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Norman Rockwell reconsidered
April 15, 2007 3:23 PM   Subscribe

Innocence is constructed by disavowing things that are right in front of your face. Richard Halpern, professor of English at Johns Hopkins University, published a different take on Norman Rockwell's art in Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence. He looks below the idyllic surface of nostalgic Americana and sees unwitting voyeurism and blurred boundaries "between asexual friendship and Eros". Naturally, many Rockwell fans don't want to hear this about their beloved painter of innocence: an article about this book in the Boston Globe drew quite a few scathing comments. (BugMeNot logins for the Boston Globe website)
posted by Quietgal (105 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Next, we'll look for Marxist subtexts in Toby Keith songs. Agreed?

And remember not to ask about their Peace Quilts. They really hate that.
posted by cowbellemoo at 3:36 PM on April 15, 2007


I guess anything can be anything...eye of the beholder and all that. If someone looks at two pubescent-ish Scouts who are in the same vicinity as each other and sees hot boy-on-boy action, it's probably more of a peek into the beholder's psyche rather than the painter's intention.

Makes me sad. Sadder than when I was told Scooby-doo and Co. were "totally baked, man. Scooby Snacks, man!! I mean, c'mon, man."
posted by dozo at 3:38 PM on April 15, 2007


Oh, Jesus H. Christ! Methinks this is a meatspace example of overthinking a plate of beans...or the remnants of a PhD thesis in search of some sort of relevance.

God-darn, that cop was hitting on that runaway boy in the diner, wasn't he?
posted by ericb at 3:45 PM on April 15, 2007




BS. Just BS.
posted by MarshallPoe at 4:00 PM on April 15, 2007


I have always thought of Rockwell drawings as a spiteful suggestion of what we thought our lives would be like but are not.
posted by Postroad at 4:06 PM on April 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


At the risk of being the victim of a pile-on, this thread pretty much seems to prove Halpern's thesis thus far. Most of the replies seem like knee-jerk reactions to the thought of "sexuality" and "Rockwell" in the same sentence rather than actual considerations of Halpern's ideas.

And "A comment on the boundaries between asexual friendship and Eros" =! "hot boy-on-boy action". Not even close.
posted by papakwanz at 4:12 PM on April 15, 2007


I grew up with Rockwell's art, life was different back then... I call BS on this.. Richard is too young to even understand what that era was about..

Richard also wrote "Shakespeare's Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud and Lacan"

I'm thinking this guy could find lust in my 90 year old grandmother's checkbook register!
posted by HuronBob at 4:33 PM on April 15, 2007


I hate the way the first link draws a simple binary opposition between Rockwell as "innocent kitschy sentimentalist" and Halpern's often absurd exaggerations of "secret" sexuality in the paintings. It requires a peculiar kind of blindness to not see the playfulness about sex and morality in tons of Rockwell's paintings, and it certainly shouldn't require acceptance of Halpern's bizarre readings (the supposed "incest" in Art Critic relies on the fact that the models are Rockwell's son and his 2nd wife - real deep analysis there) to realize Rockwell has long been underestimated by people who only glance at the surface of his work.

Anyone who needs Halpern to see the "darkness" in a painting like Sunday Morning (notice Dad's devil horns) or the obviously budding sexuality in Girl at Mirror hasn't been paying attention to Rockwell's stuff at all.
posted by mediareport at 4:37 PM on April 15, 2007 [4 favorites]


This isn't news. I've jerked-off to Norman for years.
posted by basicchannel at 4:40 PM on April 15, 2007 [8 favorites]


"The book's purpose wasn't to point out potentially naughty bits in a Rockwell," Halpern says. "And I wasn't just trying to say there's a sexual content to Rockwell's painting because that would make it sound like a clichéd Freudian reading of the art. What I want to say is that Rockwell is thinking about innocence and he's using this to test the viewer to see how much of this kind of material you can absorb without acknowledging it. This was also his way of meditating on how innocence is constructed by disavowing things that are right in front of your face.

I think this is a brilliant take on Rockwell. And I really don't get the vitriol. Halpern is offering a interesting reading on Rockwell, and it's worthy of more consideration than the knee-jerk reaction here. Thanks for the links, Quietgal.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:41 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


Geometry would be much more fun if it were run like this.

Bugbread's Proof Of Interest
1. It would be interesting if X were true.
2. Therefore X is true.
posted by Bugbread at 4:49 PM on April 15, 2007


I'm guessing that the "vitriol" comes from the fact that Helpern is not an artist, not a student of that era, not an art professor. He is an English Professor who specializes in Shakespeare. Yet, here he is professing insight into Rockwell's thoughts and intent with no basis in fact (at least that I could discern).

Rockwell's art depicts an era that a lot of us miss. I would trade a year in the fifties for 10 years in the morally toxic cesspool that is our current society at the drop of a hat. And now this English professor wants to taint some of the images that remind me of a much better time.
posted by HuronBob at 4:58 PM on April 15, 2007


1) I think Rockwell is a far better artist than most people give him credit for; he never managed to effectively shift between art and illustration a la NC Wyeth, but then neither is he the harbinger of Thomas Kinkade that so many art school kids think he is.

2) As such, some of Rockwell's paintings would provide ample fodder for interesting analysis from an art historian who wanted to write a briskly selling book -- he or she could pull out all kinds of interesting (and possibly dark, sexual, scary etc) meaning from his work.

3) Freud is the first refuge of the lazy, incompetent, sensationalist critic who wants to cash in on controversy, and is the most boring and useless framing I can think of for this subject.

I'm sure that if you look hard enough, you can find some genuine erotic subtext in Rockwell's work. "OMG THAT PIPE IN HSI MOUTH IS A COCK!!!one" is not it.
posted by xthlc at 5:02 PM on April 15, 2007


Sure, Rockwell's paperboy/barbershop paintings are pretty innocent takes on 50's America; but that Cave of the Winds painting? Jesus, how can you deny the leer on the boy's face as he looks up the girl's dress?

Nice post.
posted by kozad at 5:03 PM on April 15, 2007


Looking through Saturday Evening Post covers, it is clear that people didn't buy it for the articles.

I peg the year that the US completely woke up and realized that innocence wasn't quite so innocent after all was around 1981. Look how any magazine changed from '75 and '85 and you'll see what I mean.
posted by niccolo at 5:04 PM on April 15, 2007


Didn't I read somewhere that Rockwell began his commercial career with pinups, but they came out wholesome and matronly despite himself, and so he was forced into the career he ultimately followed?

He's always reminded me of Dickens in his grotesqueries, a lack of innocence somehow prior to sexuality or sexually exhausted beyond all renewal, cruder and perhaps more disturbing than the ordinary explicit.
posted by jamjam at 5:05 PM on April 15, 2007


Pater, if it helps, I get just as frustrated at the "Rockwell Only Paints Beloved Innocence" crowd. My objection here is to the way the article frames Halpern's not-particularly new or shocking revelations. I mean, really, Halpern's take on The Connoisseur is "I think he's being mocked."

Gosh, ya think? Even if Halpern's right about, say, Art Critic as a sort of incest-joke nod to Ingres' Oedipus and the Sphinx, all he's really said is that Rockwell routinely placed puns and in-jokes in his paintings. Again, quite a shocker.

It's also worth noting that other folks have pointed out that there's more going on in Rockwell than most academics or art critics believe, without sparking this sort of angry backlash. The more I read of Halpern, the more I think he's trying to have his cake and eat it, too, hyping the "dark side" element to boost sales while simultaneously shrugging and saying, "I don't know what you people are so upset about."
posted by mediareport at 5:06 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


I would trade a year in the fifties for 10 years in the morally toxic cesspool that is our current society at the drop of a hat.

