Friday, October 23, 2009

Freedom From Triviality

Shepard Fairey is in deep doo-doo over his iconic image of the POTUS (44) during the '08 campaign. Unfortunately, Fairey "borrowed" a 2006 image of then-Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) taken by AP photographer Mannie Garcia at the National Press Club in DC.

Norman Rockwell did not have a computer nor did he have Adobe Photoshop in the shank of WWII. Rockwell also had artistic integrity. If this is (fair & balanced) admiration, so be it.

Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms — Saturday Evening Post Covers (February-March 1943)

[x Wall Street Fishwrap]
Free Speech Personified
By Bruce Cole

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A hundred thousand people came to see them in Washington and New York, a million more in other major cities across the country. They were visited by a vice president, stars of screen and radio, and even survivors of the Bataan "Death March." They raised millions of dollars for the purchase of war bonds, and were reproduced in over four million copies.

Sponsored by the Treasury Department and the Saturday Evening Post, the 1943 "Four Freedoms War Bond Exhibition" was our first national "blockbuster." Exhibited not in museums or galleries, but in department stores for a year during the depths of World War II, it made an already well-known illustrator a household name.

What the crowds came to see were paintings: "Freedom of Speech," "Freedom of Worship," "Freedom From Want" and "Freedom From Fear" (now all prominently displayed in the Norman Rockwell Museum). In 1943 each had been reproduced, along with an accompanying essay by leading literary lights including Booth Tarkington and Stephen Vincent Benét, in successive issues of the Saturday Evening Post, a popular magazine for which Norman Rockwell had worked since 1916.

Rockwell discovered his subjects in Franklin Roosevelt's State of the Union speech of Jan. 6, 1941, delivered 11 months before Pearl Harbor. In it, the president warns of the looming danger posed by aggressor nations, proposes Lend-Lease, and calls for a major increase in armament production. At the speech's conclusion he looks toward the future, to a world founded upon "four essential freedoms."

"Freedom of speech and expression" and "freedom of worship" are, of course, from the Bill of Rights. But the other two—"freedom from want" and "freedom from fear," which the president defines as "a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point . . . that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor"—are Roosevelt's, or perhaps his wife Eleanor's, utopian wishes for universal rights that were to become part of the United Nations Charter.

As a superb illustrator who used the familiar world of his viewers to tell them stories with messages that touched their hearts, Rockwell said in his autobiography that he had difficulty conceptualizing the abstract, and internationalist, Four Freedoms, especially the negative rights of "want" and "fear": "I never liked 'Freedom from Fear' or, for that matter, 'Freedom from Want,'" he wrote. "Neither of them," Rockwell thought, "had any wallop." He was right.

"Freedom From Want" depicts a homey Thanksgiving dinner; it's more about what we have than what we want, surplus rather than scarcity. In "Freedom Fom Fear," a mother tucks in her children while her husband holds a newspaper with headlines reading "Bombings" and "Horror." This reference to the war is so specific that it conveys little about fear or Roosevelt's plan for universal disarmament. Rockwell just could not get his hands around these airy abstractions.

And, although he was proud of "Freedom of Worship," his depiction of spectral close-up faces and hands raised in prayer is bland, without any real message about religious freedom—again, no wallop. This is because faith, like the absence of fear and the absence of want, is essentially private, something personal, intangible and unpicturable.

In "Freedom of Speech," however, Rockwell found a subject that is active and public, a subject he could grasp and shape into his greatest painting forging traditional American illustration into a powerful and enduring work of art.

For inspiration, he thought of the New England town-hall meetings he knew so well, with their long tradition of democratic public debate—a tradition, as we have seen this summer, still very much alive. But we are not sure where Rockwell's scene occurs; a blackboard frames the speaker, but he stands behind a pew: school and church, two pillars of American life. The pamphlet held by the man closest to us reveals the subject of the meeting—a discussion of the town's annual report.

Using a classic pyramidal composition, Rockwell focuses attention on the standing speaker whose age, worn and stained jacket, rough hands with dirty fingernails, and plaid shirt set him apart from the neat coats, ties and white shirts of the older men in the audience. Although he is a working man, this figure, his face reminiscent of Lincoln's, is unafraid to voice his opinion—which we suspect is contrary to that of the others in the room. Standing tall, his mouth open, his shining eyes transfixed, he speaks his mind, untrammeled and unafraid. In Rockwell's vision he has become not only an active public participant in democracy, but a defender of it. He is the very embodiment of free speech, a living manifestation of that abstract right—an image that transforms principle, paint and, yes, creed, into an indelible image and a brilliant and beloved American icon still capable of inspiring millions world-wide. Ω

[Bruce Cole, an art historian and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is president of the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge, PA. Cole attended Case Western Reserve University as an undergraduate. He earned his master's degree from Oberlin College and his doctorate from Bryn Mawr College. Cole came to the NEH in December 2001 from Indiana University in Bloomington where he was Distinguished Professor of Art History and Professor of Comparative Literature.]

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Copyright © 2009 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

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