Norman Rockwell's Americans

13 December 2010

A confluence of events, including particularly a recent entry at Grantbridge Street, brought me to a new reälization about Norman Rockwell's great masterpiece,

The point has been thoroughly belabored that Rockwell's recurring theme was a vision of America. I want to draw attention to the specific that this vision of America isn't much of amber waves of grain or of redwoods; it is of people; his recurring theme was Americans — a sort of people — as he saw them. In image after image, Rockwell painted Americans. [image of burly female riveter] [image of returning soldier being greeted in tenement neighborhood] [image of police officer, small boy with bindle, and short-order cook at counter] It would be a mistake to say that these were Americans as Rockwell wished them to be. Rather, these are people as Rockwell conceptualized Americans. He does not generally make them pretty; they are apt to have craggy or slightly comical faces, to be noticeably scrawny or chubby rather than athletic in appearance. But there is an underlying idealization here. It is not one of place; to be an American is neither to be within nor to be from a region; the concept of American here is more akin to one of culture, but there's a better term for what it really is.

With his having made all of these images of Americans, to be painted by Rockwell was to be depicted as an American. When Rockwell painted Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, he painted three Americans. [image of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, being murdered] Indeed, for Rockwell, these three must have been very American, because here to be an American is to embrace an ethos. Americanism is an ethos.

The viewer sees only the shadows of the killers. It could be argued that Rockwell didn't know how the killers looked, but he could have dressed them in white sheets. It could be noted that they seem more menacing in this way, and perhaps Rockwell wanted that effect. But the main reason that they are out-of-frame is because Rockwell painted Americans.

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9 Responses to Norman Rockwell's Americans

  • Gaal Yahas says:

    How does that work, exactly? You or Rockwell may not approve of the Ku Klux Klan, but they are a part of American history, and despicable as you may think them to be, have affected (and been affected by) its culture.

    The people involved in the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner belonged to "the" Ku Klux Klan, but this was actually the third organization of this name (at least); all such Klans were American. Most members of the Klans probably accepted actions like this, and all of them believed they were protecting an essential idea of America.

    • Daniel says:

      It works exactly because this construction of Americanism is, as I said, not a matter of where one is, nor of whence one comes, nor of a broader sense of culture. Someone can be part of my history, affecting me and affected by me, without being me.

      Many of those in the Klan and like organizations would indeed assert that they were real Americans, and that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were not. Rockwell was declaring quite the opposite.

      The applicable construction of Americanism is very much like that used explicitly here: [detail from cover of Shock Suspense Stories #2, showing gang beating alleged 'red' and onlooker asking them instead to act like Americans] with again the villains quite wrongly thinking themselves to be defending America.

      Many people from outside of the culture called American express bafflement with the constructions of Americanism that are in terms of ethos. There is something odder about this response to these constructions of Americanism than about the constructions themselves; while such constructions are usually implicit, still their nature shouldn't be difficult to apprehend. Analogous constructions have emerged from within other cultures, under which constructions to be a real X one must be a good X (with different notions of good obtaining across the various X), and lots of non-Americans have declared America first-and-foremost to be an idea.

      The existence of disagreement, even of long-standing disagreement, over the nature of something — in this case, over which values are entailed by Americanism — doesn't prove that the subject of disagreement is itself illusory. It would probably take an extended effort to make a solid argument for a specific conception of Americanism being the correct conception. This thread certainly isn't the place for such an effort to be made, and my life probably isn't one to be given over to making that argument.

      (BTW, I doubt that the membership of the first Ku Klux Klan would have labelled their philosophy as Americanism. Consider that, from the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the First World War, some Southern state legislatures rejected Independence Day as a Yankee holiday. But it's certainly true that subsequent Klans wrapped themselves in the symbols of America and of the United States, and that their membership exceeded that of the first Klan.)

      • Gaal Yahas says:

        I agree with your premises and most of the argument, but not with the conclusion. I suppose what I'm expressing is a skeptical view of the notion — to use Mykal's term — of an "essential idea of America". I precisely agree that "time and truth" determine what is American, but deny any one person has access to this essential moral truth. I can claim that while personally quite agreeing with Rockwell on a particular instance or even just a moral attitude.

        I think what motivated my comment was that usually cries of "That's un-American!" (or un-bar fsvo bar) are better made by appealing directly to slightly less abstract constructs. Of course, an artist is free to choose his subject.

        • Daniel says:

          My conclusion, above, was that Rockwell didn't paint the killers because they were not what he saw as Americans. I'm far from sure that Rockwell and I would quite agree on the proper conception of Americanism qua ethos.

          I don't see that one has to conclude that Rockwell felt that he had more than some of the particulars of Americanism, nor that he felt that needed to have more than whatever those might have been to conclude that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner qualified as Americans and that their killers did not. I don't see what I've had to say about Americanism that entails an underlying claim to have a full understanding of Americanism; nor do I see what Mykal has declared that entails such a claim. Certainly I believe that I have hold of important aspects, and I expect that Mykal believes something similar.

          I'd be somewhat reluctant to agree that the proper conception of Americanism qua ethos were a moral truth for a couple of reasons, the most important of which is my belief that a moral truth were normative, whereäs the description of moral beliefs can itself be non-normative; and, in particular, it seems possible to me to describe Americanism without deciding whether it were right or wrong.

          However, whatever sort of truth we call a proper conception of Americanism, I don't know why one should deny that there could be any one person who has or had access to the full conception.

          (BTW, Mykal was actually quoting part of the final sentence of your first comment when he referred to an essential idea of America.)

