Easy Chair — From the March 2019 issue

Freedom from Inspiration

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The fight over which of our public monuments should remain where they are is as complicated as the American past they commemorate. For all the fighting over who and what we should not honor from our past, there is one vital element that has been missing from the argument: that is, what we should honor and aspire to now.

America approached this same question in the midst of trying to win the most terrible war in world history. You can see an intriguing cross section of what we came up with—and what our artists think of that now—in a traveling exhibition from the Norman Rockwell Museum, Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt, & the Four Freedoms. It is currently in Washington, D.C., but will continue touring the country until it returns to its home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the fall of 2020.

The exhibit is about what the title suggests: how Norman Rockwell made President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision for the postwar world resonate with the American people. Roosevelt first articulated “The Four Freedoms” in his January 6, 1941, State of the Union message to Congress, an address focused on the president’s long struggle to convince Americans to prepare to join the fight against the Axis powers in World War II.

The speech was remarkable, not least in that it was one of the first attempts by an American president to appeal to the world, as well as to what was an intensely isolationist—and racist—United States. FDR made clear the “great emergency” we faced when—not so different from today—democracy was everywhere in retreat before “the dictator nations.” The president called for sacrifice by all Americans, and in exchange for that sacrifice he made an offer of “a good society,” a fairer, more secure, and more prosperous version of America that might be secured in a postwar world. Searching for a summation of “all things worth fighting for,” an “unshakable belief” that could support “the mighty action” necessary to win the war, FDR concluded with the Four Freedoms—a core set of values that he added to the speech himself.

The ideals he came up with, in order, were: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—each of these to be extended to “every person . . . everywhere in the world.” This was, Roosevelt made clear, not a dream but a promise: “no vision of a distant millennium” but a “world attainable in our own time and generation.”

Roosevelt’s speech fell flat. As Abigail Tucker recently wrote in Smithsonian magazine,

Congress barely applauded. The next day most newspapers did not even mention the “Four Freedoms.” Those who were still talking about the phrase in the weeks and months that followed did so to lambaste its “hollow, empty sound.”

A phalanx of writers was hired to publicize the concept. They fared little better. (One of them was E. B. White, whose pamphlet on the subject was dismissed as “dull.”) The man who would save Roosevelt’s words, by putting them into pictures, was Norman Rockwell.

Rockwell was an unlikely choice. I can remember my own incredulous sneer when I asked my late father who his favorite painter was and he replied, Rockwell. The illustrator’s homey scenes have become synonymous with kitsch, with soda fountains and quaint country towns, and a vanished America that was always too good to be true (and too white to be truly good).

Rockwell himself didn’t like the idea of the Four Freedoms any more than anyone else. Yet, unbidden, Roosevelt’s words began to form pictures as Rockwell thought them over. By 1942, he was in Washington, trying to sell the government on a series of paintings. There he was shunted from one bureaucrat to another and finally told at the Office of War Information (OWI): “The last war, you illustrators did the posters. This war, we’re going to use fine arts men, real artists.” It was suggested that Rockwell might turn instead to the Marine Corps, to illustrate a calisthenics manual.

Rockwell went back to the magazine where most of his work had already appeared, The Saturday Evening Post. It ran his paintings in February and March 1943, accompanied by a presidential note and essays on each freedom by prominent authors of the time.

The world would little note nor long remember what they wrote there, but the images that Rockwell produced for the Post would become almost instantly iconic. Like all successful art, it was work that you imagined existed before you ever saw it. Two of the “Freedoms”—Freedom of Speech, with a man rising to speak before his neighbors at a New En­gland town meeting, and Freedom from Want, with its bountiful Thanksgiving table—remain immediately recognizable, so well known that they have almost sunk into cliché. The other two, Freedom of Worship—with profiles of people of many faiths praying—and Freedom from Fear—with a couple looking over two small, sleeping children they have just tucked into a humble bed—still retain their power.

