Norman Rockwell series?

        • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian
          • Eddie Arroyo

            Oh this is comedy? Well it would be funnier if she lampooned American nostalgia a la Corbert style. Near the end she was touching a bit on that with her reference on J.C. Leyendecker. I will read more of the series and see if other articles will get me to chuckle.

          • Cat Weaver

            Yer a hard nut to crack, Eddie!

    • Cat Weaver

      Content is definitely the very LAST thing you want to talk about when talking about Rockwell. Partly because there really isn’t any. Sociological implications are in the talking points for windbags and students of American history (er, a subset?), but are for the lay person, MUCH to be avoided. Talking about jingoism and the treacle-glossed non-politics of war time patriotism can get so very very dreary. Besides it causes some folks to become self-righteous and that’s the signal to change the subject or hit the bar.

      • Eddie Arroyo

        Look I’m not trying to be intentionally difficult but the dismiss that Rockwell has no content is to negate his continued influence in contemporary art by way of manufactured nostalgia (which is redundant). Nostalgia by its very nature is a personal and subjective experience that can easily be manufactured. Also this tone of Sociological implications in reference to history/ American history to be avoided is something I find quite concerning. Art without content tends to fall under decorative art (er, a subset?) which is a bit of comedy reviewing work on a purely aesthetic point of view.

        Actually you have my complete permission to take the work of Aie Wie Wie and strip it of all its social implications. By that account all his work is very very pretty and would look good for my landscaping, sitting in my over-sized living room, or hung in my bathroom. If that is consequence of content then I would much rather be guilty of some self-righteous tendencies and take every opportunity to hit the bar.

  • Andrea Leal M.

    Gagosian*

    • Cat Weaver

      doh!

  • http://www.nicholaschistiakov.com/ Nicholas Chistiakov

    Dont’ forget John Currin, Eric Fischl and Will Cotton, all familiar. You could call all of them illustrators not artists, or just stop using labels in time of everything-is-art. It’s so for art school kids than for collectors – they buy what they want (unfortunately) not someones delusional ideas of what art is.

    • Cat Weaver

      I don’t think one could, or should call Currin an “illustrator” unless being sarcastic. Currin’s paintings may look merely narrative at first, but are loaded with symbolism and fraught with compositional tension — they are mannerist, perhaps. Fischl, maybe the earlier works can be called illustration if your feeling mean (snicker), Cotton? You can have that one.

      • http://www.nicholaschistiakov.com/ Nicholas Chistiakov

        Pictures could tell the story(applied to all of above inclidung Currin, he might serve you illustration under more complex sauce, but still… symbolism? Odilon Redon has Symbolism not Currin.); or pictures could be about sensation of Light and Color, applies to Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Bacon, Picasso, Munch and many more. But market appreciates illustrators…so let them live. Nobody calls Duchamp plumber, since Fountain wasn’t functional. You could be cynical and use Van Gogh to illustrate book, and so it will be illustration. Rockwell was illustrator by profession, but his pictures could be called art once they put into context of an art gallery, as well as Fountain was called “ART”

        • Cat Weaver

          That’s not what “illustration” means as a category. Illustrations are created in order to depict a given story or subject. They follow a script.

          • http://www.nicholaschistiakov.com/ Nicholas Chistiakov

            For writer, all art is illustration since you write story to exactly describe it:) Ah it’s reverse order, first chicken than egg or first egg than chicken but anyway. My point is just this: some art is about illustration and storytelling; some other is about design&color&sensation. By the way illustration much easier to sell, at least from own experience.

          • http://www.artisabout.com Eddie Arroyo

            Yes Illustrators follow a script but so did Rembrandt, Da Vinci, or any other great artists prior to the twentieth century (and this was considered more in the realm of commissioned work). But Nicholas’ point as I understand it is that Rockwell’s work transcends the category of mere illustrations, far beyond his own intentions. Also to say that artists don’t follow a script/ narrative as abstract as it maybe is a bit limited.

  • Beau Toutant

    (Ooooo Leyendecker! Damn! I saw a lot of his art in Newport, the illustrator museum, I believe. One that I would DIE to own. But, I digress.) Leave Rockwell alone. Think Madmen and pre-madmen and let it go. Times were different, obviously. ‘country was in a legitimate war (WWII). And, on and on and on…so it goes. Things (hopefully) progress. Rockwell captured the mood, hopes, mores of several generations, whether now considered jingoistic or not. And, he was a hell of an illustrator. Yes, illustration is a category of art, I’m here to tell ‘ya.

    • Camargo Valentino

      I can paint it for you, for a good price. I can pretty much paint anyone. let me know.

  • adampascal

    This article–Glib. Poorly argued. Ugh. But great site in general, Id happily pay a subscription fee. Read on web, app, and FB – disturbed that FB doesn’t carry half the content the other channels do. Consider upping the FB spend or getting off the channel –so people dont think thats all you are (1/2 the articles, often the most gossipy ones, not the real in-depth ones. Social graph results…)

  • Laura

    I don’t get why everyone is so angry. I didn’t get the impression that the author was agreeing or disagreeing with Norman Rockwell critics, but simply making some funny observations about the debate that goes on over his art. This is an amusing article. I don’t think it’s purpose was to decide the status of Rockwell’s paintings or answer the question ‘what is art?’ but just make some amusing social observations in relation to art.

