Norman Rockwell at The Guggenheim Museum

Norman Rockwell; courtesy the Norman Rockwell Museum

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The Norman Rockwell retrospective has arrived at the Guggenheim and it is problematic.  The problem, however, is not Norman Rockwell (1894-1978).

Rockwell is what he is:  a first-class illustrator with a Capra-esque eye for detail, a gentle hand for caricature and a gift for impressing the collective heart.  He was also unassuming and level-headed.  When told that his work placed him on par with Rembrandt, Rockwell replied:  “I’m sure he’s turning over in his grave.”  You have to wonder if recent analogies of his Saturday Evening Post covers with Vermeer’s paintings have Rockwell doing some spinning of his own.  Rockwell isn’t to blame for loopy comparisons, and that’s the problem with Norman Rockwell:  Pictures for the American People:the people making the comparisons.

No one believes Rockwell is in the same class as Vermeer or Hals or Daumier, least of all those making the claims.  So, why do a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the current director of the Guggenheim and the contemporary scene’s coolest critic sign on in promulgating such notions?  Presumably, they’re promoting a down-home populism, but Thomas Hoving, Thomas Krens and Dave Hickey are neither down-home nor populists.  They’re cultural elites engaging in post-modernist caprice.

By showering Rockwell with implausible huzzahs, these friends of art get to congratulate themselves on their hip-to-be-square bonafides while simultaneously keeping an eye on boffo box office receipts.  That their outreach constitutes the rankest condescension bothers them not a whit.  To which the rest of us say:  feh.  Let Mr. Hoving, Mr. Krens and Mr. Hickey indulge in their “democratic” bad faith. The American people don’t need them. Neither does Rockwell.

(c) 2001 Mario Naves

A version of the article originally appeared in the January 1, 2001 edition ofThe New York Observer.

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