It had taken Rockwell just seven months to do all four paintings. He worked as he usually did, paying people from his little town of Arlington, Vermont, a modest fee to pose. Rockwell himself worked for nothing, and he did so while racked with digestive disorders. These were, he would say, “serious paintings which sucked the energy right out of me like dredges, leaving me dazed and thoroughly weary.”

Rockwell’s work won a note of congratulations from Roosevelt, whose new appointees at the OWI—including a Coca-Cola executive—forced its selection for a war-bond drive. This set off a series of rebellions that led to the entire writers’ division resigning. Francis Brennan, the former chief of the OWI graphics bureau, was so infuriated by the pick of Rockwell’s paintings over the grimmer work of Ben Shahn that he and Shahn created a mock poster depicting the Statue of Liberty holding a bottle of Coke, with the caption, the war that refreshes: the four delicious freedoms. The government, Brennan felt, was treating the American people “as if they were twelve years old.”

The men and women of the United States begged to differ. Reproductions of Rockwell’s Four Freedoms helped raise $133 million for the war. The paintings were copied onto postage stamps and more than 4 million sets of posters before the end of the war. Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms,” estimated The New Yorker in 1945, “were received by the public with more enthusiasm, perhaps, than any other paintings in the history of American art.”

The original paintings, approximately four feet by three feet, are now in the traveling exhibit, along with works by other great American propagandists for the war effort: Arthur Szyk, Ben Shahn, J. C. Leyendecker, George Rapp, J. Howard Miller, Gordon Parks, Alfred Charles Parker, Valentino Sarra, John Falter, Martha Sawyers, Thomas Lea, Zudor, and Mead Schaeffer.

Their work runs the gamut of both styles and emotions; the determination of Miller’s famous clenched-fisted woman war worker; Lea’s “Marines Call It the 2,000 Yard Stare,” acknowledging the realities of the battlefield in the face of a shell-shocked Marine; Parker’s sentimental series for the Ladies’ Home Journal of a mother and daughter making do on the home front; Shahn’s stark poster commemorating the Nazi massacre at Lidice.

There are, as well, more Rockwell works from just before, during, and immediately after the war. A soldier’s father charts the war news in his study; a group of men cluster around a radio on a diner counter. The original, gloriously zaftig and triumphant Rosie the Riveter (modeled after Michelangelo’s Prophet Isaiah, in the Sistine Chapel) eats a sandwich on her lunch break, rivet gun still nestled on her lap. An embattled machine gunner in a torn uniform holds off the enemy, a veteran back from the war peels potatoes with his mother in their kitchen. In Back to Civvies, another young returned vet dresses for a date in the room he last lived in as a teenager and that has been maintained as meticulously as a shrine for the three years he was away. In this one scene is conveyed the young man’s relief and pride in having survived and grown, even as we’re sobered by the reminder that here was a boy who was sent off to war.

These artists’ works are so powerful because they are fitted to their subjects and their moment. They dare to be emotional, even mawkish, in the service of making the momentous personal—the secret of all effective propaganda. They cut Roosevelt’s “mighty action” down to a thousand human actions.

Accompanying these works from a different time are those in the exhibition Reimagining the Four Freedoms. There are some forty works selected from a juried competition that asked contemporary artists: “How might notions of freedom, as presented by Roosevelt and Rockwell during the World War II era, be reinterpreted for our times? What does freedom look like today?”

Unlike the works produced by the Office of War Information during World War II, the artists selected include many women, people of color, and at least two foreign artists, which is just as it should be.

What they came up with, sadly, will not inspire anyone to do much of anything. Most of the artists ignored their charge. They produced no tantalizing glimpse of a new world, “attainable in our own time and generation,” no update on Rockwell’s idealized American present, projected as a possibility for all. Most of the works do not even aspire to some vision for the future but are instead a predictable series of ironies, protests, and often obscurantist critiques of injustices old and new.

There is little enough to do with America in many of these works. One might think, from viewing this exhibit, that Muslim women wearing hijabs or other head coverings was a major issue in American life. Old wounds never heal: there is a baseball player from the Negro Leagues, and three different works underscore the hypocrisy of Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans even as he promoted freedom as our goal in the war.

