Ants on Jesus & the Voice of One Man! UPDATED

My Tuesday Column is up over on the home page. Today I am looking at the “Ants on Jesus” story, and the reaction of Washington Post Art Critic Blake Gopnik to poor old Norman Rockwell, whose “art” he hates. (Gopnik likes the scare quotes. He uses them to describe the “hard work” of realism, too!)

While I happen to agree with the notion that art, as free speech, should not be censored, I could not help but be struck by the fact that Gopnik is so out of touch with the “common man” he does not even realize that what he ridicules is a depiction of precisely what he himself has freely done: stood alone to make his argument, without fear of reprisal.

Gopnik really does hate Rockwell’s art, too. He goes after it with a lot of scare quotes, and jeers at the “hard work” of realist painting, which apparently is less arduous than laying a crucifix on the ground and opening an ant farm upon it. His real wrath, however, is reserved for the content of Rockwell’s painting:

Rockwell’s vision of “Freedom of Speech,” . . . doesn’t invoke a communist printing his pamphlets or an atheist on a soapbox. It gives us a town hall meeting of almost interchangeable New Englanders, no doubt agreeing to disagree about something as divisive as the rates for those new parking meters. For this, the Founders risked powder and ball?

Well, actually, Mr. Gopnik, yes. The truth is, the freedom of a small-town man—one so unremarkable as to be “interchangeable” with any other—to stand up amongst his neighbors and air his thoughts without fear of reprisal is precisely what the Founders risked everything for. They lived not in a world of expansive travel and myriad, largely-anonymous media, but in places where people knew each other for all of their lives, and interacted with each other every day.

The Founders understood that it was a singular and authentic act of bravery for a man or woman to stand amid such neighbors and opine against the conventional wisdom or the zeitgeist. They understood that the ability and willingness of one mainstream, rather conventional person to stand against a tide is as edgy as it gets; it is a demonstration of individual courage that extrapolates outward; it is the foundation that supports the freedom of the “communist printing his pamphlets or an atheist on a soapbox,” paintings of which, by 21st century trends, would—ironically—be considered less courageous or unusual than Rockwell’s vision.

You can read the rest, here.

Perhaps Gopnik simply can’t see himself in the common man of Rockwell’s painting because, well…the man is so common! Or perhaps Gopnik doesn’t really know who and what he hates, after all, and he–being gentry– cannot see the quiet heroism of the yahoo!

UPDATE: By happy co-incidence Tim Muldoon is also writing about the Smithsonian, and Hide/Seek, but he brings DaVinci into it:

I don’t think that Wojnarowicz’s work is likely to be a classic. It certainly carries an excess of meaning; otherwise people wouldn’t be any more interested in it than the average anti-Christian graffiti. It is certainly not the case that every Christian in the world will be equally offended; Christian respondents to the Washington Post story indicate as much. I suspect that at this moment what is giving the work legs is precisely the fact that it is now an object of complaint by a group claiming religious authority, and so it sets off the usual “censorship” and “religious bigotry” bells in opposing camps. To be frank, I do find ants crawling over a crucifix pretty offensive, but there are plenty of other things I as a Catholic find offensive that I simply don’t wish to call attention to.

Read it all here

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • ricki

    I always liked “Freedom of Speech,” though part of it may be that the featured man bore more than a passing resemblance to a family friend.

    I remember reading something – I think it was by Madeline L’Engle – about how artists could either look at the universe and see “chaos” or “cosmos.” Her argument being that a lot of the great artists of the past – Bach being a stellar example – saw “cosmos” and understand our link with God and strove to uplift people. But, sadly, she observed, some artists choose to see and present “chaos.” And I find for me, that kind of art does not uplift.

    And perhaps I’m shallow, but I want to be lifted up. I want to be reminded that there are better things than scrabbling around in the dirt and grunting at my fellow man. I want to be reminded of God’s goodness and creative power and how humans CAN behave in ways pleasing to Him, it just takes more work on our parts…

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  • CV

    My favorite line:

    “…Gopnik really does hate Rockwell’s art, too. He goes after it with a lot of scare quotes, and jeers at the “hard work” of realist painting, which apparently is less arduous than laying a crucifix on the ground and opening an ant farm upon it.”


