Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Class Tomorrow: Greenberg and Rockwell, Together Again!


I’ve been flummoxed by a failure to find my copy of Thomas Buechner’s Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator, an elephantine coffee table book I’d meant to put on reserve for my Postwar American Visual Culture course. In the meantime, I’m going to use this space as a means to get a few images in front of the class in advance of Thursday’s session, which will explore terms of argument and judgment between Clement Greenberg’s classic essays, “Toward a Newer Laocoon” and “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (both 1940, so neither postwar, but together they set the terms of thinking about artistic mediums for a generation, not to mention the structure of the postwar American art school) and the artistic bugaboo himself, Norman Rockwell–who, without fail, merits exasperated mention in seemingly every significant piece of writing about art and culture in the mid 20th century. In a few weeks, we’ll read Dwight MacDonald’s “Masscult and Midcult” (1961) which provides, among other things, an updating of Greenberg’s assessments of 1940.


Last week, many of the students (a mix of illustrator-designers and a painter or two) objected strenuously to what they saw as Greenberg’s prescriptions. Others weren't so sure. So we’re teeing the ball up for tomorrow.


As a given, say we’re to consider the periodical illustrators as a group, and Rockwell as a representative (though in many ways he shouldn’t be seen as such–his career was dominated by cover work, unlike his contemporaries, most of whom toiled on fiction spreads inside the mags, without the opportunity–or pressure–to sell the printed product). How to select a set of Rockwellian hallmark postwar works? I’d be curious to hear from Joyce Schiller, Stephanie Plunkett and Laurie Norton Moffat on this question. In the meantime, I brought the question up with Jeff Pike the other day, and our lists were very similiar. The group I’m presenting here reflects that discussion.


They are all Saturday Evening Post cover paintings: New Television Antenna (November 5, 1949), Shuffleton’s Barbershop (April 29, 1950), Saying Grace (November 24, 1951), The Connoisseur (January 13, 1962). Pike also suggested the cover of two women having cleaned a theater, reading Playbill, brooms in hand–an indicator of Rockwell’s class consciousness–but I had neither a scan, nor time to make one.

Discussion questions:

Do you think these pictures are examples of kitsch? Why?

Greenberg argues that images like these are examples of “ersatz culture, pictures offered up to those who [are] insensible to the values of genuine culture.” True? False? What’s the difference between genuine culture and other culture? If you have answer to that question, how would you apply it to the stuff referred to as “underground” music versus what you hear on mainstream radio?

How does the the discussion of media use in the “Laocoon” essay apply here?

Can you conceive of a contemporary Norman Rockwell in any medium? Can you identify one?

What values do you see represented in these images–both in terms of what they show, and how they are made?

What do you want to know about these images and the SEP issues in which they appeared that you do not? Why would it help, if you did?

Class, see you tomorrow.

Comments welcome. Both home and abroad....

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