Fine Cartoon Art

exaggerated, in a good way

Yes, Norman Rockwell Was TOO a Fine Artist.

Posted by jtebeau on March 1, 2010

"The Texan" by Norman Rockwell

I remember shortly after Norman Rockwell died, our art teacher Mr. Stewart prophesied (correctly) that Rockwell would shake the label of “illustrator” and one day be considered a fine artist. By Jove, Mr. Stewart was right. The same is happening for cartoon artists. Witness the reputations of the late Al Hirschfeld and Charles Shulz, not to mention that of the living Robert Crumb.

So what if he worked as an illustrator? So did Toulouse-Lautrec. Rockwell was a skilled artist who told stories in his work. He communicated ideas and a distinct point-of-view. Yes, he was paid by an organization to do this. So was Michelangelo. It was called the Church.

In Tyler Green’s excellent Modern Art Notes, Elizabeth Broun of the Smithsonian American Art Museum had this to say:

“Norman Rockwell for the most part was ignored by serious museums and art historians until recently. He’s still kind of unexplored territory and we think he’s still is not taken fully as seriously because that ‘illustrator’ label is attached to him.”

Mr. Green’s interview with Ms. Broun illustrates some of the ideas I’m talking about in this young blog. Where are the lines between cartoons, illustration and art? Why are the defined boundaries drawn as they are, and who defines them? When does illustration transcend the genre and become Art? I’ll submit this: a hack illustrator puts nothing of himself in his work. An artist like Rockwell does. Mr. Green’s post (and in fact his entire blog) is a good place to graze on subjects like this.

What do you think? Is Norman Rockwell not worthy of being called an Artist? Why?

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4 Responses to “Yes, Norman Rockwell Was TOO a Fine Artist.”

  1. Joanna said

    “Where are the lines between cartoons, illustration and art? Why are the defined boundaries drawn as they are, and who defines them? When does illustration transcend the genre and become Art?”

    Hmmm, yes indeed. I’ll take a crack at this.

    First I propose that the lines don’t exist, independently of specific context. They don’t exist in an objective sense. Your second question indicates that you already suspect this, of course: the boundaries are drawn by specific people, and so they’re drawn at specific times and for specific reasons (political reasons, social reasons, personal reasons, and above all financial reasons). Add a dash of historical distance and/or a pinch of cultural “otherness,” and those lines shift around like crazy.

    I suspect that part of the reason so few people are comfortable seeing Rockwell as a “fine” artist is because his iconography is, in some ways, too familiar to us, too much a part of our everyday life and our collective cultural consciousness. Sure, we recognize some degree of historical distance and see his images as being very much of their time, even cultural “propaganda”… We still see his work as illustration, and can’t quite see the delicate, complex, even ironic social commentaries Rockwell was weaving into his images, because those commentaries are still commenting upon US. Maybe for the same reason we’re often blind to Rockwell’s dark side, his skepticism, and his tendencies toward subversion and resistance, all of which thrum just beneath the surface of his pictures. Many people in our society continue to imagine the good old by-gone days as being preferable to the mess we’ve got now, and superficially, Rockwell’s images seem to record those days – but the good old by-gone days weren’t really so good, and if we look a bit closer at Rockwell’s work we’d see this, too, and maybe many of us don’t WANT TO. It’s very disconcerting.

    One comparison that jumps to mind is the corpus of images known as ukiyo-e. Do you know these, “pictures of the floating world”? They are beautiful Japanese wood-block prints that had their hey-day in 18th- and 19th-century Tokyo (then called Edo). We see them in art museums now, in collections of works-on-paper, which indicates that they’ve been given the Official Institutional Designation: “thou art Art.” You probably know, at least, the famous and gorgeous image of the The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Hokusai: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa2.jpg

    But when the ukiyo-e were made, they were like Rockwell. “Lower” than Rockwell, even: Hokusai and his colleagues made advertisements for Kabuki theater productions, and poster-portraits of famous actors (many of them famous tranny actors) and geishas and courtesans. Hokusai and his colleagues made calendar illustrations. The pictures they made were essentially like the 18th- and 19th-century Japanese version of movie posters and the celeb gossip pages of People or US or Teen Beat. They were mass-produced and widely circulated; people tacked the loose prints onto walls and traded them. (Hokusai and his colleagues also made porn, by the way. Hard-core, raunchy, kinky porn. I don’t know whether the same applies to Rockwell, but wouldn’t THAT be interesting?)