  • Foxfier

    Ricki, can I quote you on that?

    You put it very well.

  • Rockwell Lover

    Having just visited Rockwell’s town of Stockbridge, Mass, I can say that what I saw there was beauty, neighborliness, order (good point, Ricki), and there was this palpable feeling that each person mattered. I do not get that in my teeming, anthill-like metropolis here on the Left Coast. Rockwell was humble enough to focus on the meekness it takes to actually stand up in courage and say one’s peace. This ability to stand up, whether in rural or urban space, is what the early founders died for. I think the “critic’s” hubris blinds him from what Rockwell’s humility revealed to his discerning eye. There is nothing noble about some of the modern artist’s attempts; I find most of it sensantionalizing more than authentic artistic striving or creating. Its pathetic.

    To hate America is currently popular. To hate Americana and all things even remotely linked seems to also be fair game as this Gopnik displays in his diatribe. But as you said, he has not looked down at where he stands, and he misses the point entirely.

    Even if Rockwell depicted a tenement, one saw something human within the composition and one could easily relate. Or, God forbid, he would paint a “story” (scare quote sarcasm intended) for the common folk to enjoy. What is also on trial here is the dignity of EVERY HUMAN PERSON. That is what is so hated today. The Founders knew that every person deserved Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Why? Because he was a creation of the Creator. Anathema to the modernists, post-modernists and socialist that have come to power in our age.

    Viewers of Rockwell see this. They feel it. They may rail against it as Gopnik did, but it is there. There is truth in what Rockwell painted/illustrated. Truth is hated so it makes perfect sense that it would be shot down by the likes of Gopnik. Gopnik may be “liberal” but he is not liberal minded enough to take true stock of where he is crying from. He is standing in liberty and proclaiming his shrillery without fear of reprisal, retribution or death. This is how rights are lost. I’d like to see him go to China and opine in their “free press” and see what happens when he criticizes them. Might be a wake up call for poor Gopnik.

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  • Mooga

    Okay, let me state for the record that I have no taste in the visual arts. None. My favorite paintings are Maja Desnuda and Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe. Why do I like them? The chicks are naked — that’s reason enough for me.

    Having made my confession, I have to say, I don’t see why Gopnik has a bee in his bonnet over that particular Rockwell painting. It works (ro the extent that any narrative painting works) because the guy could be anyone — including an atheist, or even more probably, a Communist. (Look at the way he’s dressed: straight-up prole before that look became chic.)

    [Good point! How does Gopnik know the guy is not a communist? Because he's not wearing a Che shirt? -admin]

  • Old Fan

    Outstanding topic, really enjoyed.

    Have to agree with your take.

    One of the most popular, revered, treasured, acclaimed, etc., artistic expression in art history is the famous Japanese Ukiyo-e “pictures of the floating world”.

    These too, were produced for the masses, the Public, being popular culture at the time. Cheap, mass produced, simple graphic images from the woodblock tradition. Some were even on the level of ‘postcards’ we pick up on our travels today. This ‘common’ expression in it’s day is considered the highest form of art today, having inspired some of the greatest Artists known, including Mr. Van Gogh.

    This “People’s Art” from Japan’s past, still dominates much of Our popular culture, especially the American Comic Book obsession – including animation in tv, movies, etc.

    Of course, not all popular expression is quality, nor will it all be treasured. But to put down someone like Rockwell to make a point seems entirely ignorant. A truly unique AMERICAN form of expression – with tremendous illustrative skills, which captured the time, being wildly popular, powerful, and was reproduced endlessly in numerous venues, seems like a very successful form of expression.

    Perhaps it is the anti-US form of obsession which dominates this very misguided offering.

    Perhaps Rockwell and other Americans producing similar work at this time, will be as honored as Japanese “ukiyo-e” today. Just as cave paintings in France, ancient Greek pottery, etc., is treasured as high art today.