I'm a white man, too, HuronBob.
posted by maxwelton at 5:07 PM on April 15, 2007 [12 favorites]


One of the problems I've always had with Art Theorists:

The whole "color X is used to represent Y" thing. Like "Rockwell uses a lot of red. Red is the color of sexuality. Rockwell is making a statement about sexuality." If he's saying that Rockwell is subconsciously doing that, well, fine. Can't really confirm or deny. But the propensity to interpret it all as intentional selection doesn't ring true with the artists I've known, who will sometimes use red for sexuality or some Deep Hidden Meaning, but more often than not just on a whim.

Sometimes you can think a few things correctly about a plate of beans, but then just keep going and going until the beans have been thoroughly overthought.
posted by Bugbread at 5:15 PM on April 15, 2007


Rockwell's art depicts an era that a lot of us miss.

His paintings are great historical snapshots, among other things; one of my faves is New Television Antenna. I just love all the details. And I'm sure Halpern would join me in pointing to the parallel with the church steeple in the background, soon to be replaced as main altar of American society.
posted by mediareport at 5:21 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


The 50s were actually pretty sucky, but at the time there was the feeling (and the FACT) that things were getting better and there was no end to it in sight. That made up for alot.

In fact, things stopped getting better in the mid-60s (we noticed the black&poor were still living in the 1920s--vietnam, an equal opportunity meat grinder, helped) and hit a wall for all but us fat cats about 1970.

A major downer in the 1950s was the likelihood of a nasty atomic conflagration. It didn't happen, but only a moron could, at the time. disregard it. God was much less popular then, and nobody was really relying on him, like they do now.
posted by hexatron at 5:25 PM on April 15, 2007


Richard also wrote "Shakespeare's Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud and Lacan"

I'm thinking this guy could find lust in my 90 year old grandmother's checkbook register!


It's pretty well established that something like half of Shakespeare's sonnets, including some pretty erotic ones, are addressed to a man.
posted by nasreddin at 5:26 PM on April 15, 2007


the parallel with the church steeple in the background, soon to be replaced as main altar of American society.

Interesting. Hard to miss that one, too. Reminds me of the ending of the movie Moolaadé where a radio antennae is similarly contrasted to the spire of a mosque.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:27 PM on April 15, 2007


I would trade a year in the fifties for 10 years in the morally toxic cesspool that is our current society at the drop of a hat.

Oh really? Institutionalized intrenched racism, sexism, and abject fear of the Bomb?

And tv was pretty crappy too. No cable.
posted by konolia at 5:27 PM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


And on topic:

The book is a load of crap--applying today's paranoia to a what was, at the time, recognised as an idealised but totally familiar reality.

The cop really would discuss with the kid his future plans.

The little girl with the shiner was having the best day of her life--perhaps of her whole life.

The reality behind these images is as simple as the images.

Especially if you were, or had been, a small-town white protestant in the 1920s.
posted by hexatron at 5:34 PM on April 15, 2007


Was Rockwell considered a painter of small-town Americana and nostalgia when he was at the height of his career? Or was that a pejorative label applied to him retroactively, after The Saturday Evening Post lost its importance to Life, Look and TVGuide, after he had become a quaint old man, at a time when any representational painting was scorned and everyone fancied that they were creating a new culture of youth and freedom?

He was a commentator on his society and an entertainer for a wide popular audience. He expressed values important to people of the time. Is his outlook that different from the movies of the 30's and 40's? With their attention to character and detail and their sense of humour the paintings reflect many of the best qualities of those older movies.

His paintings are far from rose-coloured. The returning soldier comes home to an urban tenement. There's a gray world of factories and highways outside the window behind the old lady and the grandson saying grace, and the diner isn't so pretty either. His paintings are full of working people. He seems to respect the people in his paintings, unlike some representational gallery artists of now, who trade in parodying surburbia and consumerism, in grotesquery. It should be easy to make a case for Rockwell as the creator of a substantial body of work, maybe not in art history but in popular culture, without needing to summon Oedipus to come check out his mother's mams.
posted by TimTypeZed at 6:03 PM on April 15, 2007 [5 favorites]


Next up: the REAL reason why the windows of all those cutesy pastoral cottages that Thomas Kinkade paints are always fogged up.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 6:21 PM on April 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


God was much less popular then, and nobody was really relying on him, like they do now.

Except for the US national motto, paper currency, and the Pledge of Allegience.
posted by ken_zoan at 6:25 PM on April 15, 2007


Ah, I knew I had it around here somewhere: Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People. It's a 1999 exhibition catalog that has a variety of takes on Rockwell, many of which make points similar to Halpern's, but without the over-the-top reaching that's annoyed so many. The Boston Globe piece from last October mentions an essay in the book by Wanda Corn to show that Halpern's discovery of sex jokes in Rockwell's paintings is far from new:

And even Halpern's emphasis on sexuality isn't unprecedented. In a contribution to the catalog for a landmark traveling exhibition of Rockwell's work in the late 1990s, for example, the Stanford University art historian Wanda M. Corn took note of a "hilarious" and bawdy detail in The Connoisseur: "an explosion of white paint" in that Abstract Impressionist painting right at the belt level of the man in the suit.

Go look, it's there. The book also has an essay from Dave Hickey, also mentioned in the Globe:

Dave Hickey, a freelance art critic who teaches at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas-and a past defender of Rockwell against his critics-says he's sure the sexual gags are there, given how "iconographically self-conscious" the artist was. But his reaction is, "So what?" Such instances are trivial, he says, in comparison with Rockwell's formal skills of composition and his creation of "a kind of Dickensian mythology" about childhood and domestic life.

Anyway, the book's a nice entry point for folks who are looking to learn more about Rockwell's art but are wary of Halpern's exaggerated interpretations.
posted by mediareport at 6:28 PM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


I can't wait until they do this with Georgia O'Keeffe. I've always felt there was something underneath the hood there. Something between the lips. Hidden in the vagina, if you know what I mean.
posted by stavrogin at 7:16 PM on April 15, 2007 [5 favorites]


Rockwell's art depicts an era that a lot of us miss. I would trade a year in the fifties for 10 years in the morally toxic cesspool that is our current society at the drop of a hat. And now this English professor wants to taint some of the images that remind me of a much better time.

I'm guessing you're a white man...
posted by delmoi at 7:16 PM on April 15, 2007


...and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
posted by deCadmus at 7:18 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


Forest-for-the-trees filter: Just as nobody in the clueless mid-century seemed able to decode the meaning of "Beaver Cleaver," what do y'all suppose "Saturday Evening Post" refers to, hmmmm?
P.S. Norman Rockwell is the anagrammatic nom de peinture for suburban pornmeister Corn "Wanker" Moll.
P.P.S. freshwater_pr0n: You're late to the party!

posted by rob511 at 7:33 PM on April 15, 2007


Richard also wrote "Shakespeare's Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud and Lacan"

I'm thinking this guy could find lust in my 90 year old grandmother's checkbook register!
posted by HuronBob


Are you fucking kidding me? To slightly correct nasreddin, about 127 of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets are addressed to a male who may have been young, possibly teenage boy at that. Many of them are HIGHLY erotic, and the young man is painted in much more complimentary terms than the "dark lady" of the last sonnets. I won't even address Oscar Wilde.

mediareport: I hate the way the first link draws a simple binary opposition between Rockwell as "innocent kitschy sentimentalist" and Halpern's often absurd exaggerations of "secret" sexuality in the paintings.

