Monday, March 12, 2018


After the recent school shootings in Florida, rival cable news channels and political factions chattered away day and night.  They spewed words of explanation or blame, words of solace or rage, words of hopelessness or words proposing solutions.  (For example, the mentally deranged executive vice president of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, proposed that school teachers pack heat, the better to shoot future gunslingers.)  It's doubtful those words persuaded anyone.

In all that noise, one silent image went viral: Norman Rockwell's classic painting of a school teacher, altered to make a point:

Clear as a bell, it wordlessly reminded audiences of what we are at heart, and what we risk becoming.

Here is Rockwell's original version:

In the same month, the Smithsonian Institution published a cover story about the changing state of America.  The benchmark it chose? Norman Rockwell.

 The Smithsonian asked four brave illustrators to try their hand at updating the themes in Rockwell's  famous "Four Freedoms." series.  (They did not do so well):

At the same time, the Chicago History Museum unveiled a prominent new installation showing  Rockwell's take on the legendary cause of the Great Chicago Fire: Mrs. O' Leary's cow which supposedly kicked over a lantern: 

The new permanent display, "Rockwell's Chicago."
There's nothing surprising about any of these uses for Rockwell's work.  Not a week goes by without some prominent publication or institution invoking Rockwell as a standard.

They know their audience will immediately recognize the reference.

In fact, forty years after Rockwell's death, there are still websites that collect dozens of new spoofs and commentaries on Rockwell's pictures.

Despite his lasting popularity-- or perhaps because of it-- we still hear the thin voices of postmodern art critics fulminating that Rockwell dealt in cliché. But if Rockwell dealt in mere clichés, his art would not continue to play such a significant role in today's vital discourse. His style may be out of fashion but his statements about human nature are undeniably true and enduring.  This is the difference between clichés and archetypes.  

Peter Viereck emphasized that archetypes must never be confused with stereotypes. Archetypes, he wrote, are the enduring values and traditions that have “grown out of the soil of history: slowly, painfully, organically.” These may be easily recognizable but they are very different from cliches or “the ephemeral, stereotyped values of the moment" that have “been manufactured out of the mechanical processes of mass production: quickly, painlessly, artificially."  

The great Herman Melville shared this "reverence for archetypes." He believed archetypes to be at the core of the classic architecture of the golden age of Greece, claiming they saved Greek art from "innovating willfulness." (Innovating willfulness might well be the slogan for our culture.)

Rockwell was hugely prolific, and sometimes resorted to clichés during his long career.  But in his stronger work he was an artist of archetypes.  We find ourselves borrowing the power of his silent archetypes when the clamor of our turbo-charged, 3D digital video presentations with Dolby sound cease to hold our attention.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of an "iconic" artist.