    Maybe it is all about the today’s contemporary tunnel vision which clouds judgment. Much of it seems to be stuck on favoring anything which is exotic (even if the unknown is actually rather poor), and challenges what is known – like “Christianity”, the “USA”, etc.

    We shall see.

    Maybe a little jealousy is clouding vision as well.

  • J.

    Quote from Blake Gopnik: “…I can’t stand the view of America that [Norman Rockwell] presents, which I feel insults a huge number of us non-mainstream folks…”

    I consider myself non-mainstream too but find Rockwell fascinating and expressive of what had been America (and not just the “mainstream”). But I didn’t have two parents who were professors and two siblings who grew up to be a writer and a psychologist as Mr. Gopnik did. Also he grew up in Montreal which although North America isn’t exactly the US which I am sure also influenced his view of art and the “snootiness” he thinks art needs to possess.

    I like Rockwell, he may border on Soviet Realist style but, in fact, his representation of people are as people (he actually painted with real models or photographs not just from his own memory). He tries, unlike Soviet Realism, to make every face an individual with all it’s quirks, beauty and warts….they are not ideals and that’s what makes his art great. In my everyday life, I see such people all the time; but my background is from a family of low level civil servants and factory workers, so I do identify with the people in Rockwell’s art.

    Rockwell’s themes of everyday life were themes of everyday life in the his time…if he lived and worked at his art now it would reflect different things in everyday life.

    What Gopnik has a problem with is that he is too intolerant to accept that some people actually lived this life and it has merit and should be depicted in artistic expression. I say Gopnik is intolerant but he might also be “class-ist”—i.e. these common everyday themes don’t mean anything to him, therefore the art is meaningless to him as well.

    I try not to read art critics (Gopnik’s comments were in the Washington Post, under the pictures of Rockwell’s art like commentary on what the picture was about–caustic, sarcastic commentary–so it was hard to avoid). I view art as something for me to interpret not to have someone tell me what it’s about. I imagine that that makes me very plebeian in Mr. Gopnik’s mind–i.e. tasteless and without class. I can live with that, however.

    As an aside and as just plain fun fact–Gopnik in Russian is the equivalent of saying “skinhead”…i.e. violent thugs who think they are “God’s gift” since they can bully their way through life in Russian society. The first time I read one of Blake Gopnik’s reviews I realized he might be aptly named…a bully with a soapbox.

    Gopnik writes he never asked the Smithsonian to take Rockwell out of the exhibit—which is true; what he did was castigate the Smithsonian for putting up what he does not consider very good art to the general readership of the Washington Post, from his position as a recognized art critic…not at all like those of us who objected to the video by Mr. Wojnarowicz, on the basis that it was not only bad art but also violated social norms–i.e. it was sacrareligious. (it was also by the way, pornographic (a different part of the video) but I have seen little discussion of this since it wasn’t the objection that the Smithsonian claimed they took it down for). Yes, I viewed the video and quite frankly wished I hadn’t. But although I felt quite icky after viewing this, I had no position in the art world or as a journalist to “give it a rave” or express my disgust….Mr. Gopnik however, does….and that he doesn’t understand what responsibilities being in such a position gives, is disappointing.

    The bright side—if I see a “rave” Gopnik review, I will know I can give the art work a pass…:-)

  • maria horvath

    I think art should also make room for work that fits Grandma Moses’ description of her own creations.

    “I like pretty things the best,” she once told an interviewer. “What’s the use of painting a picture if it isn’t something nice? So I think real hard till I think of something real pretty, and then I paint it. I like to paint old-time things, historical landmarks of long ago, bridges, mills, and hostelries, those old-time homes, there are a few left, and they are going fast. I do them all from memory, most of them are daydreams, as it were.”

    Never mind how some hoity toities look at her and artists like her. And there is no denying that she was an artist. She produced inventive chronicles of her times, much like Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the sixteenth century and Rockwell in the last.