Your description of Halpern's work sounds more exaggerated than what I got from the articles (well, the Globe piece was a bit sensationalist.) Have you read Halpern's book? From your comments it sounds that you have. It sounds to me from the descriptions that Halpern is not going, "OMG sex lolzers!" but saying, "Hey, yeah these paintings depict this lovely idyllic life, but there's something else in there too. Why? Because sex is a part of life."

xthlc: 3) Freud is the first refuge of the lazy, incompetent, sensationalist critic who wants to cash in on controversy, and is the most boring and useless framing I can think of for this subject.

From the mouth of someone who probably knows little of Freud beyond what has seeped into pop culture by osmosis. Good Freudian analysis is not about "let's spot the cocks," and in the other works by Halpern that I've read (I haven't read the Rockwell book) he does not do such simple-minded shit. In fact, only silly undergrads and people failing out of grad programs do that shit anymore. Good Freudian analysis doesn't assume everything long and narrow is a metaphor for penis, or that everything open is a metaphor for vagina. It would take me too long to go into it all here, but the simplified version is that genitals are themselves metaphors; what someone may colloquially call a "phallic symbol" is a metaphor for the same kinds of urges, impulses, fears, etc. that the penis may be a metaphor for. And it's never a 1:1, there's a whole complex system of substitution and continuity.

bugbread: The whole "color X is used to represent Y" thing. Like "Rockwell uses a lot of red. Red is the color of sexuality. Rockwell is making a statement about sexuality." If he's saying that Rockwell is subconsciously doing that, well, fine. Can't really confirm or deny. But the propensity to interpret it all as intentional selection doesn't ring true with the artists I've known, who will sometimes use red for sexuality or some Deep Hidden Meaning, but more often than not just on a whim.

Does Halpern say that? I may have missed something in the articles, but I didn't see anything like that. In any case, the issue isn't about intentionality. Anyone living post-Freud and the birth of psychoanalysis should know that what we may consciously "intend" is only a part of the story. Good critics (like Halpern in his Renaissance scholarship, at least) put the artist in their cultural/historical context. Good criticism looks at how an artist's work is not just a statement of an individual's conscious intent but also gives expression to many other, sometimes contradictory, voices of the culture. The artist is almost never conscious of how he/she gives voice to this other material. The artwork is never the product of the individual, isolated genius.

Geometry would be much more fun if it were run like this. Bugbread's Proof Of Interest 1. It would be interesting if X were true. 2. Therefore X is true.

Please tell me how to find objective "truth" in art.

hexatron: The book is a load of crap--applying today's paranoia to a what was, at the time, recognised as an idealised but totally familiar reality. ... The reality behind these images is as simple as the images. Especially if you were, or had been, a small-town white protestant in the 1920s.

Yeah, because there were no such things as sex, homosexuality, anxiety about the transition from child to sexually active adult, etc. in the 1920s. No anxiety at all; people walked out their doors and saw that all was perfect in the world. They all did it in the missionary position with the lights off and the women gritted their teeth and did it for America.

Or maybe Rockwell's paintings could have been a fantasy that people fixated on because they appeared to whitewash over all the various anxieties that people had, have, and always will have? Yet within that fantasy, as within all fantasies, there's a kernel of what the fantasy represses?

HuronBob: Rockwell's art depicts an era that a lot of us miss. I would trade a year in the fifties for 10 years in the morally toxic cesspool that is our current society at the drop of a hat.

I won't jump on the "you must be a white man" bandwagon, as many others have already beaten me to that punch. Instead I'll just get off your lawn.
posted by papakwanz at 7:42 PM on April 15, 2007 [11 favorites]


Except for the US national motto, paper currency, and the Pledge of Allegience.

In God we trust. Everybody else has to pay cash up front.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:55 PM on April 15, 2007


I would trade a year in the fifties for 10 years in the morally toxic cesspool that is our current society at the drop of a hat.

see, uh, Happy Days was a tv show. the fifties weren't like that.
posted by quonsar at 8:15 PM on April 15, 2007


It would be refreshing if this went the other way sometimes. If, for example, Mr. Halpern's next article was a deconstruction of Francis Bacon's artwork as a deep seated need to snuggle with his kitten.
posted by vronsky at 8:15 PM on April 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


And Delmoi, honey, could you please lighten up with your "every white dude is a racist" remarks? It is possible to look back fondly at simpler times without secretly wishing for a lynching or wearing a white sheet on your head. You seem like a brighter person than that. It gets old. I'm just sayin.
posted by vronsky at 8:40 PM on April 15, 2007


God-darn, that cop was hitting on that runaway boy in the diner, wasn't he?
posted by ericb at 6:45 PM on April 15


I'm late to the party, but wow, way to miss the point. The picture you link to is in fact a perfect example of what Halpern is talking about. Here's a hint: if you look at a large print of this painting, you'll see the cops eyes aren't focused on the kid, but on the kid's bundle on the ground. He's facing the kid, but look at the bundle out of the corner of his eye. The cop sees what's at stake here, and you are supposed to see it too.

This is Normal Rockwell, not David Lynch. What you are supposed to see in the painting is actually painted into it, but it's in the details.

The guy behind the counter is obviously a seedy character. Consider the greasy hair, cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. He looks like he's been up all night.

The cop, by contrast, is immaculate. His boots are polished, he's clean shaven, sporting a fresh close-cropped haircut, and his expression is not as easy (or insidious) as the other guy's smile.

The kid is running away. Rockwell is showing the kid at a metaphorical fork in the road. One way leads to order, duty, honor, and respect. The other leads to ill repute, and in Rockwell's world, decay. Decay is everywhere in Rockwell, it's at the edges of everything. Decency, honor, justice keep decay at bay.

Again, this is Normal Rockwell, not David Lynch. Why a cop, and not a business man? Because only the cop (law and order) makes routine contact with the world's seedy underbelly and remains uncorrputed. Thus, these are the two people best suited to tell the kid what his future holds if he continues to run away. The counter guy's cocksure too-familiar smile tells you that he's not giving the kid the straight story. And his raised eyebrow means he's sizing the kid up, taking him in.

But the cop is leaning in, and he's not really smiling. He's more reassuring than friendly. The cop is very calmly going to talk this kid into returning home. He's looking at the bindle and he's focused. The cop is working because it's his job to send this kid home.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:50 PM on April 15, 2007 [13 favorites]


Nice, Pastabagel. Good read.
posted by papakwanz at 8:56 PM on April 15, 2007


I meant to add before I hit the Post button that you should take note of the fact that the cop is still wearing his hat. Cops today take their hats off when they eat, and back when this was painted, everybody took their hat off when they sat down to eat. The fact taht the hat is still on the cop's head is noteworthy.

The cop has his hat on because he isn't there to eat. He's there to work. He's there to get the kid out of there and on his way home.

And the kid is this innocent apple-cheeked kid, blissfully oblivious to everything going on right in front of his face.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:57 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


sorry about all the typos - "but looking at the bundle...", "Norman Rockwell". I don't know what my problem is.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:59 PM on April 15, 2007


And Delmoi, honey, could you please lighten up with your "every white dude is a racist" remarks?

LOL what? When did I ever say anything like that?

Anyway, I was just pointing out that the 1950's were not an idyllic time, far from it. In fact Norman Rockwell would be the first one to tell you that. Several of his paintings depicted the harsh reality of the era.

