Reading illustration… Norman Rockwell and Innocence.

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On the US National Public Radio podcast podcast of On the Media this week there was a fascinating item publicising a symposium entitled “Shock, Shock: Just How Many Times Can a Country Lose its Innocence?” at New York University. The symposium brings together academics and writers to consider why it is that, in the US in particular, events periodically jolt the public into a consciousness of broader political processes which entail an analysis of national character before diminishing into a more comfortable sense of innocence. Examples included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War and more recently the scandals in Iraq, particularly those centred on the torture at Abu Ghraib.

While that topic is of considerable interest, and has ramifications within this society as well, what particularly struck me was the poster publicising the symposium. This is a version of an illustration by Norman Rockwell. It depicts a young child who has discovered a Santa Claus suit in the bottom drawer of his parents dresser and realised that – whisper it – Santa Claus doesn’t exist. For the symposium the illustration is altered in Photoshop to incorporate photographs from Abu Ghraib.

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This image is in part derived from one of the organisers, Professor Richard Halpern who teaches English literature at John Hopkins University. Halpern has written a book “Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence” on the theme of innocence and the work of Norman Rockwell.

It is an interesting thesis that he proposes. He links broader questions as to the nature of ‘innocence’ within American culture to the imagery that Rockwell produced.

His starting point [and I am quoting liberally from a chapter of his book] is to question:

What is it about American innocence that it can be killed again and again and yet spring up in new and different forms? Not long after Lennon’s death, Ronald Reagan would become president, declaring—at least through his campaign commercials—that “It’s Morning in America.” Another shiny new day had dawned, another national baptism had occurred in which the supposedly wretched excesses of the ’70s would be washed away. One of the odd things about American innocence is that nobody can agree exactly when it occurred, or what it meant. Were the ’50s “innocent” or (as liberals would have it) repressed and paranoid? Were the ’60s “innocent” or (as conservatives would have it) gullible and debauched?

This paradox between innocence and cynicism is central to some readings of American culture. A duality between a cynical or debauched projection of US society and an aspirational and idealistic one is portrayed again and again in cinema, art and literature. That a – presumably false – dichotomy between innocent and knowing characterises decades and is dependent upon largely political interpretations of culture is fundamental to the manner in which socio-political projects have operated during the last thirty or so years. And the sense of rebirth is also crucial here. Halpern acknowledges this in the NPR interview when he notes:

Well, there’s certainly a myth of American difference, and it’s had an important role to play since the very founding of the country. The idea of leaving the old world for the new carried along with it the notion that you were somehow leaving behind you the burdens of history and the sins of the past and starting over again. America offered a kind of rebaptism for culture.

Of course, it is necessary to point out that this is true of all national cultures and polities to some degree. To take an example closer to home it is not coincidental that the British Labour Party rebranded itself “New” Labour. That the personnel within the party, and indeed party policies remained largely the same as they had prior to the introduction of the term was irrelevant. The significations of ‘innovation’ and ‘freshness’ were in some ways able to rework the perception of that party amongst the general public.

But, at the risk of arguing for an American exceptionalism, this ‘myth’ of rebirth and redemption is very firmly positioned within US culture and society. The roots of this would demand an essay of their own, but perhaps it is possible to point, as Halpern has, to the arrival of immigrants fleeing religious persecution yet profoundly religious in themselves. The very term “New World” encapsulates these significations perfectly.

Halpern is keen to link this broader cultural narrative to the imagery produced by Rockwell.

Similar questions surround the figure of Norman Rockwell, who still manages to spawn fervent advocates and detractors. Both those who love Rockwell and those who dismiss him agree on one thing: his art embodies a distinctively American style of innocence. To his admirers, Rockwell’s paintings of mischievous boys, swimming holes, and small-town life offer a reassuringly wholesome if somewhat nostalgic vision that wards off the sordid, threatening aspects of modern existence. To his detractors, this same vision betrays both social and artistic naïveté, a kitschy sentimentality that promotes a sanitized view of the world.