    • Cat Weaver

      THANK you, Laura! Thank. you.

    • http://www.artisabout.com Eddie Arroyo

      Perhaps the reason people have commented the hell out of this post is because some don’t understand, agree, or find Weaver’s article funny. I personally think the article is a success, not accurate or funny but a success.

      Ironically it seems to have transcended Weaver intention much as Rockwell work has, even thought he intended to be a simple illustrator.

      • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

        I think it’s because Norman Rockwell still stirs emotions to this day, particularly with those who have a nostalgic view of his art.

  • mikelartist

    There is the painting at the Rockwell Museum of Western Art in Corning, NY (no relation to Norman). It has a Norman Rockwell painting he did for a boy’s novel in 1914. It is entitled “The Buffalo Hunt”. It is one of the most lush, painterly and skillful oil paintings I have ever seen. It has a regal place among this incredible collection of art, rightfully so. Regardless of the reason it was painted, it stands on it’s own as a masterpiece executed at the hands of a 20 year old artist. It is a fine art painting first, illustration second.

  • Betty Pieper

    In 1970 for the Cooperstown Art Association’s National Juried Exhibit I had both my submissions selected and Norman Rockwell had one of his selected: “Murder in Mississippi”.
    For me it was heady stuff to outdo Mr. Rockwell…and indeed I told my friend, “Oh, he’s an illustrator”. Pooh, pooh….
    Over the years I’ve come to think of him as more. He identified and connected to the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Will I ever develop the same respect for the likes of the departed Thomas Kincade? I can’t live THAT long, thank you.

    • Brad Gilbert

      I don’t imagine that anyone shall, Betty. Norman Rockwells’ technique was simply too solid; as good as that of anyone of his century. If one could step into a Rockwell canvas, they’d be apt to run into people the caliber of General MacArthur and Thomas Jefferson. In a Kincade, the best they could hope for would be Frodo.

      • Betty Pieper

        Love both of your comments on this….Beyond ‘sense of humor’ to wit….
        kind of the difference between Rockwell and Kincade, in fact….

        • Brad Gilbert

          :-)

  • Brad Gilbert

    Heck no, it isn’t art. For art, you need jars of pee, American flags lying on the floor, girls throwing up on bad singers; you know, real, deep, uplifting stuff like that.

    • Cat Weaver

      No: that’s fine art.

    • http://www.artisabout.com Eddie Arroyo

      All that deep stuff has a narrative…. a script.

      • Brad Gilbert

        Like The Three Stooges.

        • http://www.artisabout.com Eddie Arroyo

          They’re very DADA.

          • Brad Gilbert

            Nope! They’re scripted. I know ,’cause I’ve got a copy of ‘Disorder In the Court’, signed by Moe!

          • http://www.artisabout.com Eddie Arroyo

            LOL

  • tmallon

    Norman Rockwell was an illustrator and a commercial artist. A man that was paid to paint pictures. In fact, going back to early civilization there have always been commercial artist tradesmen. Fine Art, as it’s called today, was a 20th century invention, brought on by the proliferation of affordable camera equipment. The camera freed the impressionist to gloss over representational images and instead create visual poetry. This opened the door for Cubism, Expessionism, Abstraction and dozens of intermediate schools of painting and sculpture. Art history is filled with a collection of art that has survived the test of time. A test that is gauged by museum admissions and popular opinion.

    This presents questions. Is what the 20th Century called “Modern Art” played out? Are the galleries and museums of the world distancing themselves from a century of visual poetry or has this poetry come full circle, with a whole new vision of new representational painters?

    Today, Rockwell’s work would be called “Narrative Art”. Then, isn’t Narrative Art Commercial Art? There are not to many Narrative painters cutting off their ears and running out into wheat fields to capture the sun’s energy. To some extent, the opposite is true. Like 19th Century Academicians, narrative painters are painting representational images and, in many instances, obtaining large sums for their efforts. Is that so wrong?

    Was the 20th century just a phase? Will Fine Art soil it’s hands with profits or, like Rembrandt, Rubens and others, will today’s artists revert to being tradesmen?

    In the end we must ignore all labels and embrace the experience. Poetry exists only when it speaks to us. If Rockwell’s work speaks to you, then it succeeds as artwork, no matter what the setting or price tag. When a paintings or sculptures do not embrace you and make love to your mind, they simply fail as art. If they manage to survive time without popular interest, they will likely be relegated to some natural history museum, in the distant future. Unfortunately, many worthy works of art will follow a path to some dumpster and not survive to allow popular taste to change its fickle mind. Therefore, appreciate what you enjoy, and leave the labeling to the the critcs, an altogether different breed of tradesmen.

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