Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence

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Norman Rockwell’s scenes of everyday small-town life are among the most indelible images in all of twentieth-century art. While opinions of Rockwell vary from uncritical admiration to sneering contempt, those who love him and those who dismiss him do agree on one thing: his art embodies a distinctively American style of innocence. 

In this sure-to-be controversial book, Richard Halpern argues that this sense of innocence arises from our reluctance—and also Rockwell’s—to acknowledge the often disturbing dimensions of his works. Rockwell’s paintings frequently teem with perverse acts of voyeurism and desire but contrive to keep these acts invisible—or rather, hidden in plain sight, available for unacknowledged pleasure but easily denied by the viewer. 

Rockwell emerges in this book, then, as a deviously brilliant artist, a remorseless diagnostician of the innocence in which we bathe ourselves, and a continuing, unexpected influence on contemporary artists. Far from a banal painter of the ordinary, Halpern argues, Rockwell is someone we have not yet dared to see for the complex creature he is: a wholesome pervert, a knowing innocent, and a kitschy genius. 

Provocative but judicious, witty but deeply informed, Norman Rockwell is a book rich in suggestive propositions and eye-opening details—one that will change forever the way we think about this American icon and his works.

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Editorial Reviews

The Historian

"Rockwell and his images remain central to twentieth-century U.S. cultural history, too popular to ignore and yet, as Halpern reveals, more complex than many concede."

— Julia L. Foulkes

The Historian - Julia L. Foulkes
"Rockwell and his images remain central to twentieth-century U.S. cultural history, too popular to ignore and yet, as Halpern reveals, more complex than many concede."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226314402
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 218
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Halpern is professor of English at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author several books, including Shakespeare among the Moderns and Shakespeare’s Perfume.

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Read an Excerpt

Norman Rockwell

The Underside of Innocence
By Richard Halpern

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Manufacturing Innocence

On October 10, 1980, Mark David Chapman sold his beloved lithograph of Norman Rockwell's Triple Self-Portrait to a Hawaiian public relations man for $7500. Chapman, who was strapped for cash, used the proceeds to quit his job, purchase a .38 revolver, buy airfare to New York and book a room at the Waldorf Astoria. From this base of operations he would stalk John Lennon at the Dakota and finally, in December, take his life. I find it suggestive that one icon of innocence was used to fund the assassination of another. For many, John Lennon's death marked the end of '60s idealism, summed up in his song "Imagine." Chapman's rage was fueled largely by his sense that Lennon had become a rich phony who had betrayed those ideals. Rockwell, with whom Chapman was also obsessed, represents another, earlier style of innocence, associated primarily with the postwar years.

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 theodd 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?

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.

I believe 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. The seventeenth-century poet and preacher John Donne put it vividly: "There in the womb we are fitted for works of darkness, all the while deprived of light: And there in the womb we are taught cruelty, by being fed with blood, and may be damned though we be never born." When, in the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud brought the unwelcome news that even small children harbor sexual and violent fantasies, he managed to shock middle-class sensibilities, but he arguably did no more than revive and affirm an older form of theological wisdom. 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."

I put the word "adults" in scare quotes because one so rarely meets a real adult nowadays. Most people one encounters are rather overgrown children, fully ensconced in a manufactured innocence that real children would have no difficulty seeing through. "Adults" love Norman Rockwell because he allows them to bathe themselves in innocence, and because his work seems to lack all the ambiguities, complexities, and problems that might otherwise induce such stressful conditions as thinking or self-examination or informing oneself about the world. There is no overt sex in Norman Rockwell's paintings, no violence, no real or insoluble unhappiness, no poverty or serious illness or crime, and, until late in his career, no black people except for the occasional porter. (Rockwell, it should be said, had long wanted to depict African Americans but was forbidden to do so by his editors at the Saturday Evening Post, who feared that the mere sight of them might upset most of their readers, and who were, moreover, probably right.)

Of course, people who like Rockwell-and I count myself passionately among them-will respond that they perfectly well know these things already. Obviously Rockwell's world isn't the "real world," or at least not the whole of that world. That's the point. His illustrations offer a pleasant respite from the pressures and tensions of life. And what's so wrong with that? Nothing, really-unless one's whole life is an elaborate and extended respite from those things. For that is what innocence is-an ingrained habit of denying what one knows but doesn't want to know.

Rockwell himself was under no illusions about the nature of his art:

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.

