Peter Pringle's America: What's wrong with apple pie?

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The Independent Online
THE centenary of Norman Rockwell's birth passed last Thursday without much notice, which is odd considering his place in American history. His fine illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post are irresistible American fantasies - the scruffy ball park, the homely barber shop, the sympathetic doctor, the luncheonette, youth, marriage, old age. His work is a kind of national family album, a social document spanning two world wars, the spread of radio, the birth of television, the first space walk. So why the reluctance to celebrate his birthday?

Poor Rockwell suffered unjustly from the critics. Since most of his work was commissioned and had to be approved by magazine editors or advertisers, the critics have steadfastly refused to say it is fine art. A quick ring round the art magazines to see if they had planned a small celebration brought the snooty comeback summarised in one reply: 'We don't do Rockwell.' The nation's great art museums neither own nor show his paintings. A 1991 'High and Low' exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York - the city of his birth - ignored him.

Part of the problem is that his work is irredeemably upbeat, often cutesy, full of moms and pops and apple pie; visions too good to be true. Ronald Reagan thinks he is wonderful. Ross Perot buys Rockwells. In 1993, when they opened the Rockwell museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, there were Boy Scouts and Brownies, Kiwanians and Rotarians, antique fire engines and clowns. There was a children's parade, accompanied by a brass quintet playing Sousa and Copland. The crowd sang 'America the Beautiful'.

Rockwell would have loved it, I suppose. He always said that he could not paint 'world-shaking ideas' and presented life in an idealised form. He saw his talent as catching 'ordinary people in everyday situations, and that's about all I can do . . . The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and the ugly'. To his critics, Rockwell acknowledged: 'I just paint life the way I would like it to be.'

The result was a magnificent collection of canvasses that reassured Americans of their essential goodness and fortified the notion that in a world in turmoil all was hunky-dory in their own land. Only late in his 60-year career did he attempt to comment on the darker side of life. He freely admitted that much of 20th-century art had no effect on his technique. He referred to himself as an illustrator, not a painter, and his work was not interpretive.

When Rockwell had his first one-man show in New York in 1968, 10 years before he died, almost no one came. In a 1972 retrospective, the critics made it clear that they did not take him seriously and, if they could not then, they certainly could not today. Now they swoon over 'fine artists' who cannot even draw and rate the portrayal of disease, deformity and despair over such things as love, loyalty and friendship. They find what Rockwell called his 'sledgehammer sentimentality' completely unacceptable.

One of the few critics who has tried to give Rockwell his rightful place in American 20th-century painting is Paul Richard, art critic of the Washington Post. At the opening of the Rockwell museum he wrote, 'Imagine what would happen to the culture of America if a Rockwell's sort of gushiness were suddenly expunged. There goes Irving Berlin. There goes Neil Simon and much of Rogers and Hammerstein and a good deal of Gershwin. There go the pages of Our Town and large chunks of Tom Sawyer, the movies of Frank Capra and much of Jimmy Stewart, Walt Disney and Bill Cosby . . . Good riddance, you might say, but do not claim that Rockwell's rose-coloured vision had no impact on America.'

So let us celebrate the anniversary anyway. Before me is a book with 80 of his magazine covers, posters and paintings. Opened at random, it makes me smile. One of his best is Saying Grace, which Rockwell once described as 'an old lady sitting in a railroad diner with a kid and they're praying at the table. A bunch of toughs are looking over at them.' It is much more. Painted with photographic realism, the canvas calls forth the greasy eggs and bacon. I can hear the clank of the breakfast plates and smell the mustiness of the old woman's coat. He was a meticulous observer and a genius at props.

In Visit to a Country Doctor, a balding physician, stethoscope in hand, patiently explains his diagnosis to a mother who has a baby in her lap and an anxious husband looking on. In Outside the Principal's Office, a gangly, grinning, pigtailed tomboy, dishevelled, with a black eye and grazed knee, awaits an interview with the school head. In The Problem We All Live With, a small black girl is escorted by four white US marshals into a white school as tomatoes are thrown at her. It was a loaded painting, filled with the emotion of the time. Rockwell referred to the 'problem' of race as it affected real and delicate human beings.

By deliberately downgrading Rockwell, the critics are indulging in the worst snobbery. If millions like it and if a business paid for it to be painted, it cannot be art. Like the socialist realist painters who glorified the dream of Communism, he held the American dream on high. But while the figures in Soviet paintings look like demigods always victorious by order of the Kremlin, Rockwell on his own created the common folk, embarrassed and exhilarated in childhood, awkward in courtship, exasperated by the trials of family life. In the age of innocence, ordinary people saw something of their own lives and the scenes are no less compelling today. Happy birthday, Mr Rockwell.