I'm just saying that someone like HuronBob isn't thinking about it would be like for a member of a minority or a woman interested in being anything other then being a housewife. I certainly don't think he'd actually like subjugate other races or anything like that.
posted by delmoi at 9:02 PM on April 15, 2007


Rockwell never thought the 50's were idyllic, and in fact he was rather tortured and sought psychoanalysis (making the Freudian comments upthread all the more ironic).

Consider this painting.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:15 PM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


The painting that Delmoi has pointed at is actually my favorite of Rockwells, and the one I'd put in front of anyone saying that Rockwell was a conservative tool.
posted by Artw at 9:21 PM on April 15, 2007


Please tell me how to find objective "truth" in art.

Apparently like this: "There's indisputable evidence that for Rockwell, sometimes sexual jokes are planned in, that they are part of the paintings."

Also, as satisfying and thesis-supporting as Pastabagel's interpretation is there, "the guy behind the counter is obviously a seedy character". Yeah? Is he not a tired working stiff who's looking down at rebellious innocence from an entirely other facet of experience than the authority of the cop?

There's no objective truth in art, but my reading, my reading is correct.
posted by ormondsacker at 9:33 PM on April 15, 2007


The interesting thing about Rockwell is that while he has this sort of schlocky reputation, he was actually a brilliant artist, in terms of technical skill and subject matter.
posted by delmoi at 9:35 PM on April 15, 2007


Consider this painting.

Wow, what is that, Pastabagel? I've never seen anything quite like it and from my limited experience of Rockwell, never would have expected it of him. The shadows with pointy ears and (guns, weapons?)?
posted by IronLizard at 9:45 PM on April 15, 2007


I think Pastabagel's reading of the runaway kid painting is a bit unfair to the hard-working counter guy at the diner, who doesn't strike me as "obviously a seedy character" at all. Who do you think called the cop, anyway?

Sheesh.

That's at least as plausible a reading, and I'd say probably more likely given the sympathy for working folks that suffuses Rockwell's paintings.

papakwanz: Have you read Halpern's book? From your comments it sounds that you have. It sounds to me from the descriptions that Halpern is not going, "OMG sex lolzers!" but saying, "Hey, yeah these paintings depict this lovely idyllic life, but there's something else in there too. Why? Because sex is a part of life."

I glanced at the book, even kept it around for a day or two to flip through, but what I read of and about it - including Halpern's own comments a couple of months ago - convinced me that there wasn't anything new there, except for the titillating subtitle: "The Underside of Innocence."

Underside? Halpern himself notes in that blog post that "Rockwell was an indefatigable sexual jokester, on canvas as in life." Like I said in my first comment, I don't think you have to look for his playfulness about sex and morality in an "underside" at all. That seems like the kind of hype designed to sell books; it seemed to me to have little to do with Rockwell's art to imply it was some sort of hidden underbelly. Anyone who looked at him without really thick nostalgia glasses would see the stuff immediately.
posted by mediareport at 9:50 PM on April 15, 2007 [4 favorites]


IronLizard, it's called "Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi)" from 1965. Also, for those who don't know, on page 44 of the book I mention above, there's a story quoted from a Rockwell biography:

Rockwell also celebrated the Peace Corps and the accomplishments of the United States space program. Yet he declined a commission for a recruiting poster for the Marines at the height of the Vietnam War, asking an interviewer, "I don't think we're helping the Vietnamese people lead better lives, do you?"
posted by mediareport at 9:54 PM on April 15, 2007


I was just about to type the same, "Who called the cop?" comment as mediareport, above. Pastabagel's read is okay, but I see that guy behind the counter differently.
posted by cgc373 at 9:54 PM on April 15, 2007


mediareport: fair enough. Although then it sounds like your comments about Halpern are a little unfair, judging the hype around the book rather than the book itself.
posted by papakwanz at 9:57 PM on April 15, 2007


I'd say the reading of the counter person as a "seedy character" says a lot about pastabagel and papakwanz's inherent prejudices.
posted by vronsky at 10:00 PM on April 15, 2007


But wait, I thought they didn't invent sex until the 60s?
posted by speicus at 10:07 PM on April 15, 2007


I'd say the reading of the counter person as a "seedy character" says a lot about pastabagel and papakwanz's inherent prejudices.

Wait, now you're complaining about "inherent prejudices"?
posted by delmoi at 10:09 PM on April 15, 2007


it sounds like your comments about Halpern are a little unfair, judging the hype around the book rather than the book itself.

The subtitle says it all, papakwanz, but ok, I'll cop to a bit of that. I'm glad there are people who are learning more about how complex Rockwell's art can be; I've been on a mini-crusade for years to get folks to stop seeing him as a simplistic "let's go back to the good ol' days" artist. If Halpern helps more folks see that, great. But some of his readings strike me as closing down more than they open up something that was already pretty open.
posted by mediareport at 10:09 PM on April 15, 2007


Pastabagel: sorry about all the typos - "but looking at the bundle..."
Actually, it IS a bindle. What a great typo!
posted by jewzilla at 10:11 PM on April 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


Wait, now you're complaining about "inherent prejudices"?

Yeah, I'm complicated Delmoi. What can I tell ya?
posted by vronsky at 10:17 PM on April 15, 2007


vronsky, you can tell delmoi whether your username refers to Anna Karenina, and in return, delmoi can tell everybody whether he pronounces his username del-MWAH or del-MOY or what.
posted by cgc373 at 10:21 PM on April 15, 2007


The counter guy had a boner. Check it out.
posted by prodigalsun at 10:30 PM on April 15, 2007


All I know is this folio of Rockwell paintings (and the the underside of their apparent innocence) always produces the most interesting and thoughtful analysis by my EFL students when I use them in class.

They stare intently at all the different pieces of information provided and then make statements about the characters and settings that consistently stretch the limitations of their vocabularly.

I've been using a variety of Rockwell-based lesson plans for almost a decade and I have yet to have one of my students say anything along the lines of, "This picture is so sweet and innocent." I haven't read Halpern's work, but I have to agree if it brings more people around for a second glance at Norman Rockwell's impressive (IMO) oeuvre, then it can't be all bad.
posted by squasha at 10:51 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


er...when I use "it"...the folio...not the students. I teech gud, rilly.
posted by squasha at 10:54 PM on April 15, 2007


Wow, squasha, what a great idea!
posted by mediareport at 10:55 PM on April 15, 2007


Yeah, squasha, your comments & this thread in general have inspired me to work some Rockwell lesson plans into my composition course.
posted by papakwanz at 11:00 PM on April 15, 2007


It's perfectly possible that sometimes there was intended sexual suggestion in Rockwell's work and sometimes a doll with a mirror between its legs was just a doll with a mirror between its legs.
posted by katillathehun at 11:01 PM on April 15, 2007


Pastabagel writes "The guy behind the counter is obviously a seedy character. Consider the greasy hair, cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. He looks like he's been up all night.

"The cop, by contrast, is immaculate. His boots are polished, he's clean shaven, sporting a fresh close-cropped haircut, and his expression is not as easy (or insidious) as the other guy's smile."


So it's not the cop who wants to diddle the little kid -- it's the leering counterman?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:20 PM on April 15, 2007


Oh man, The Connoisseur is great :D
posted by Firas at 11:35 PM on April 15, 2007


No Peter, he wants to "bindle" the little kid. Try and keep up.
posted by vronsky at 11:46 PM on April 15, 2007


He looks below the idyllic surface of nostalgic Americana and sees unwitting voyeurism

Rockwell on Voyeurism.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:47 PM on April 15, 2007


vronsky writes "No Peter, he wants to 'bindle' the little kid. Try and keep up."

