There is sometimes a comedy to the cultural life whichis not entirely dignified. What I mean by that is that you can suddenly find that your expectations about a work, and your complacent assumptions about the part you will play in the drama of your encounter with it, are overturned by what actually happens. And when that occurs, your corrective measures can be slightly ridiculous. It's usually invisible to everyone but you, but that doesn't make it less embarrassing. It's a bit like what happens when you stumble while walking along the street and do a little pantomime of recovered dignity, just in case anyone is watching. It happened to me the other day when I went to see the Norman Rockwell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.
The synopsis of the drama ran something like this. During his life Rockwell was hugely loved and simultaneously condescended to. The love came from the millions of Americans who looked forward to his covers for The Saturday Evening Post, with their distillation of small-town cosiness. The condescension (not always contemptuous) came from the fine art world, which saw these works as sentimental and hokey, mere illustration at a time when the "mereness" of illustration was a given. And then, very slowly a kind of thaw set in, with more and more people admitting that, whatever you might say formally about Rockwell, it was difficult to get round the fact that were quite enjoyable to look at. The distinguished New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl gave concise expression to this sentiment about 10 years ago. "Rockwell is terrific," he wrote, "It's become tedious to pretend he isn't."
For Schjeldahl it was Rockwell's genius for narrative that was the saving grace – a double-edged gift at a time when fine art had all but abandoned narrative, but too effective to be held out against for ever. And John Updike, who knew something about narrative, talked of Rockwell as "always exceeding the necessary", catching rather well the generosity of the pictures, which have a surplus of detail over and above their central theme. So, as I walked towards Dulwich to make my entrance, I pretty much knew the part I was going to play. People are still snobbish about Rockwell (just read Brian Sewell's blazing review if you don't believe that), I thought, but I'll go with the slowly emerging dissenters. It somehow felt as if it would just be more fun to find an overlooked genius in these works. I had – this is where the comedy comes in – a mental picture of myself knocking aside the doors of received opinion like a cowboy entering a saloon bar.
At which point, received opinion swung back and smacked me in the face. Because some of the earliest pictures you see in the exhibition are ghastly enough to bring you to your knees. I'm thinking particularly of a large painting of a clown comforting a weeping child, which took every charge ever made against Rockwell for sentiment and saccharine and doubled them. Oh dear, I thought, this is going to be a lot trickier than I thought. To paraphrase Schjeldahl, it looked as if it was going to be very tedious to pretend that Rockwell was good. And yet I couldn't immediately surrender my wish that he might be.
The early illustrations weren't much more help in this regard – a lot of cod-Dickensianism and mock-Medieval, which shows that it took Rockwell himself a while to work out that what Middle America wanted was a mirror, not a window, and a magically flattering mirror at that. And yes, there were straws to clutch at in his gift for composition and colour (easier to spot in the oil sketches rather than the over-finished final illustrations). There was evidence of a social conscience, both in the famous image of a frightened black girl being escorted to school by government officials and in a Thanksgiving cover which reminded American readers in 1945 that many civilians in Europe were giving thanks for very small mercies. But they weren't quite enough. He might have been a Mark Twain of paint, as someone once called him, but if so he was the Mark Twain of Tom Sawyer, not the Mark Twain of Huckleberry Finn – an artist more interested in amusing America than in accusing it. Nothing wrong with that if you want amusing – and the Dulwich show is richly pleasurable. But the boring thing is that the condescension wasn't entirely misplaced.
It's time to dig into a decadent Russian novel
Double-dyed villain that he is I always felt Donald Rumsfeld got a bit of a rough deal over his "unknown unknowns" remark – it being perfectly sensible to distinguish between the gaps in your knowledge that you're uncomfortably aware of and the alarming ones that you encounter without any warning, like a pothole on a very dark night. In my own case, for instance, I'm well aware of most of the gaps in my reading (and shamefully gaping some of them are). But the other night a friend mentioned that Vladimir Nabokov had once listed the four greatest masterpieces of 20th-century prose, and then uttered a name I'd never heard of (or had forgotten, if I once had). Have a guess at Nabokov's list before you read on. I imagine quite a lot of you may get Joyce or Proust or Kafka (for Ulysses, À la Recherche and Metamorphosis, respectively). But how many of you got Andrei Bely, author of Petersburg, a symbolist novel that was later dismissed as "decadent" by Soviet literary apparatchiks? It's possible that Nabokov was being patriotic here, ensuring that his beloved Russia figured in this truncated account of modern literature, but I doubt that he would have wanted to expose a mediocre work to such challenging company. And since Nabokov could reasonably claim a place in any list of 20th-century prose masters it must surely be worth reading. My first resolution of the year is to set to and fill the pothole.
Americans are turned off by 3D
Just before Christmas the death was announced of an early pioneer of 3D cinema, an American cinematographer called Chris Condon, who helped develop StereoVision and contributed classics such as Jaws 3D and Surfer Girls to the cinematic canon. Given his lifelong dedication to the cause of simulated protuberance it's perhaps a mercy that he didn't get to see the Nielsen poll published the day after he died, which suggested that 3D television is not going to take off with the public in quite the way that industry professionals hoped. Despite considerable investments in developing and marketing 3D TVs, less than 3 per cent of Americans said they definitely planned to buy one in the coming year, as opposed to 59 per cent who said they definitely wouldn't. The global averages were a little more promising for the manufacturers, but not enough to give them a happy Christmas. It all suggests that the audience have seen through the hype to the reality – that it's one thing to look like a dork in a darkened cinema, quite another thing in your own home. And that the payoffs of 3D just aren't substantial enough to warrant the expense. Video gaming may yet provide a Trojan horse to get the technology inside our homes, but I'm betting it'll still be a novelty in 2015.