          I'm unsure that I understand your last paragraph here. If you're saying that it's typically more useful to argue against some behaviour on grounds other than it's being un-American, then I agree. As indicated, I think that one can establish that something is American without having established that it is right; if so, then one could certainly establish that it were American without establishing that it were exclusively right. That's one of the reasons that I wouldn't want to spend much of my life making a case that some conception of Americanism were the correct conception.

          • Gaal Yahas says:

            (Oh wow, sorry about the quote sloppiness earlier.)

            The problem I'm trying to express is that I'm not sure what I'm supposed to learn from hearing such-and-such action is unamerican.

            Consider an immigrant from Canada. She comes to the country, builds a house, talks to the neighbors, and so on, until one day she rounds up a team and robs a bank. Tsk, tsk, the judge tells her, and sends her to prison for five years. When she gets out, she comes back to her house, talks to the neighbors, and so on, until one day she stops a car of civil rights activists on a side road and shoots them. Tsk, tsk, the judge tells her, we don't do that sort of thing in America.

            The same story would be as similarly ludicrous with a native kid growing up learning how to live in the county.

            (I'm not sure what distinctions you are proposing between ethos and morality. In metaethics there is at least room to consider that some moral propositions are not universal, so it's conceivable that you accept someone's actions/beliefs even if you do not share them; and certainly practical reason may be explored in a non-normative fashion just as studying the Classics doesn't turn you into an ancient Athenian. There are other places to go here but I feel that in the context of this discussion they are red herrings.)

            And back to your bottom line: Rockwell didn't paint the killers because they were not Americans-qua-ethos. So there's a chance he would have painted Carol the once-Canadian even at her first crime, but not her second. Is there something deeper here than saying something like "Ingres did not paint still lives"?

            • Daniel says:

              For the purposes of the entry above, American is defined exactly in terms of a conception by Rockwell, and what you're supposed to learn is that this theme is so essential to his painting and so important to him that it is almost inconceivable that he should have painted the killers, regardless of standard compositional issues, &c.

              There are going to be distinct possible forces to claims that something is or is not American. In some cases, there may be nothing but thoughtless nationalism; in other cases, a slightly less thoughtless nationalism would entail a claim that, by virtue of choosing to be in America or to represent oneself as from America, one has peculiar behavioural obligations. But if one believes that the relevant part of the ethos is objectively correct, then the attempt to argue in terms of Americanism as such is analogous to a liberal invoking liberalism, and so forth. Consider what one learns from my objecting that something is illiberal. First, that I object; second, that I believe that the case against that to which I object is found in a set of propositions identified as liberalism. It may well be that there is a way to extract the essential case without invoking that set as such, but grabbing hold of the whole package may be sufficient and expedient.

              Ethoi and systems of morality are not intrinsically conterminous. For example, a people could be inclined to hard work (or, alternately, be easy-going) without a sense that others were immoral for being otherwise. Rockwell's paintings are often about people acting like Americans without said pictures having moral content. To find the theme in Rockwell, one has to see the ethos as such, rather than looking only at the moral content, though the moral content comes to bear in the case of Southern Justice.

              As to your hypothetical ex-Canadian, while we might not think a person bad for having behaved in some way prior to being properly informed that those within group X do not behave in such way, still she would plainly not be in group X. If a more accurate claim were that people in group X do not act in that manner after receiving some warning, then she might indeed be believably in group X when first acting that way. Some X might even be defined so that a person who had been warned not to rob banks would not necessarily be considered to have received sufficient warning not to kill civil rights workers. But it isn't plausible that Rockwell would see some adult robbing a bank as in keeping with what he would paint.

  • Mykal Banta says:

    Simply protecting what one considers an "essential idea of America" does not make one an American. It depends on what idea one is defending. Be it McCarthyism or radial hatred, time and truth squeezes the false claim of "Americanism" out of these defenses. Rockwell sought a much deeper Americanism, one based in what Lincoln called "our better angels."

    Take the painting that is shown as the centerpiece for this post. Those in the light are Americans because they are captured in a moment of basic compassion and warmth – America at its very best. Those pictured as shadows are not Americans but are the same shadows that haunt every country when the weak and stupid clan together to find the courage of the gang. Those in the shadow are a lynch mob and neither have or deserve a country.

    Plus, his Rockwell’s was just so goddman beautiful.

  • alanborky says:

    I'm not so sure he DIDN'T paint what the killers looked like.

    Look at the most prominent shadow: is it me, or does that shadow resemble a silhouette of Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu?

    Look at the silhouetted light bulb of a head, the pointy 'ears' which seem to run up its sides.

    Couldn't the shadow created by the weapon it's holding actually be a stake planted firmly in its chest?

    Just a thought.


    Simply put, Rockwell's 'Americans' are ideals. Examples to emulate, and as much can be encapsulated in imagery, people with a certain standard of character. His best art captures the gentle and decent aspects of daily life at a given period in time. Even in the depiction above, he tells a sweet story,ultimately, in that every good story has a moral, and the moral to all of his stories is morality. That is, the moral is morals, or, the lesson is upright conduct. Even in showing the rougher side of life, we walk away understanding that we ought NOT be uncaring or brutal to one another.

    Do real people exist in America that can be looked up to, that the basic 'everyman' can regard as a person to strive to be like, to be better than we currently are? Certainly. There exist no perfect individuals (save One), but Rockwell reminds us that it is not nessecarily the ones that public media tell us are the heroes that we ought to be like, but rather our next-door neighbors, our families and friends, our richest or poorest citizens can carry this nobility of decency that to him seemed to personify America.

    ...and that's the true meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown.

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