  • amandaintennessee

    To quote Albus Dumbledore in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: : It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.

  • TXRed

    I wonder what Mr. Gopnik thinks of Rockwell’s (to me at least) most powerful painting – the U.S. Marshals escorting a little black girl to school? It shows her, and the men only as high as their waists, and says volumes about integration and the civil rights movement. Unpopular speech indeed!

  • holyterror

    I completely agree with your critique of that close-minded ijit Gopnik.

    I do have some different thoughts on the “Ants..” kerfluffle though. I posted those over on the essay.

  • Mooga

    Now that I’ve got a little more time, I want to say that I don’t believe it was big-city chauvinism that made Gopnik write so nastily. He was just upset that NPG caved into pressure and yanked “Fire in the Belly.” If that’s what it actually did, Gopnik has a point. As he points out, showing insects crawling on a corpus could serve a respectable purpose: reminding peoples of the indignity that goes with death and corruption. (“I heard a fly buzz when I died.”)

    He’s also right that there’s a minor but real tradition among Christian artists for showing Jesus’ body in a less-than-dignified state. One of the Hans Holbeins (can’t remember whether it was the Elder or the Younger) painted it as it might have looked after a day or so in the tomb. Rather than going into unseemly detail, I’ll simply say it’s already started to turn. Bill Donahue might not like it, but some sixteenth-century worthy must have, or else the thing wouldn’t have gotten painted in the first place.

    Still, none of that gives Gopnik just cause to shoot his own hostage in retaliation, so to speak, by attacking Rockwell, who after all never said anything about “Fire in the Belly” at all.

  • Rich Horton

    Of course what Gopnik actually hates about Rockwell is that so many people like him. Hating Rockwell is part of what makes Gopnik a member of the exclusive club “non-mainstream folks.”

    Gopnik is no Groucho Marx. He only wants to be a member of a club that would have him, and people exactly like him, as members.

    Ah! Can’t you just smell the diversity?

  • Billiam

    The verdict is clear: the Rockwell painting is objectionable because it contains Persons of Pallor only; it’s obviously anti-diversity!

  • robert moody

    I’m sorry but dumping ants on a crucifix, making a Madonna out of elephant dung, or dunking a crucifix in a jar of urine does not qualify as art. Art implies some sort of native talent honed by perception and hard work. ( See Da Vinci or Michelangelo) This contemporary silliness may constitute commentary or performance of some kind, but it is not art.

  • Steve Colby

    I enjoyed the column, and the comments.

    I couldn’t help thinking back to an earlier column of yours, and how the themes of courage and cowardice come up in both columns.

    The censorship (“censorship” ?) argument comes up from time to time. If a gallery decides not to show my work because they don’t like it, or they think it will offend their customers, that’s not censorship.

    If a police power prohibits a gallery from showing my work, regardless of the wishes of the gallery, THAT is censorship.

  • Mooga

    Ooh, one last thing, then I’m done, I promise.

    Someone mentioned Soviet realism. If Rockwell’s work resembles that of any Russian painter, it’s Ilja Repin. Repin, who died in 1930, was mainly a late-Tsarist realist. Like Rockwell, he liked to draw from historical themes. Also like Rockwell, his depictions often rain toward the sentimental, his version of sentimentality had a marked grotesque strain.

    Here’s “Zaporozh’yan Cossacks Write a Letter to the Sultan of Turkey:


    (I don’t know about you, but I’m glad they’re not posting on my blog.)

    Here’s “Ivan the Terrible and His Son, Ivan”:


    (Should have been subtitled: “Generational Struggle is All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Hurt.”

  • exhelodrvr

    The same reasons so many on the left dislike Palin.

  • John-Michael

    Great thread. I can see where G is coming from, the art of NR is a moment in time. A piece of then not now. It all is art no matter what the viewer thinks. Judgement is to the viewer, not critics. NR’s works harkens to a loftier time, prosaic, pastorial. It is historic and a moment in time. I have seen Thomas Hart Benton’s works and each piece recalls that same past that Rockwell’s showed at an half century later. It is a still-life, they both are, of then and the future, now.