He argues that:

both of these views are mistaken, and that Rockwell’s paintings are darker and more complex than most viewers are willing to acknowledge. They are not so much innocent as they are about the ways we manufacture innocence. For innocence is indeed something we make, not something we are born to—a story we tell about ourselves, not something we are. While we often think of innocence as originary—a quality we enjoy as infants and that tarnishes as we grow older—this view is a relatively recent one, largely a product of the nineteenth century, which fostered a sentimental cult of the child. For almost two millennia before that, Christianity held that we were born in original sin, inherited from Adam. Children unfortunate enough to die before baptism were not wafted on angels’ wings to heaven but consigned to limbo… Our sense of Rockwell’s world as an innocent one has a great deal to do with the prominence of children in it, but childhood innocence is less a fact than a construction by “adults.”

Halpern points to Rockwell himself as an authority when discussing his familiarity with a darker side of American life.

Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and painted only the ideal aspects of it—pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers [Rockwell is alluding to his own mother here], in which, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played football with the kids, and boys fished from logs and got up circuses in the back yard. If there was sadness in this created world of mine, it was a pleasant sadness. If there were problems, they were humorous problems. The people in my pictures aren’t mentally ill [as Rockwell’s wife Mary was] or deformed. The situations they get into are commonplace, everyday situations, not the agonizing crises and tangles of life.

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Another example that Halpern considers is “A Girl at Mirror” which is also the cover illustration on his book on the same subject.

That’s one of Rockwell’s better-known images. A young girl, about 12 years old, is sitting up in her dark attic. She’s looking into a mirror. On her lap she’s holding a magazine from which a photograph of the movie star Jane Russell looks out at her, and she’s just applied lipstick. She’s trying to judge himself for the first time by standards of adult beauty. So it’s a kind of wistful nostalgic look at leaving childhood innocence behind for a more adult state.

One of the most odd details in it is a little doll that’s propped up against the mirror, and it’s in a rather strange, and, I think, pretty indecent posture.

It is difficult to be certain that this reading is correct. Certainly the juxtaposition of Jane Russell and the young girl is sufficient to raise certain issues. Whether that can be extended to the doll is a different matter. However, as Halpern notes, “the head of the Rockwell Museum responded, well, you know, dolls fall in all kinds of positions and so this just seems arbitrary. To me, that overlooks the fact that this isn’t a real doll. It’s a painting. And if a doll is in a particular position, it’s because you’ve chosen to paint it in that position”.

Halpern argues that “It’s something that actually Rockwell does very often. His dolls are almost always in oddly provocative and sort of sexual postures. It’s a little joke he plays, and it’s a way of displacing a kind of troubling sexuality…”

This raises the issue of agency on the part of the illustrator. Painting representational, albeit idealised, imagery is a challenging technical process. Therefore it seems reasonable to at least propose that the level of self-awareness on the part of the illustrator is reasonably high.

But Halpern makes another point which I think is even more significant. He notes that: “There’s often a kind of loss of innocence that takes place in the paintings themselves, which reflect on a potential loss of innocence on the part of the viewer”. This, I would argue, is very clear in the original Santa Claus image. Here an understanding of the situation by the viewer is predicated on just that loss of innocence having happened to the viewer previously. The shock of the child is shared vicariously. In some respects the painting is rather cruel.

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Halpern draws attention to another Rockwell painting where this loss of innocence is exemplified.

I think an interesting example of that is Rockwell’s painting called The Art Critic. That’s a painting of a young man, a young art student in a museum, who’s studying a painting on the wall of a kind of amply-endowed Rubenesque lady. And he’s peering at it closely through a magnifying glass, looking at a brooch on the woman’s breast. He doesn’t notice that he’s actually looking at her chest at the same time, but the woman in the painting does notice and leers back at him.