He adds, just a little later, that he painted pictures that didn't disturb anybody because he wanted to be well liked, and "(to be completely honest), the fact that this type of picture pays well has something to do with it too." For Rockwell, creating a world of innocence is in part a matter of meeting consumer demand-a profitable performance, though for that reason one he can't fully believe in-and in part a fleeing from the pain and imperfection of real life. Here I won't make much of the fact that Rockwell personifies life's woes as female (drunken slatterns, self-centered mothers, mentally ill wives) and its ideal aspects as male (Foxy Grandpas, boys playing football or fishing), though one would do well to keep this in mind later on. I'm more interested here in what he characterizes as his unconscious decision to idealize the world. The phrase is paradoxical, since we usually regard decisions as conscious resolutions. Rockwell feels his was unconscious, yet he calls it a "decision" in part to take responsibility for it. "I unconsciously decided." Rockwell will not delegate his decision entirely to some mental agency over which he has no control. He will not let himself off the hook for his unconscious decisions. He takes at least some responsibility even for what he does not know, because he understands that our decisions not to know are at least partly volitional. Innocence is a choice not to know something, and therefore a lie, since the very choice must be based on some presentiment, some suspicion, some tiny bit of knowledge (or even a good deal more than a tiny bit) we already possess. Innocence is a pretense of ignorance, a pretense staged not so much for others as for ourselves. This is what Nietzsche rails against in my epigraph-people who can't tell good "honest" lies because they don't have the courage to face what is true and false in themselves. They cannot choose to lie because they lie incessantly and unconsciously to themselves. In the 1950s, Jean-Paul Sartre would elaborate Nietzsche's insight into the concept of mauvaise foi or bad faith.

In this book I shall argue that innocence is manufactured through a process of disavowal-a refusal to own up to or acknowledge what one already knows or thinks or wants. At the end of The Tempest, the enchanter Prospero says of his half-human slave Caliban: "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine." Disavowal, by contrast, is the refusal to acknowledge those things of darkness that are ours. I have borrowed the term from psychoanalysis, though I will not always be using it precisely in a psychoanalytic sense. For Freud, disavowal is one among several ways of suppressing something unbearable. Repression, another of those ways, banishes unwanted knowledge or desires to the unconscious, where they are no longer available to us. Disavowal, by contrast, involves a "splitting" of the self, so that we simultaneously know and don't know something.

While Freud would not approve, I want to propose an ethical distinction between repression and disavowal. In repression, the conscious mind finds something so objectionable (though also desirable) that it simply expels it and will have no more to do with it. Repression therefore involves, for better or worse, a genuine renunciation. In disavowal, however, consciousness both retains and banishes something. It thereby allows itself to enjoy that forbidden thing on the sly while denying that it enjoys or knows it. Disavowal is not exactly a way of having your cake and eating it too. It's rather a way of eating your cake and nevertheless being able to deny to yourself, with apparent sincerity, that you ever ate it or had any intention of doing so. Indeed, it's a way of eating cake while declaring that people who eat cake are disgusting and ought to be locked up. Disavowal is therefore a short-circuiting of ethics, insofar as it refuses to take responsibility for what one already knows or wants or does, engaging instead in childish forms of denial. It substitutes a false conviction of personal purity for a complex engagement with the self and the world as they really are.

While repression divides the self into largely noncommunicating realms of light and darkness, disavowal occupies a murky grey area, neither fully repressed nor fully acknowledged. The philosopher Bernard Williams observed, "One symptom of deep-seated problems of the Freudian kind may be self-deception. But ... there is a level of self-deception more subconscious than unconscious that can be dealt with by the virtues of accuracy and sincerity. That's what we have those virtues for." I would argue that Rockwell's paintings occupy this level, and do so in complicated ways. Rockwell's paintings do produce an innocent world, and to that degree they are acts of disavowal. But at the same time, under the guise of innocence, they often present potentially disturbing materials that they then dare the viewer to see and recognize. Rockwell's work thus lays bare the mechanisms of disavowal. What Rockwell paints is not innocence itself but its manufacture. And his work confronts the viewer with the ethical choice of seeing or not seeing.

To be more specific: the "potentially disturbing" materials Rockwell offers to view are often sexual in nature, even perverse. Oddly, when I have run this thesis by friends and acquaintances, some have found the idea completely outlandish and dismissed it instantly, and others have found it so obviously true as hardly to merit discussion. Reactions were about evenly divided between "You're crazy!" and "Of course!-so what else is new?" Artistic merit is always debatable, but more interesting, I think, is vehement disagreement over basic facts of perception, when one group finds something as plain as day and another finds it both invisible and impossible. Rockwell's paintings, I've found, are able to induce a kind of hysterical blindness in many viewers, who can't or won't see what is staring them in the face.

