“Norman Rockwell Causes an Identity Crisis” by Pamela Beck

This is not a plug for Norman Rockwell, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (or the Scientologists). Like them or not, it’s your choice. But for many people, art appreciation is caught between what people think they should like and what they actually do like. And the two often don’t agree.

Pamela Beck

Pamela Beck

There are as many ways to think about art as there are to create it. Join Pamela Beck in her column, ARTdart, as she explores and considers the different perspectives that define the art world.

I know you’re out there: Otherwise edgy people who pretend they don’t like Norman Rockwell.

As secrets go, this one’s not in the category of hiding the lovechild you had with your maid ten years ago (hats off, Arnold); and in recent years, more people have begun to view Rockwell as more than a guilty pleasure. But for those whose tastes in art fall unerringly on the side of challenging, intellectually charged work, whose art education and exposure has been vast and varied, admitting that you like Rockwell or art labeled as sentimental can be met with looks of pity, scorn and derision.

Recently I discussed this with a friend who, while she keeps up with all art things current, happens to be a closet Rockwell fan. (I outed her by accident last year when I found a Rockwell postcard on her desk and she had to come clean.) In fairness, she didn’t actually fake distaste for Rockwell, she just never said how much she liked his work in the many conversations we’ve had about art.

The problem we all live with — by Norman Rockwell

We considered what else she felt she had to hide. Does the need to appear what many consider “sophisticated,” extend beyond her aesthetic tastes? Must she hide her undying curiosity about why Katie Holmes left Tom Cruise (and what is it about those Scientologists?) along with her interest in the highly collected French Academic painter, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, often reviled for his paintings of cherubs and pretty girls?

We had a good laugh over this ludicrous reasoning and the insecurity it reflected. After all, we’re adults; we should be able to say what we like despite how others may label us. We should be able to say what we like even if our own educated reasoning says it’s a no-no. Those days of being banished from the high school lunch table for being uncool are over.

But when my friend stopped to think about how often she avoided these topics in conversation, she had to admit that yes, in fact, she did skirt around them in public. “Especially with strangers who would probably think I was a lightweight if they didn’t know me better.”

First impressions are important, there’s no denying that. But if you were seeking to impress someone, wouldn’t you have to know that person very well to understand what would, in fact, impress him/her? These things aren’t black and white, unless you yourself are.

Imagine a scenario where you’ve just met a highly regarded, erudite old master painting scholar you’ve always admired. In the course of your conversation, he tells you he’s enchanted by Rockwell’s iconic American imagery and impressed by his dexterous painting technique.

The New Television Set, by Norman Rockwell, 1949

If you were a secret Rockwell fan, would you feel a surge of relief? (The expert likes him too!) Would you wish you had said that you liked Rockwell first? (He would have known how multi-faceted I am!) Would you admire the scholar’s individuality? (Why can’t I be as comfortable with my questionable opinions?) Interesting to consider our own reactions at such moments and what they reveal about us.

This is not a plug for Norman Rockwell, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (or the Scientologists). Like them or not, it’s your choice. But for many people, art appreciation is caught between what people think they should like and what they actually do like. And the two often don’t agree.

In the unlikely event that curating an exhibition is next on your list, this issue is something you might want to jump on ASAP. As for everybody else, this isn’t a timed race and there’s no door prize waiting for you once you’ve left the gallery, museum or your friend’s art collection. Looking at art often and learning about it, usually helps people feel more comfortable with their own reactions, whatever they may be.

Who knows, maybe the next time you meet that old master paintings scholar, you’ll admit that Rockwell’s work reminds you of a lost innocence you find quite moving, even if you roll your eyes while looking at it. Two contrasting points of view can be true. At least they’ll be your own.

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8 thoughts on ““Norman Rockwell Causes an Identity Crisis” by Pamela Beck”

  1. My grown daughter kept a Rockwell poster of the girl on the cusp of womanhood, putting on lipstick with a fashion magazine on her lap and her hair “up” and her doll dropped on the floor like a shell to the seafloor, gone.

    The look in the girl’s face was sober, curious, apprehensive, hopeful — brave. The childhood toy was dropped with no care, all askew, no longer entitled to the imagination of a soul, replaced by Rita Hayworth’s dollface.

    My daughter’s poster hung *in the closet*, in a walk-in with a small dressing table where my daughter mirrored the action in the picture. I found it almost unbearably poignant and direct.

    Rockwell’s visible desire is what we’re itchy about…the open reaching for a heart-squeeze in the flatline, flat-ironed, ironic outlook we’re burdened with. He’s an antidote now, the extinct pre-media view of subjects who haven’t spent their lives posing in front of devices and refining their brand.

    Once again, thanks for a cogent view and I hope it invites in new eyes.

    1. Beautiful. The heart-squeeze- I think that’s why so many people are drawn to Rockwell.

  2. I love Norman Rockwell! I don’t care what other people think. He brought to life what it was like to grow up in an age when there was so much turmoil going on this world. I can smile at his art & think back to that age. I will continue to love his work. So there!

  3. Please , let’s get out of the closet, not just about Rockwell but manny other great artists ….
    Mayby a revolution is in making and emperor clothes are gone forever ……just dreaming
    Thank you Pamela write more on this subject it is so desperately needed. Dasha

  4. I am a Rockwell fan and proud of it. But, I have always known that his work elicits conflicting opinions from art professionals. Beck’s piece shines a true light on the uneasy emotions one can feel when stating one’s own aesthetic judgments–especially about controversial artistic subjects. But, I say that if an art creation of any kind authentically moves you then the emotion takes precedence over the intellectual response and one should be simply grateful to the artist for such a life affirming experience.

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