  • Howard Veit

    An interesting aside here: There is nothing in the Constitution about a secret ballot, in fact there were no secret ballots until well into the 20th century. The reasoning always went, “If a man can’t stand up for what he believes in he shouldn’t be allowed to vote anyway.” Remember that firearms were carried everywhere “back then.”

  • Ellen

    Rockwell reminds me of the Dutch realist painters. They and Rockwell do idealize life, but there are happy people in the world – something that Blake Gopnik and his ilk don’t understand.

  • Lisa

    There is enough manmade ugliness in the world, we have every right to protest religious bigotry that is being paid for with our tax dollars. If they want to see ants on Jesus they can fund it themselves.

    “Support for the arts—merde! A government-supported artist is an incompetent whore!”
    - Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

  • Western Chauvinist

    Elizabeth’s article is great and the comments are mostly enjoyable (thanks for the links Mooga), although some at the home page gave me heartburn (taxpayers should fund gay art to give gays a fair shake and that’s a Christian sensibility?! Jesus would agree?!) But, my brain keeps bouncing off the thought that this claim of “courage” is really a progressive conceit. One among many… progressives are compassionate and tolerant and inclusive and… courageous!

    I can laugh off the courage conceit when it comes to art: find a depiction of Mohammed *sans* ants in most Muslim countries or even Western countries with Muslim inhabitants and discover courage! Somehow, progressives have convinced themselves that they’re counter-cultural even though they get to define the culture through virtually all the media (music, news, art, theater, movies, literature…).

    The subversive in me keeps hope that somewhere out there is an unknown artist who labors to conform his works with God’s creative energy. Those works will speak to the human experience over the ages and will be beautiful to those with the eyes to see or the ears to hear.

  • David

    I completely agree with your criticism of Gopnik’s opinion – when I read that in the Post, I remember telling Sarah that it was the most insipid thing I had seen in a long time.

    One nitpick, however: the name of the multitalented artist and polymath is Leonardo – da Vinci refers to his city of origin and is not comparable to modern last names. I blame Dan Brown for starting the trend of referring to him in this manner…

  • Foxfier

    Dan Brown has nothing to do with it; in modern use, it is comparable to last names because we only speak of the one man of Vinci when we speak of “da Vinci.” My school classes talked about “da Vinci” this and that for art.

    While you’re correct in a technical sense– and I greatly respect being technically correct!– is there any confusion at all about who Robert is speaking about?

  • benning

    I agree with Robert Moody. To me these terribly ‘edgy’ displays are not so much Art as they are Crafts. They seem to be products of therapy sessions. Why elitists like Gopnik loathe Art that the ‘common man’ enjoys, appreciates, and understands, while extolling the virtue of incomprehensible, cobbled-together bits of flotsam and jetsam, is beyond me.

    Splashes of paint on a canvas may be pretty to look at, may even be some sort of inner expression of the painter (Jackson Pollack?), outwardly displayed. That’s all well-and-good. But why denigrate those things that the majority enjoy? What’s the point?

    As for me, I love the works of Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and so on. Or, as John D. MacDonald described it, if you can’t imagine a painting on your wall being more than a colorful decoration, it ain’t worth having.

    Put a painting by Bierstadt, or William Bouguereau, on the wall, next to one of these ‘modern’ paintings, and see what draws you to look on it again and again. Some may be drawn to a bullwhip, or a cross in a jar of piss. If so, that’s fine … for them. But most would rather look on the landscapes of Bierstadt, the beautiful faces of the peasants in a Bouguereau, the intricate scenes of a Parrish.

    Popularity does not make Art garbage. But critics try to do so. Gopnik is one such.

  • Frank

    My favorite Rockwell painting undermines Gropnik’s argument. In fact it’s every bit as confrontational as “Fire In My Belly.” It’s the picture of Ruby Bridges as a young black girl escorted by federal marshals to an all-white school.