Ah, he's good but he's no D. Dwayne Tinsley.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:06 AM on April 16, 2007


I think Rockwell is a Victorian. With all that that implies.
posted by Phanx at 1:46 AM on April 16, 2007


bugbread : "The whole 'color X is used to represent Y' thing."

papakwanz : "Does Halpern say that? I may have missed something in the articles, but I didn't see anything like that."

Yeah:
Red — the color of sexual passion — is everywhere in the painting. Halpern points out a red stool, a red hairbrush, red lipstick, all the artist's way of suggesting the girl's budding sexuality.
Again, if we're talking "subconscious", sure. It and it may be conscious as well. But Halpern is just assuming as fact that it is conscious, that it is the way the artist is suggesting sexuality. And, again, my problem isn't so much with this particular Halpern example, but that general trend I see in art analysis.

papakwanz : "Please tell me how to find objective 'truth' in art."

It can't be done. After all, that Rockwell picture of a policeman talking to a kid in a diner? That might actually be a picture of a space alien, that looks like a cop. Or it could have been painted by throwing paint at the canvas, and only coincidentally looks like a cop.

Sorry, that's flippant, but I just mean to say that there is no way to find "objective" truth, but that doesn't mean that therefore anything goes. I don't know what my wife is doing in the other room, but that doesn't mean that she might just be building a particle accelerator.

Rockwell's paintings may be about sex. I'd have to know far more about Rockwell himself to figure that out. I was just making fun of the modern tendency in critical theory to assume that things are true because it would be interesting if they were. No more, no less.

vronsky : "Delmoi, honey, could you please lighten up with your 'every white dude is a racist' remarks? It is possible to look back fondly at simpler times without secretly wishing for a lynching or wearing a white sheet on your head."

I don't think the argument is "every white dude is a racist". It's "the 50's were only a simpler time for white men. For women and non-white men, it was a harder time. Therefore, if you consider it a simpler time, you're probably a white man." I don't see anything inaccurate there.
posted by Bugbread at 2:15 AM on April 16, 2007


I think Pastabagel's reading of the runaway kid painting is a bit unfair to the hard-working counter guy at the diner, who doesn't strike me as "obviously a seedy character" at all. Who do you think called the cop, anyway?

No one. The motorcycle cop always stops at that diner.

But yeah, the counterman is just being a regular Joe. He smokes, but that doesn't make him seedy; everyone smoked. He's a hard-working guy who's with the cop, not avoiding him, and he's taking a couple of minutes out of his day to listen to the kid.

If anyone wants to go hunting bogus clues, the counterman is pie, he's sustenance, he's the entertainment and community news on the radio, he's the solidity and community of the public meeting place, he's "Special Today." If you're looking for a threat, the cop is the guy hanging over him, the guy with the handcuffs and leather and gun, the guy ready to put the kid on his motorcycle and roar off with him. Or not. If you really want to be afraid, think of the guy who's in the diner men's room right now waiting for the cop to leave. That's his cup on the counter. Dosed with laudanum. In a minute, there will be an announcement about him on the radio above the counter. The kid will say "Say, that sounds like the man who just went into the restroom." Then all hell breaks loose and the kid dies of a stray bullet. In his pack, they find drugs that the man hid while the kid was using the toilet. Drugs and a woman's hand with a ruby ring.
posted by pracowity at 2:48 AM on April 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


I would trade a year in the fifties for 10 years in the morally toxic cesspool that is our current society at the drop of a hat.

i was born in 1957 and grew up in battle creek, so i remember that period somewhat ... which lasted quite a bit longer in my hometown than some others

being an outsider or a member of a minority in those times was pure hell ... one of the major themes running through my parents' generation was "you coped" ... not you ran to a shrink or a social worker or whined to the media but "you coped" ... suck it up kid, and follow the rules

you KNOW what i'm saying is true

but you see, you or i just were plopped into the 50s and early 60s and didn't have to live through what led up to them ... our mother didn't feed the bums coming off the railroad tracks like my dad's mother did ... we got to live in a house with electricity and indoor plumbing instead of a drafty farmhouse with no electric and an outhouse like my mother did ... we didn't have to go through a great depression and a hellacious world war to get to a few halycon years in which our culture could catch its breath and recover from the whirlwind decades that had gone before

no, we were PRIVILEGED ... privileged to actually see such a rare and uncommonly good time and privileged to be in the part of the society that it was actually good for, instead of being black or hispanic or worse yet, being one of the "starving kids in africa/asia" whom our parents referenced when we didn't finish our 3 bean casserole ...

what, you thought you were going to be privileged ALL your life?

instead of whining, you should be grateful ... and if our society is a morally toxic cesspool, buddy, it's because OUR GENERATION made it one ... and the sense of entitlement you're showing is a BIG part of that

god, i hate baby boomers ...

(ok, i'm being too rough on you as an individual, and i'm sorry, but this whole 50s nostalgia trip is bullshit, and i'm old enough to KNOW it ... so are you)
posted by pyramid termite at 5:22 AM on April 16, 2007


It's "the 50's were only a simpler time for white men.

Y'all keep forgetting the "straight" part. I figured the "moral cesspool" bit was code-talk for faggotry.

It sure was an awesome time, when everyone else knew their place.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:43 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Funny that no one here or in the links (or Halpern himself) has mentioned Leo Steinberg's The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. You think finding sex in Norman Rockwell is controversial? Imagine finding it in Renaissance pictures of crucifixions, pietas, and tableaus featuring baby Jesus. And Steinberg did it 23 years ago.
posted by googly at 7:45 AM on April 16, 2007


Norman Rockwell's body of work is great in that he did have specific things he wanted to say, more often than not. Anyone who can look at his work and say "oh, what an idyllic world" is missing the point. Halpern's book, as a work of criticism, is going to fail if it just goes for the obvious, however. I'd imagine he reaches into the critical theory lexicon and makes some stretches based on artistic norms (red = sex!) merely because a straight reading of Norman Rockwell already has a pretty obvious level of commentary built in.

I'd be more interested in hearing about the conflict in his work. In Sunday Morning, is the father's devil-like countenance supposed to enforce our adherence to religion? Or is it a commentary on the relationship between parents, the "angelic" mother who represents the moral and the father who's more of a corrupting influence.

Rockwell often painted scenes of what are supposed to be archetypal situations -- but why are they perceived that way? In reality, a kid running away would be a shock for his family until he was found, and not the joyful reunion you'd imagine in sitcoms. That kid's going to get spanked with a belt when he gets home. And we think it's cute and amusing that he's run away, because we don't imagine that he has a real reason to do so, probably something cute and innocent. He's going to get shown how the system works and learn some lessons, and hope that he never has a real reason to need to run away.
posted by mikeh at 8:02 AM on April 16, 2007


googly writes "You think finding sex in Norman Rockwell is controversial? Imagine finding it in Renaissance pictures of crucifixions, pietas, and tableaus featuring baby Jesus. And Steinberg did it 23 years ago."

Actually, I think that's the problem. It isn't so much that "this new way of looking is so shocking and controversial and new!!" as much as "oh, god, not a-fucking-gain with the 'this apparently lighthearted thing has a subversive subtext' trope". Not so much that I agree that Halpern is wrong; I haven't read his book, I don't know, it may be being presented incorrectly, it may be a mix of correct and incorrect, it may be 100% pure awesome true writing, etc. I just don't think the people annoyed by this are annoyed because it hasn't been done before, as much as that it's been done to death.
posted by Bugbread at 8:04 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


bugbread: Again, if we're talking "subconscious", sure. It and it may be conscious as well. But Halpern is just assuming as fact that it is conscious, that it is the way the artist is suggesting sexuality. And, again, my problem isn't so much with this particular Halpern example, but that general trend I see in art analysis.

