I recently read an entertaining book by Richard Halpern called Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence
. (Here's an excerpt
from the book.) I heard about it last year in a segment on On The Media called Not So Innocent
. Rockwell's illustrations are a piece of American cultural DNA (and still a big business), and Halpern examines this piece under a Freudian microscope.
The Freudian analysis was interesting, but my favorite sections of the book discuss the line between commercial art and fine art, and the ways mass produced art draws from fine art. Halpern quoted Clement Greenberg several times, who wrote an essay called Avant-Garde and Kitsch
. I had a fuzzy idea of what kitsch
meant, but viewing the term through Rockwell's work helped me understand it. Basically, according to Greenberg, kitsch art steals proven ideas from earlier avant-garde art, and turns them into products.
The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience.
Halpern lays out the case that Rockwell took many ideas perfected by Dutch masters such as Vermeer
and Jan Steen
, and transposed an idealized America into 17th Century Dutch interiors. I'm simplifying his argument, but watching Halpern map connections between famous Rockwell images and earlier classics is fun.
Norman Rockwell is one of those artists people feel very strongly about, so it's no surprise this book riles people up
. The Freudian interpretations of his illustrations attack the foundation of innocence that his illustrations are supposed to represent. But beyond the exploration of innocence and disavowal, there's a fascinating case study in the road from high art to mass produced kitsch. And I'll definitely never look at a Norman Rockwell the same way again.