Freedom of Speech, by Peter Zierlein, depicts a disembodied hand cutting off the tongue that emerges from an eyeless, abstract face with a pair of scissors—all in red, white, and blue, “as these issues are American issues, and the colors represent the polarity in society.”

Stephanie Angelo’s Four Freedoms (Marriage Equality, Agent Orange, Lettuce Picker, Stalin) offers us black-and-white coloring-book figures, with captions that include color me communist under Stalin. Jarrett Christian’s Liberty Construct #1 gives us an allegory: a serial ­killer is hurrying away from Lady Liberty lying dead in a field.

Even Rockwell’s granddaughter, Daisy Rockwell, gives us nothing to aspire (or relate) to. Her work, Arrested, consists of mug shots of female petty criminals in America, painted over in the style of Mughal miniatures from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries; “a continuation,” she tells us, “of my work on ancient Indian rasa theory” based on the beliefs of “Sanskrit aestheticians.”

Even most of those works that offer some hope come across with all the power of a soft-drink ad. Everything seems mediated through something else, and nowhere is there a risk, an immediacy, an openness.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with artists criticizing grave social wrongs, in any era, and it is more vital than ever that they do so today. That is the main reason for freedom of expression: to produce artists who will speak truth to power.

In this exhibit, there is nothing to motivate anyone to take “a mighty action,” no willingness to concede that there might be something out there that could be desired, much less achieved, for “all people, everywhere.”

Much the same result came about when Smithsonian magazine invited “four outspoken artists” to “rise to the challenge of reimagining the enduring American freedoms that Rockwell celebrated 75 years ago” in its pages.

Melinda Beck replaced Rockwell’s white neighbor speaking to a meeting in his white town with the profile of a young black woman, word-covered birds flying from her mouth. But she is alone, not speaking to anyone visible, and the words on the birds are only the names of movements: time’s up, me too, etc. Edel Rodriguez, a Cuban American who was an immigrant on the 1980 Mariel boatlift, re-created Rockwell’s doting parents and sleeping children in Freedom from Fear as Hispanics—but they are all captives, behind barbed wire, not free from fear or anything else.

Tim O’Brien came closest to the stated goal with an updated Freedom of Worship. But he couldn’t resist a cheap shot: “In the original Freedom of Worship, the five figures in the center are all white. The fringes are people of color. That’s what institutional racism is, when you fail to notice things like that.” It’s a remark that ignores Rockwell’s sumptuous 1961 plea for religious tolerance, Golden Rule, or his many paintings in support of the civil-rights movement, including a scorching depiction of the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Murder in Mississippi (1965).

Worst of all, though, is Ryan Schude’s version of Freedom from Want, a photographic send-up of Rockwell’s Thanksgiving feast, staged with family members wearing what seem to be parodies of middle-American clothes, and who appear crude, depressed, and mostly interested in their social-media devices.

“Rockwell’s paintings were idyllic,” Schude tells us. “That’s his style, but it’s also his time. That was the kind of image that people wanted. I took a more realistic approach. There’s a little bit of tension.”

More tension than World War II? Again, is it the subjects who refuse to engage here or the artists?

The lack of an engaged public art in America is all around us. The recent official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama seem much more about the brands of their respective painters than anything to do with the Obamas themselves. By the paintings alone, one might conclude that the former first couple were a prominent horticulturist and a couturier. But where is anything, anywhere out in public, painting or stone, building or canvas, that now inspires?

I don’t mean to say that artists should give up criticism or irony, or endure any other constraints on whatever the hell they want to do. But there is, I think, a terrible smugness here, a need to retreat behind jargon and pose rather than try to identify “all things worth fighting for.”

All those years ago, when the world hung in the balance, we turned to artists to bring the words of politicians to life. Now, when we ask the same questions about what our world could and should be, the artists pretend they don’t even understand the question.

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