I don't see anything in the "red" comment that says, "This is Rockwell CONSCIOUSLY using red to suggest sexuality." Critics of art, music, literature, etc. often will say "The artist does this to suggest X" as a kind of shorthand. They aren't suggesting intentionality. Instead, they are using the figure of the artist as a stand-in for the conscious and unconscious personal intent of the author as well as the various cultural voices that speak through the individual. Knowing more about Rockwell doesn't necessarily give you any better insight into the man's work. It might, but also knowing about the context in which lived and worked -- a period of notoriously repressed sexuality, at least in the "official" discourse of the period -- will.

I would also note that the specific comment you're pointing out is not Halpern's, but the writer of the article's. It's possible that Halpern said, "Red = sex. Red doll, red chair, red this, red that = this painting is about sex." However, it's far more likely that he was more sublte, discussing the tone that red may create in this particular context, saying something like, "Red can suggest a variety of tones and ideas, including sexual passion, anger, energy, heat, danger, etc. In this particular context, the intimate setting of a young girl's bedroom, and given the other images in the painting, the color red strengthens the suggestion of sexuality." No half-way decent critic every says, "X=Y," but rather build an argument from a variety of elements in a work of art/literature/music that circumscribes the possible things suggested by X to build a larger argument about what the whole work may mean.

I just mean to say that there is no way to find "objective" truth

That was kind of my point. It's pretty clear to me that Halpern is not building a ridiculous argument beyond the limits of possibility by saying, "The two boyscouts are space aliens, the cop at the diner is a serial killer who rapes and dismembers boys, and the girl in the bedroom is pregnant with L. Ron Hubbard's clone baby." It seems to me that he is taking a look at the elements in the paintings, putting them in the context of both Rockwell's biography and the culture of the period, and saying, "OK, how does a certain psychoanalytic framework help us to understand how all this works together?"

I was just making fun of the modern tendency in critical theory to assume that things are true because it would be interesting if they were.

Very few people conversant in modern critical theory ever make claims to "truth." They may claim that they are "right" in some respects, but it's always contingent, and it's always in flux. It's not about finding "truth," because no work of art can ever be reduced to a single "right" intepretation. Rather, its about trying to develop an argument that best accounts for and explains all the various elements, influences, and pieces of evidence in and around the work of art.

It isn't so much that "this new way of looking is so shocking and controversial and new!!" as much as "oh, god, not a-fucking-gain with the 'this apparently lighthearted thing has a subversive subtext' trope". ... I just don't think the people annoyed by this are annoyed because it hasn't been done before, as much as that it's been done to death.

Maybe, but I think a large part of the virulent reaction to this, both in this thread and from the Boston Globe article, are because people find this shocking. Especially the kind of people who hold up Rockwell's work as a "view into a simpler time" (a totally lame-ass interpretation) -- they don't seem to be saying, "Oh god, this again? YAWN! Please dear, it's been done to death, find something original because I'm so bored with sex in Rockwell!" They seem to be pretty horrified at the thought that Rockwell was ever anything less that a perfect, pure-hearted saint.
posted by papakwanz at 9:06 AM on April 16, 2007


They seem to be pretty horrified at the thought that Rockwell was ever anything less that a perfect, pure-hearted saint.

Your reading of the thread is, of course, valid.
posted by ormondsacker at 9:24 AM on April 16, 2007


papakwanz writes "Critics of art, music, literature, etc. often will say 'The artist does this to suggest X' as a kind of shorthand."

Ah, ok, I'm not up on my theory vocab. Scratch that comment about the red, then.

papakwanz writes "Rather, its about trying to develop an argument that best accounts for and explains all the various elements, influences, and pieces of evidence in and around the work of art."

Again, I'm not versed in theory, so I say this from the layman's point of view: It seems to me, as a layman, that often that "best account" is based on the critic's dismissal of ideas which they don't like. That is, sometimes there is no particularly deep subtext in a work, but critics seem to dismiss this as not being a viable option, therefore leaving us with only more complex answers as the best answer. They don't use Occam's Razor enough.

papakwanz writes "they don't seem to be saying, 'Oh god, this again? YAWN! Please dear, it's been done to death, find something original because I'm so bored with sex in Rockwell!'"

Okay, I probably misphrased myself. I didn't mean "Hot Rockwell Sex has been done to death", but "finding dark subtexts in light stuff has been done to death", so when someone sees that done to a personal favorite light artist (in the sense of "undark", not "shallow"), they get all angry. Basically, they're not so much shocked as exasperated and annoyed.

But I dunno. I'm basing that off the comments against Halpern here in this thread. If you read the comments referenced in the links, I think you have people who clearly are shocked. So I guess what I'm saying regarding googly's comment is "Sure, there are folks here that are annoyed by this. And sure, there are folks who find this controversial and shocking, and don't realize the past history of this type of critical reevaluation. But those two groups of folks are largely not the same."
posted by Bugbread at 9:28 AM on April 16, 2007


I just don't think the people annoyed by this are annoyed because it hasn't been done before, as much as that it's been done to death.

I agree to a certain extent. On one hand, people are going to be annoyed because someone is doing a shockingly counter-cultural reading of something held 'sacred' (either in the religious sense or a secular, Mom-and-Apple-Pie sense). But, as you say, there is another wing of folks who are going to respond by (correctly, IMHO) rolling their eyes at yet another countercultural reading of some sacred shibboleth. "Epater le bourgeois" is still the stuff that academic cultural studies careers are made of, even though its been done to death at this point.

The interesting thing about Steinberg is that he was not arguing that Christianity is shot through with sexual perversion and pedophilia. In some ways, just the opposite: He argued that what we see now now as a sexual fetishization of Christ's penis was in fact a theological metaphor for Christ's kinship with humanity. We jump to conclusions because of our own obsessions with sex, and thus fail to see the obvious.
posted by googly at 10:22 AM on April 16, 2007


I've always found Rockwell to be really, really creepy. Perhaps this is why. Maybe I just have problems with "innocence" in general, I think it might be a generational thing. I grew up with MTV and Madonna, not with sitcoms depicting happily married couples sleeping in matching twin beds.

I peg the year that the US completely woke up and realized that innocence wasn't quite so innocent after all was around 1981. Look how any magazine changed from '75 and '85 and you'll see what I mean.

It's because I was born in 1981. I woke the nation up from its stupor. Someone had to.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:48 AM on April 16, 2007


I would trade a year in the fifties for 10 years in the morally toxic cesspool that is our current society at the drop of a hat. And now this English professor wants to taint some of the images that remind me of a much better time.
--HuronBob

I don't see the 50s as morally that much different from today, really. Take a look a Marilyn Monroe's "Gentelman Prefer Blondes" (1953), and expecially Marilyn's speech near the end. That's about as witty, intelligent, and morally ambiguous as any movie you would see today. The only real differences are that the characters are better dressed, and take off their hats when they are supposed to.
posted by yeolcoatl at 11:34 AM on April 16, 2007


"expecially?"
you think I would have learned how to type by now. geez.
posted by yeolcoatl at 11:37 AM on April 16, 2007


Whoops. Sorry. I conflated two ideas and communicated poorly. The example of Marilyn's cynical speech was meant to show that the 50s weren't any more innocent than today.