A few years ago I was discussing my book idea with a colleague, and she mentioned that she knew a painter who had done "pornographic versions of Rockwell." Intrigued (to say the least), I visited the person in question, a Californian painter and art teacher named Suzanne Lacke who had indeed done several rather risqué versions of well-known Rockwell paintings. As interesting as the paintings themselves, for my purpose, was the way she had come to do them. As Lacke tells it, one day she was teaching an art class and got into an argument with a student about whether Rockwell was a painter or a mere illustrator-a topic on which I will have more to say later. Insisting that Rockwell was the latter, Lacke exclaimed polemically, "You could use his technique to paint anything-even pornography!" And she decided to do such a painting, just to prove that Rockwell's technique could in fact be put even to so obviously absurd a purpose. But when she started looking through Rockwell's work to find a useful starting point, she began finding clues of a hidden content. Repainting Rockwell's Girl at Mirror, whom Lacke transforms into a figure out of Balthus, she "found it impossible to render the flesh without sensing the erotic charge that Rockwell must have felt in painting it." "I suddenly realized," she said, "that the paintings are already pornographic, and that only the slightest changes were needed to bring this out." Instead of doing one on a lark, she undertook a series. Brilliantly, she signed one by condensing the famed "Norman Rockwell" signature into the word "Normal." In a sense, my whole argument is summed up in that one gesture: the containment of the perverse under the sign of the normal.

Much of this book will concentrate on sexual disavowal, not out of any prurient interest (well, maybe a little prurient interest), but mainly because it is such a persistent theme in Rockwell. I used to think that disavowal always begins in the sexual realm, and that then, having learned its alphabet there, we go on to apply it to a wider field, including such uncomfortable social facts as racial or class difference. I no longer think that sexual disavowal enjoys any such temporal or logical priority. We learn to disavow in many ways from a very early age, and our different forms of disavowal soon become hopelessly entangled. But sexual disavowal is nevertheless a very potent form of it, and people under the sway of sexual disavowal are, more often than not, unusually vulnerable to other forms as well.

Much of my analysis will draw on biographical material about Rockwell's life, but I should make it clear that my intention is not to psychoanalyze Rockwell, much less to mark him as some kind of "deviant." Rockwell's life had its darker zones, to be sure. Some of these have been judiciously revealed by Laura Claridge's recent biography, and others were alluded to by Rockwell himself in his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator. The young Rockwell knew years of partying and adulterous promiscuity, and he as well as his second wife Mary battled clinical depression. Rockwell's life included much that could not have found a place in the seemingly innocent world of his work. But in most ways he was, indeed, "Normal." Nevertheless, the art allows a space for the perverse that the life does not, and Rockwell projected a good deal more onto canvas than a desire for a perfect world. And yet even this perversity is normal-that's precisely the point. Rockwell's imagination worked like that of most people, though with greater visual intensity. The perversity of his paintings is the perversity of everyday life, omnipresent though disavowed. To posit Rockwell as patient or "clinical case" is to let ourselves off the hook, and thus to avoid the ethical challenge of his work in confronting us with our own strategies of disavowal. Rockwell has perverse desires, of course, and he often disavows them-common enough. What makes the work noteworthy is its ability to stage disavowal in such a way that it analyzes us. De te fabula narratur-"Of you (viewer, reader) the tale is told!"


Excerpted from Norman Rockwell by Richard Halpern Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



A Note to Readers

1 Manufacturing Innocence

2 Ways of Not Seeing

3 Phallic Women, Adam's Apples, and the Fullness of the World

4 “That Kind of Man”

5 The History of Girls

6 Painting: A Middlebrow Art

7 Rockwell's Heirs



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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    illuminating reappraisal of content, imagery, and playfulness of Rockwell's art

    While Norman Rockwell's paintings are generally seen as imagery of all-American virtues, values, individuals, and scenes, the John Hopkins English professor Halpern sees them as 'more challenging and complex' than even the most sophisticated critics have imagined in the recent revival of interest in Rockwell which revival has mostly reaffirmed the general regard of his paintings. Halpern looks to Rockwell's famous painting 'Triple Self-Portrait' for indication--and in a way confession--that there was more to Rockwell's paintings than is realized from the first impressions of their imagery and recognition and often identification with their subjects. Rockwell's insistent, undying 'jokey inventiveness,' evidenced more directly in his autobiography 'My Adventures as An Illustrator,' is seen in the often overlooked details of his paintings. The woman in 'Rosie the Riveter' celebrating American women's role in the war effort of WWII has Irish facial features which identify her with the ethnic and working classes, not the middle-class matrons, businessmen, and shop owners who see their mainstream, traditional values represented by Rockwell. Also, Rosie's muscular arms go against the typical image of women as slender and in need of male protection. Halpern similarly interprets details of other paintings to find symbols or intimations of homosexuality, voyeurism, and other sexually-laden topics. Halpern does not go so far as to make Rockwell out to be lascivious or meanly subversive. The author does, however, argue and abundantly demonstrate the point that Rockwell's paintings are more complex, more Freudian, than this painter openly admitted to and than nearly all viewers realize.

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