    Now, we put the ukiyo-e into American museums. Connoisseurs discuss the fine variations of line, the relative lightness or heaviness of blocks of color, the distribution of bodies and construction of three-dimensional space in a raucously two-dimensional medium, the development of narrative. We look for, and find, social commentary and criticism; we can see the plight of the courtesan, and the drudgery of civic responsibility against which the “floating world” was an escapist foil. All of the tropes of art criticism and art history are successfully applied to these images, and it’s fascinating, and it tells us all kinds of things about that culture at that moment.

    So, my response to your final temporal question – “When does illustration transcend the genre and become Art?” – is this: I think it happens a couple of hundred years later, or perhaps sooner than that, if you’re in a different country or culture. As far as American museums are concerned, Rockwell is probably going to have to wait a little bit longer. Too bad for us: his work provides a marvelous opportunity for self-reflection, right now.

    • jtebeau said

      Joanna:

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. It’s encouraging to know that people are willing to seriously turn over a concept like ‘Rockwell as fine art.’ You seem to have hit a nail on the head with “a dash of historical distance and/or a pinch of cultural ‘otherness,’ and those lines shift around like crazy.”

      There it is. We stand back from ourselves (individually or culturally), and our conceptions change. Our own work looks pretty good. Think of times you’ve written something that you couldn’t stand, only to read it later and think: “Whoa! I was ONTO something here!” Also, culturally, popular illustration sometimes becomes Art. I’m sure Breugel, Thomas Nast and Currier & Ives would get a kick out of this concept. And Mr. Rockwell would be floored at the multi-million dollar bids on his Post covers….

      I think the transmutation process is speeding up a bit. In 1970 (at his porniest) it would have be hard to believe that in his lifetime, Robert Crumb would be collected by the one of the most prestigious museums in the world, but the Museum of Modern Art has at least two Crumbs in its collection: “God Wants Me to Draw” (2003) and “The Complete Fritz the Cat” (1976). And Crumb is still alive and kickin’… and illustrating the Bible.

      Thank you for the info on ukiyo-e. I had no idea. It’s so well-rendered and intentional… I’d just assumed it had always been Fine Art. Upon further inspection, it’s cartooning. But so was Picasso, much of the time. Lines and color, exaggeration and simplicity. Love it.

  2. MandaLynne said

    Art is a creation of the soul and passion one puts into it. Paid or not, and artist is one who creates out of the pure joy of creating. It’s just that simple. To simple for some people I guess. The actual definition of and ‘artist’ is:

    art·ist (ärˈtĭst) noun

    One, such as a painter, sculptor, or writer, who is able by virtue of imagination and talent or skill to create works of aesthetic value, especially in the fine arts.
    A person whose work shows exceptional creative ability or skill: You are an artist in the kitchen.
    One, such as an actor or singer, who works in the performing arts.
    One who is adept at an activity, especially one involving trickery or deceit: a con artist.
    Origin: French artiste, from Old French, lettered person, from Medieval Latin artista, from Latin ars, art-, art; see ar- in Indo-European roots.

    –and another–

    art·ist (ärt′ist)noun

    a person who works in, or is skilled in the techniques of, any of the fine arts, esp. in painting, drawing, sculpture, etc.
    a person who does anything very well, with imagination and a feeling for form, effect, etc.
    a professional person in any of the performing arts
    Origin: ML artista, craftsman, artisan < L ars, art

    So, the notion of Norman Rockwell not being an 'artist' is bull! He was a wonderful, creative, detailed artist, whom deserves the recognition.

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