For my counterpoint to "moral cesspool," I meant to use the same movie, but in a different way. Basically, my point was that a sex-comedy in the 50s isn't really any different from a sex-comedy in the '00s in terms of content. They only differ in terms of style. I mean "Gentleman Prefer Blondes" is the movie where Jane Russell's character takes on the entire US Olympic team, and they are not even remotely subtle about it.
posted by yeolcoatl at 11:53 AM on April 16, 2007


My father was an commercial artist and was born in 1934. He lurved Rockwell especially for that nostalgic feeling. I understand it in a way. There was a kind of forced nostalgia concerning the war effort for the 2nd world war. Have you heard the music from that era? There is a kind of sentimentality there that you can't get away from. I think for many people it's easier to remember those aspect of the past rather than reality.

When I was a kid I really couldn't stand Rockwell. There just seems to be a creepyness underlying everything. They seriously give me the heeby geebys. Reading this interpretation actually made some sense of the reaction I have. It's like tales from the darkside. Looks nice and sunny on the surface, but underneath it's a little off.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 1:49 PM on April 16, 2007


bugbread: I certainly realize that most people who aren't in academia aren't familiar with the way critics make their arguments or what the various assumptions made in critical writing are. It is the same with any specialized field, although art & lit critics haven't made it any easier by taking a shine to excessive jargon (and I say this as someone who loves reading a lot of the jargon... I just try not to use it in my writing). So, to a certain extent our differences are based on speaking different intellectual dialects, if you will.

But, I will say that why does sexuality have to be "dark"? I mean, I understand the title of Halpern's book does have certain overtones, and that may be a problem with the way that Halpern writes his material, or it may be a marketing ploy: sell it with sex. But I think that people who freak out about finding sexuality in Rockwell (or medieval paintings of Christ... I haven't read Steinberg's book, and I know there are a lot of people who disagree... but I think he's really on to something once you look at the pictures) and call Halpern and others "perverts" and "dirty old men"... well, their reactions say a lot more about their hang-ups with sexuality than about Halpern or Rockwell. If the boyscout painting is "about" the border between male-male friendship and male-male eroticism, that's only "dark" if you think that homosexual sex is "dark." I haven't read Halpern's book, but his general thesis makes a lot of sense to me (if not the particular readings), but I don't think it makes Rockwell's work any more "disturbing" or "dark." The uber-nostalgiac, berries-and-cream, 100% all-american innocent Rockwell is a more disturbing interpretation to me, because I know that the world was never like that, and if we're saying that the rabid denial of sexuality and whatever else was part of Rockwell's work, well that kind of crazy fantastic worldview is almost psychotic and really suggests a deeply perverted idea of the world -- as in how the absolute refusal to acknowledge anything sexual is usually a sign of a complete obsession with grotesque sexuality. Halpern's Rockwell seems to me a much more human, nuanced, and actually gentle and light Rockwell, a person who can incorporate the anxious moments, the anxieties about sexuality, the often repressed emotions and impulses into a playful and happy picture of the world. Of course, it's probably a little bit of both.
posted by papakwanz at 4:25 PM on April 16, 2007


This whole thing makes me think of a feminist deconstruction approach to The Scarlet Letter. About the time the rant about the letter A really standing for an unbreached maidenhead, I finally caught my breath, wiped my eyes, and put the book far away from me.

I suppose I am tired of the continuous drive to find the gritty darkness of every artist out there, especially when there is no single codex or standard by which these things can be considered consensually true.

I could say our beloved host picked this color of blue because it arouses him, reminds him of the lips of the dead women he's inflicted himself upon.

Or I could say that I like blue and I've always wished it was a little darker for a bit more contrast between background and text.

Of course, this is just the way my interpretation...
posted by Samizdata at 6:46 PM on April 16, 2007


Wow. I shouldn't change thoughts min-sentence.

Is to be please of reading that as "Of course, this is just my interpretation..."

Now, the first AI should be a DWIM checker...
posted by Samizdata at 6:54 PM on April 16, 2007


papakwanz writes "I will say that why does sexuality have to be 'dark'?"

Good question. I had to think about it, and I can't really come up with a word to encapsulate what I was getting at. Perhaps "non-innocent" would be closest. Now, little kids play doctor and toddlers touch themselves. I know that sex isn't actually something that involves loss of innocence, and that instead that's a cultural aspect. So perhaps "not fitting with society's conceptions of innocence" would be the most accurate.

papakwanz writes "The uber-nostalgiac, berries-and-cream, 100% all-american innocent Rockwell is a more disturbing interpretation to me, because I know that the world was never like that, and if we're saying that the rabid denial of sexuality and whatever else was part of Rockwell's work, well that kind of crazy fantastic worldview is almost psychotic and really suggests a deeply perverted idea of the world "

Television for toddlers doesn't have people dying violently, even though violent death is an inevitable aspect of life on this planet, but I don't think that children's TV is psychotic and perverted. In fact, I don't think I could even start to count the number of movies, programs, books, paintings, drawings, plays, or songs that aren't accurate reflections of the world, and yet I don't think that the majority of the cultural output of the world is disturbing, psychotic, or perverted.

Artists choose to express certain aspects of reality, to depict certain ideas and subjects. That's what makes them different from video cameras. The failure to depict every major aspect of existence doesn't make one psychotic or perverted.
posted by Bugbread at 5:48 AM on April 17, 2007


Samizdata writes "I could say our beloved host picked this color of blue because it arouses him, reminds him of the lips of the dead women he's inflicted himself upon."

For a while on Wikipedia there was a note that MetaFilter was not blue because of association with the Democratic Party...presumably because some people were thinking so.

That's the hard thing about analysing things: unless the artist comes out and says "hey, guys, there's more to my stuff than meets the eye", you don't know if what you're finding is really there, or just made up. And "logically, it all fits together" doesn't really support or deny the validity of the analysis: forensic reconstructions of events fit together, but so do insane conspiracy theories. But some of the stuff is there in some cases, so you can't really write off analysis as always wrong, either.
posted by Bugbread at 5:52 AM on April 17, 2007


For a while on Wikipedia there was a note that MetaFilter was not blue because of association with the Democratic Party

I'd always assumed it was something to do with the old terminal programs and (wordperfect?) . I think Telix defaulted to a blue background with white text, for example. It was far more enjoyable than white text on a black background. I went so far, in those days, as to change the scheme of any text programs, that allowed it, to match. Come to think of it, even Edit and VisialBasic looked that way in DOS5 by default, though the text was yellow in VB IIRC.

Or maybe it's just easy to read and that's why all the parallels exist.
posted by IronLizard at 6:41 AM on April 17, 2007


bugbread: As I've said many times, why does it matter if the artist says it's there or not? Read W.K. Wimsatt, "The Intentional Fallacy."
posted by papakwanz at 9:08 AM on April 17, 2007


papakwanz writes "As I've said many times, why does it matter if the artist says it's there or not? Read W.K. Wimsatt, 'The Intentional Fallacy.'"

I don't have the time to read an entire book to continue this conversation, but: If we're talking about something being there or not (not in the sense of "the observer is bringing that to the text", but "the observer is discovering that it is in the text"), then it's either there consciously or unconsciously (be it as en expression of the individual character of the creator of the text, or the societal structures that affected the creator, or whathaveyou). The artist saying "it is there" is not essential. However, it does provide evidence that what is being found is not just being read into it because of the expectations of the observer. It is not the only evidence, of course, and you can find plenty of evidence even if the author has never indicated that subtext is there.

Now, if Halpern is just talking about how he sees the text, then it doesn't matter a hill of beans whether there's any evidence. But if Halpern is saying, as the article indicates, that Rockwell painted darkness, sexual perversity, voyeurism, desire, and sophisticated musing on masculinity and femininity, then we need any evidence available to determine if Rockwell put those into his work, or if Halpern brought that baggage to Rockwell's work.

