Timed-Release Wednesday, Jesterary
19, 40 A.B.
No entry yesterday. I was simply too busy seeking emergency medical
attention for my Norman Rockwell phobia to write one.
I know, I know - I should have made an appointment for evaluation and treatment
weeks and weeks ago, but things just kept getting in the way.
The need to eat, for one thing.
The need to control the urge to scratch while others were talking to me,
The need to entertain my cat most of all.
In any case, I now have the medication I need to continue to live a long
and healthy life without the fear of "Saturday Evening Post" covers marring
my every waking moment.
My attempts to self-medicate with Magritte prints now seem more than merely
I've always been a tad allergic to Rockwell's view of life but I thought
it no worse than my pink flamingo sensitivity or my tendency to start twitching
whenever exposed to Paul Anka.
That changed back in November when my wife announced her plans to invite
her parents to our home for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. It was
the first time we ever entertained them (or anyone else) on a major holiday
and so we were really starting from scratch as to how to go about it.
Sensing too late that it all might be a bit too much work for her chalk-laden
teacher's fingers, my wife suggested to me that instead of a whole turkey
we just get a few pre-packaged parts, heat 'em up, and slap 'em on the
Something inside me snapped.
"Norman Rockwell didn't paint parts!" I actually bleated.
My wife was stunned and so was I. I'm not exactly what you'd call
a traditionalist, and had it been Easter dinner we were talking about I
might well have myself suggested we just give the folks a few toasted jellybeans
scrounged out of the pockets of my childhood pants and call it a holiday
meal. It took me a moment or two to figure out what was going on.
Suddenly, I knew.
Rockwell had warped my brain.
I sat right down and wept.
Not even finding a still-edible chocolate bunny tail in my back pants pocket
when I reached for my hanky could get me to stop....
Mr. Rockwell had been much in the news last November, you might recall.
He's now considered cool in some circles. A big retrospective of
his work is currently at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and will be
touring the country shortly, ending up at the Guggenheim Museum in New
York next year. Just before Thanksgiving, his famous "Freedom From
Want" painting seemed to be everywhere.
Long before it popped up on an ABC News broadcast the day I said what I
said to my wife, it had seared its way into my subconscious.
Like much of Rockwell's work, it has elements in it which somehow slip
past the blood-brain barrier and stimulate some deep mental organ which
loves to be stimulated and which the harsh reality it's married to ignores.
Who wouldn't want to sink their teeth into a bird that looks that good?
Who wouldn't want to be the descendants of those good, pure people serving
Ahhh, to live in a world where every face was happy, every hair in place,
and every utensil all a-gleam.
Rockwell suckers us in with his clearer-than-clear realism, of course,
his better-than-a-photograph technique, but what really cuts to the heart
of the hippocampus, of course, what really brings our amygdalas to orgasm
is that Glenn Fordish fellow in the lower right corner.
By looking at us, by making eye contact, he sucks us in completely.
"This really is spontaneous and not posed," he says. "This thing
you're looking at really is more objective photograph than carefully constructed
illusion. And I'm being quite the wry little scamp by looking at
you instead of the bird, aren't I? How could you not like such a
fellow? Only a real low type of guy or gal could find fault with
a scene like this when I'm saying, in effect, 'You're as swell as the bird
and the family itself, else why would I be looking at you instead of them?'
Now jump on in - the delusion's fine."
Yes, indeed. Who could find fault with such a thing?
Certainly not the 25 million people who bought copies of this work back
in 1943 when the entire population of the country was only 150 million.
No wonder that when I think of Thanksgiving dinner, this that what automatically
comes to mind.
It takes an act of will to remember that I've never actually been present
at a meal like this in my life.
If the one grandfather I ever knew was ever present at a meal like this,
he would have been yelling at my grandmother in Greek that she'd done it
If the one grandfather of my wife's that I knew was ever present at a meal
like this, his Alzheimer's probably prevented him from noting his spouse's
utter dissatisfaction with the "small" amounts we all were eating.
In my estimation, what Rockwell has done is create a terrible lie.
He has used his talent for accurate representation of physical reality
to convey a reality that doesn't exist, can't exist, and probably shouldn't
exist. That would be fine if it was obvious that that reality doesn't
exist - if he was creating photo-realistic scenes of alien planets, for
example - but it's not obvious. He's done something as an artist
much worse than merely painting a scene that can't be true - something
that's unforgivable in my mind.
created a photo-realistic lie that the brain has trouble declaring is
he's serving up is nothing less than a sugar-coated poison pill that kills
the mind even as the heart keeps wanting to eat more.
