Monday, December 23, 2013


 "To live is to war with trolls."  -- Henrik Ibsen

 One of the most interesting stories from Deborah Solomon's new biography of Norman Rockwell involves his famous series of paintings, the Four Freedoms.  During World War II, Rockwell wanted to aid the war effort but was too old to enlist and not physically suited to be a fighter.  He set out instead to illustrate Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" in a way that would inspire patriotism and encourage the purchase of war bonds.

After sketching his four paintings, Rockwell went to Washington to donate his art to the government but the government wasn't interested.  Rockwell showed his drafts to the Office of War Information but the official in charge responded:
The last war, you illustrators did the posters.  This war we're going to use fine arts men, real artists.  If you want to make a contribution to the war effort you can do some of these pen and ink drawings for the Marine Corps calisthenics manual.

Solomon deduces that the official who rejected Rockwell's art was the "pompous" Archibald MacLeish, poet and Pulitzer prize winning playwright.  MacLeish was the Assistant Director of the agency.  He said he preferred to inspire the country with pictures from "real" artists such as Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali and Japanese artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi (6 months after Pearl Harbor!)

Rarely has a misguided act of cultural arrogance been so promptly, thoroughly and satisfyingly refuted.

Stung, Rockwell took the rejected paintings to the Saturday Evening Post which used them as internal illustrations.  Editor Ben Hibbs later wrote:
The results astonished us all....Requests to reprint flooded in from other publications.  Various government agencies and private organizations made millions of reprints  and distributed them not only in this country but all over the world.  Those four pictures quickly became the best known and most appreciated paintings of that era.  They appeared right at a time when when the war was going against us on the battle fronts, and the American people needed the inspirational message which they conveyed so forcefully and so beautifully.

Subsequently the Treasury Department took the original paintings on a tour of the nation as the centerpiece of a Post art show to sell war bonds.  They were viewed by 1,222,000 people in 16 leading cities and were instrumental in selling $132,992,539 worth of bonds.
The Post received 60,000 letters about the paintings:

In the meantime, the imperious Archibald MacLeish lasted a mere eight months in his job at the Office of War Information.  After he left, the OWI sent a film crew to Rockwell's studio and filmed a five minute newsreel about his Four Freedoms.  The government's newsreel played in movie theaters around the country.

MacLeish was a brilliant intellectual but he let his reflexive cultural arrogance substitute for thinking about what type of art would be effective.  In doing so, he became just one more of those obstructive trolls described by Ibsen. 


Richard said...

>Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali and Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Those choices boggle the mind.

kev ferrara said...

MacLeish is a perfect example of how ideology messes up otherwise intelligent people.

He spent years postulating and pontificating on the nature of Art after he became one of the "lost generation" in Paris. ("Art shouldn't mean, it should be", he once said, and famously.)

Later, after the stock market crash, he became more interested in artists being in actual social discourse with the public at large, so he probably changed his tune on whether art should be allowed to mean anything. Although the idea of Salvador Dali making war propaganda is just buck nuts; that's like appointing Rodney Dangerfield as White House Press Secretary.

If we look at MacLeish's criteria laid out, Norman Rockwell was the perfect example of just about everything he dreamed of in an Art messenger. Except of course that MacLeish had dreamed it would be a poet (himself) who would be the man for the job, and he was indoctrinated into clueless Modernist snobbery which put down artists who were clear and popular communicators.

Which is all to say, that he fell prey to the typical traps that intellectuals fall into. Which is that, because he was up in his head, he couldn't appreciate the reality of his convictions. And thus couldn't see that, in practice, his views were at odds with each other. Thus, for all his talk and intellectual surety, he was profoundly confused on the matter he was most evangelical about.

Happy Holidays everybody!

FlatClem said...

That being said, and i understand the time period and the context, i don't think that talking about 'arrogance' to defend someone who actively wanted to produce war propaganda is really appropriate.

Politic and art doesnt always mix well to me.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- Yes, it was reeeally difficult to make it all the way through this post without using the term "blockhead" even once.

Kev Ferrara-- Thanks for filling out the picture of MacLeish. Yes, it is possible to be a true intellectual and a lion of culture and still be an ignorant, closed minded troll who impedes the path of art. It was so obvious to everyone around him and yet he didn't see it.

FlatClem-- I agree that art and politics don't always mix well. I 'm not sure that anyone talked about "arrogance" to "defend" someone who wants to produce war propaganda; I believe the word is being used to attack such people.

chris bennett said...

Fortunately, in Britain, we had the more level-headed Kenneth Clark who was heading the war artists commissioning board. This, allied to the 'mass observation' movement spearheaded by the GPO film unit, meant that a broader, more flexible approach was adopted which. included a 'documentary' attitude by many of the artists employed.

Having said that, the money would have been better spent on a couple of extra Spitfires or extra equipment to dig out the wounded from the rubble of our cities.

And having said that... Um... Merry Christmas everybody! :)

Richard said...

His plan sort of caught on in the long run though, eh?

Unknown said...

I remember reading this in Rockwell's
my adventures as an illustrator.
it is amazing MacLeish didn't
realize how these paintings would
be loved by the American public.

Anonymous said...

In 1939, Clark visited Australia, and later referred to it as "that intolerable continent", adding that Australian galleries had the worst art but the best Victorian pornography in the world.


And a Merry Christmas to you Chris!

Unknown said...

Why is feeedom of speeches head kind of lightened? Like someone opened photoshop and just selected his head then cranked the brightness

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