I'm not bagging on postmodern theory. If Halpern wants to argue that Rockwell's work can be seen as X, then all he needs to provide are sound, logical arguments. If Halpern wants to argue that Rockwell painted that stuff, then we need more than just logical arguments.

(Rephrased: There's nothing wrong with someone saying that The Wizard of Oz can be read as a critique of the Bush administration. Write your explanation, and if it's good, then it has value. But if you're going to say that L. Frank Baum wrote the Wizard of Oz, consciously or unconsciously, as a critique of the Bush administration, I'm going to need some proof that he was psychic or had a time machine to believe you.)
posted by Bugbread at 10:21 AM on April 17, 2007


bugbread writes "Now, if Halpern is just talking about how he sees the text, then it doesn't matter a hill of beans whether there's any evidence. "

It doesn't matter a *plate* of beans.

Even a Metafilter art criticism thread couldn't overthink a whole *hill* of beans.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:57 PM on April 17, 2007


bugbread, I see that you didn't read my earlier posts (or read them closely) so I won't bother to repeat all of it, but I'll just say a few things:

1) There's nothing "postmodern" about Halpern or what he's doing.

2) Every work of art is collaborative. The artist does not exist in a vacuum, nor is s/he in full control or in full awareness of what s/he is creating. The entire point of criticism is to examine the various discourses expressed in the work of art and use them to provide a fuller understanding of the work. An artist's conscious intents are 1 of many, many discourses at work.

3) Your "Oz" example is ludicrous and is not in any way comparable to what Halpern appears to be doing.
posted by papakwanz at 6:15 PM on April 17, 2007


papakwanz : "The artist does not exist in a vacuum, nor is s/he in full control or in full awareness of what s/he is creating. The entire point of criticism is to examine the various discourses expressed in the work of art and use them to provide a fuller understanding of the work. An artist's conscious intents are 1 of many, many discourses at work."

You didn't read my earlier posts (or read them closely) so I won't bother to repeat all of it, but I'll just repeat one point:

1) I specifically brought up the role of societal and cultural influence on the artist.
2) I specifically brought up the role of unconscious intents in the artist's work.

papakwanz : "3) Your 'Oz' example is ludicrous and is not in any way comparable to what Halpern appears to be doing."

My Oz example was extreme so that you could see what I was saying. Apparently, that didn't work. So I don't know how to phrase it any more clearly, because when I keep my examples close to the source, you don't seem to understand what I'm trying to say, and when I use extreme examples to sharpen the contrast, you still don't. That's probably a problem in how I express myself, but I don't know how to resolve it.

All I'm trying to say is:

In any work, there are conscious elements and unconscious elements. However, those two do not make up the set of all possible elements that are conceivable. There are also elements which aren't in a work, which the observer mistakenly thinks are there. If someone makes an argument that a work contains some element, be it conscious, subconscious, unconscious, whathaveyou, I'll believe it if some evidence is provided. It doesn't have to be an admission from the artist; after all, how can the artist admit to something which he did entirely unconsciously? But I'm not going to take an observer's word for it, either. Believing without evidence is faith, and while I don't distrust Halpern, I have no particular reason to have faith in him either.
posted by Bugbread at 7:44 PM on April 17, 2007


Part of the problem from my point of view, bugbread, is that you don't seem to understand what's involved in doing (literary, artistic, textual, cutural, etc) criticism. Not an insult to you; I don't understand what's involved in studying string theory, fixing a car, managing a frozen banana stand, or building churches.

You *say* that you understand that a work of art is the product of multiple influences and voices. Yet it seems to come down to "if the artist doesn't say it's in there, it isn't in there." You never really clarify what "evidence" you want. Where is it that Halpern is just making shit up? I know that's sort of an unfair question because neither of us have read his book, but where in the articles do you get that impression? It seems like maybe you want some sort of 1:1 representationalism, like "this painting has a ____, and ____s are known to represent giant dongs." But, that's not how it works; even in heavily allegorized works the relationship between a symbol and what it stands for is always complex, and any symbol can (and does) represent a multitude of things. It can't represent anything, and no one is saying that it can. That's why your Oz example was goofy; Halpern, from what I can tell, is not saying that Rockwell was making paintings about 9/11. He's saying that, within the cultural and personal context of Rockwell's time, these paintings give voice to certain ideas, and certain psychoanalytic frameworks make that clear when he examines the paintings through them. Now, again, I don't know if Halpern makes compelling or accurate arguments in his particular readings of each painting, but the general project seems right on to me.

Now, I will admit to a certain personal investment in this subject, because I'm a PhD student in English lit. and I've seen many threads on the blue where the whole process of critical analysis is misrepresented and denigrated by people who don't understand it, think its not worthwhile, and/or find it upsetting for some reason. Not saying that's you. But, if I snapped, it's partially because of that.
posted by papakwanz at 9:11 PM on April 17, 2007


Anyone recall the two terms used for the "if the author didn't put it in there actively thinking about it then it's not in there" camp vs. the other one?
posted by Firas at 9:17 PM on April 17, 2007


Firas: W.K. Wimsatt & Monroe Beardsley called it "The Intentional Fallacy." The essay is reprinted in The Verbal Icon.

The step beyond that, and more useful (although this has been revised) in modern criticism is the death of the author.
posted by papakwanz at 11:40 PM on April 17, 2007


Ah yeah, intentional fallacy vs. affective fallacy. Thanks.
posted by Firas at 4:31 AM on April 18, 2007


papakwanz writes "Yet it seems to come down to 'if the artist doesn't say it's in there, it isn't in there.'"

No. I've repeated over and over again that the artist saying "it's in there" is but one of many possible pieces of evidence. I don't know why you keep ignoring the fact that I'm saying that.

papakwanz writes "You never really clarify what 'evidence' you want."

I don't know. But "none" is certainly not it.

papakwanz writes "Where is it that Halpern is just making shit up? I know that's sort of an unfair question because neither of us have read his book, but where in the articles do you get that impression?"

Well, I am perhaps being a bit unfair here, as my position has changed a bit through the course of the thread. At the start, I was saying "Halpern's observations are probably a mix of accurate and inaccurate stuff". Now, however, I'm saying "look, honestly, it may be all wrong or all right. I don't have the info the make that determination". That's why I keep talking about evidence. But, honestly, that's my problem, not Halpern's. If someone says something very very ordinary ("Yesterday, I stubbed my toe"), then I'll believe them with no evidence. If someone says something very unusual and surprising, if I already know and trust them, I'll believe it with no evidence. If I don't already know and trust them, I'm not willing to just take their word for it. That's my problem. I'm not a big "faith" kinda person.

And, really, for all I know, Halpern's book has evidence that would convince me. I dunno, I haven't read it. But given the lack of evidence we have so far, I think the best someone who agrees with Halpern can say is "His arguments sound right", and someone who disagrees "His arguments sound wrong". Saying "he's clearly right" or "he's clearly wrong", as myself and others have said, is frankly just dumb given that unless we've read the book, that slim article doesn't really give enough evidence to defend either position.
posted by Bugbread at 6:10 AM on April 18, 2007


No. I've repeated over and over again that the artist saying "it's in there" is but one of many possible pieces of evidence. I don't know why you keep ignoring the fact that I'm saying that.

Maybe because that's the only type of evidence you've listed? In any case, I see what you're saying.
posted by papakwanz at 8:58 AM on April 18, 2007


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