If anyone in the above photo - excuse me, if anyone in the above painting
is silly enough to be a vegetarian, they have the good sense to keep it
If anyone lives in a world of chipped plates or stormy Thanksgivings, they
aren't letting that interfere with their smiles once they get to grandma's.
If casually racist comments fill the air along with the aroma of stuffing
and cranberry sauce, we have no choice but to forgive Rockwell for failing
to include the appropriate dialogue balloons.
This is America in 1943, after all, and America in 1943 is perfect.
As it happens, "Freedom From Want" was merely one of a four-part series.
Another one was "Freedom of Speech."
I find it almost as frightening as the first, though it's a tad harder
to say why.
I guess the question that keeps me awake at nights is: How can a guy who
can depict a jacket so accurately get everything else so wrong?
The people in this scene seem positively eager to hear what the guy standing
up is about to say. I've never been to a public gathering
where that is the case.
Has this guy with the naively optimistic glow on his face really never
been in a classroom where saying the "wrong" thing has gotten him called
stupid or worse? Where are the bored listeners, the impatient listeners,
the ones who think they know it all and don't need to hear what some unknown
jerk has to say?
I'd like to do a sequel to this painting realistically showing everyone's
reaction to what was just said: Disgust, incredulity, partisan cat-calling,
And of course the reporter in the back getting it all down on paper wrong
because he's simultaneously flirting with the speaker's wife.
One final example. (I know it's probably unnecessary for everyone
else to see but my doctor said it'd hasten my recovery from my phobia if
I could bring myself to consider at least three Rockwell works a day.
This is "Christmas Homecoming" from 1948. Newsweek calls it one of
I find it a creepy American version of Nazi and Soviet propaganda posters
in praise of the holy motherland. There's a certain hermetic vision
of people and life that I find terribly, terribly suffocating. I
mean, this is a painting that doesn't allow for varied interpretation.
It has a message, damn it, and you vill hear it! This man is loved!
By everyone! EVERYONE! There's not a child crass enough
to break the mood by asking, "Did you bring me anything, Daddy?"
There's not a hint that maybe - just maybe - this man has just gotten out
of jail for knowingly selling inferior guns to the government during the
war. There's not the merest suggestion that the guy with the pipe
has been bopping this guy's wife during his absence and now he just doesn't
know what he's gonna be doing with his Saturday evenings. Ok, so
it's just barely possible to imagine that the little boy holding the hat
is waiting to tell Dad about how he tied Old Yeller to the tracks on a
slow afternoon when there was no one home to play catch with.
Naw. I'm afraid my imagination just died of oxygen deprivation.
If only Rockwell hadn't known how to depict such a goddamn irresistible
That's the scary thing. The fact that my eyes love Rockwell.
And my heart wants to love him, too. So once again it falls to my
mind to be the bad guy and say, "Listen, boys, forget it. This Norman
fella is a real sap - and a dangerous sap, at that. If you belonged
to a surgeon and looked at a Picasso, nobody would be afraid you'd mistake
his depiction of the human form for the real thing and start making deadly
errors in the operating room. You look at this Norman fella one too
many times, though, and you'll end up doing something as bad. You'll
start thinking this is the way life is or was or at least is for others
or maybe should be and you'll go nuts or mistake the interstate for a dance
floor. Didn't you learn anything from watching Leave It
To Beaver as the child of a single mother growing up poor in the inner
city?! What a set of losers!"
I know I'm probably wasting my time trying to reason further with my eyes
and my heart - and I know it's probably unnecessary as well now that I
have these little blue pills to coat everything in nice warm shades of
happiness - but I feel I owe them a few more words before the chemical
lobotomy makes it impossible.
First, remember: People are actually very complicated things. Their
emotions are often complex, conflicted, and submerged and even if they
wanted to, they couldn't display them all on their faces the way Rockwell's
people always seem able to do.
Second, remember this also: There's an infinite number of ways to interpret
the simplest scene, event, person, thought, or moment. Anyone who
basically says that there's only one is a knave or a fool. Spend
time with your cat or stuffed animals instead.
Finally, don't be fooled by the fact that both Ross Perot and Steven Spielberg
collect Rockwell's works. Rockwell himself was actually something
of an interesting person. His mother was a self-proclaimed invalid.
He was a high school drop-out. He was married three times.
He was against the Vietnam war.
Norman Rockwell did not live a Norman Rockwell life, ok?
Sometimes people are better than their art.
Just like some people are better than their journal entries.
I'd say more but nice warm shades of happiness are raining down from the
stars in my head....
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(©Now by Dan Birtcher, onetime model
for Edvard Munch's "The Scream")