You have a young man, a kind of innocent, who doesn’t see what he’s looking at, but the painting does see. The painting isn’t innocent. And, in a way, that seems to me to spell out the relation between Rockwell’s viewers and the paintings themselves. The viewers may be innocent or may be in a state of denial or disavowal but the paintings themselves are very knowing and sophisticated. And they’re, they’re looking at us, in a way, more intently than we are at them.

For a somewhat disturbing insight into Rockwells approach consider this article which gives some background to the way in which the image was constructed.

In a way what is interesting here is not the implicit (indeed arguably explicit) layers of signification that Rockwell generates in this imagery. Illustration, whether paintings, cartoons or other has always contained strands of humour, vulgarity and sexuality. This is a functional aspect of the ‘displacement’ Halpern notes above. The real interest is, quite naturally, the distance between the ‘myth’ of Rockwell as a painter of an idealised version of American life and the reality of the images themselves once unlocked and decoded. But then that is to assume that Rockwell was the human embodiment of the mythic significations of his work. Such a reading of the man, indeed any illustrator, is hard to sustain. The disavowal of the ideas Halpern proposes by the head of the Rockwell Museum perhaps indicates just such a dynamic at play. And the inability to detach the illustrator from the illustrated or the writer from that which is written has very contemporary resonances.

Halpern points to this very dynamic when he discusses what he terms the ‘innocence’ industry. This he sees as the vast commercial network extant in the US which generated material that fed and extended an appetite for the seemingly uncomplicated world that Rockwell and others depicted.

However, this raises an interesting question as regards the manner in which such imagery can be refashioned to embody a range of significations entirely opposite to the original reading. Simply because the imagery is – on the face of it – so idealised the original significations can be almost entirely replaced or reused in a radically different context. Consider again the reworked image of the young child discovering Santa Claus. Here the sentimentalised ‘shock’ of the original is replaced by a vastly more potent ‘shock’ whereby the actuality of Abu Ghraib intersects with the most idealised depictions of US society (and note how it would be near impossible on ethical grounds to stage this reworked imagery with a real child).

Paradoxically despite the fact that we suspect that Rockwell’s illustrations contain more contradictory readings than are apparent at first does not detract from the original signification. Which raises an interesting question as to whether the original signification can ever be entirely jettisoned?

Indeed, is it possible to entirely disentangle the illustrations from the totality of the society within which they were generated. Halpern addresses this directly…

Insofar as Rockwell’s era seems like a more innocent time than ours, however, this has a good deal to do with the innocence industry, which disseminated its products on a massive scale. I want to complicate our sense of that time, not by evoking its social and cultural troubles, or by making the obvious point that the purveyors of innocence (Disney, for example) were often quite cynical in their motives, or the equally obvious point that more serious and sophisticated kinds of culture (jazz, the beats, Ralph Ellison, J. D. Salinger, and so on) nevertheless managed to thrive in this infantilizing soil… Some very strange things crawled around in the basement of postwar culture, and it was a big basement—bigger than the house. No doubt the “two cultures” were often patronized by different audiences, but many people who saw a Capra or Doris Day film one day doubtless saw The Mad Ghoul or The Whip Hand the next, and many who displayed the Ladies’ Home Journal or the Saturday Evening Post on their coffee tables stashed copies of less wholesome reading matter elsewhere in their homes. I am less interested in the hypocrisies produced by this culture than in the compartmentalization of mind it bespoke—the fact that people could take the products of the innocence industry seriously while also wallowing in less savory fare. Innocence must take on a particularly strained and brittle quality in such circumstances. The best and most interesting products of the innocence industry—and I include Rockwell’s works among them—couldn’t help absorbing, or taking some account of, this vast cultural netherworld and its unwholesome desires.

Yet, I cannot help wondering how it is that a Professor of English literature is the one who is making this analysis of the work of one of the 20th century’s great illustrators, rather than someone from visual communications or visual culture. I’ve noted here before how the methodological tools are available for engaging directly on this very terrain. That it is simply not happening is a worrying sign that perhaps points to an inability to read visual material.

Ciarán Swan

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