Happy 4th: A Nation Pulling Apart and Norman Rockwell

Happy 4th: A Nation Pulling Apart and Norman Rockwell July 4, 2015

SCOTUSTRUE STORY: This morning I awoke from a dream whereby the Supreme Court had been called into some sort of emergency session, and in order to get to their bench, they had to pass through some lobby I was standing in. One of them — a rather short, jolly man (capable of using the phrase “argle-bargle”, but not Scalia) — got his robe caught on the buckle of my shoe, and after I released him, he thanked me and said, “a good day for thanks, in general.”

And I held him by the shoulders and said, “a good day to defend freedom.”

Then I woke up because the puppy was licking my toes.

A good day for thanks. A good day to defend freedom. The words have been on my mind all day, and yet, I’m feeling kind of meh, over-all. I keep thinking of this piece I wrote last year:

The African-American community and the cops are facing off, saying among themselves: “they close ranks; they stick together” and fear and distrust fulminate.

The political class and the hoi polloi are at a similar stand-off, with their roles as servants and masters utterly confused; between secularists and believers, the barricades are rising.

Truly, from class to class, community to community, no one seems capable of assuming good faith, or of reaching out to others in that assumption. There is a sense that only one more line need be crossed before everything falls apart. And if groups of all sorts aren’t able to stick together, how can we hope that America will have any sort of cohesion?

The “great experiment” that has been America is looking a bit rocky . . .But somewhere, between the weak dilution of a melting pot and a toxic concentration of singularity is the recipe by which e pluribus unum may yet thrive. That formula might, surprisingly, demand a regrouping of our culture-warring factions into cohesive communities that can “stick together” to responsibly serve the least among them; “stick together” to reform and charitably restore the worst amid them; “stick together” to praise and emulate and promote the most diligent and honorable in their number.

A community “sticking together” is a community with a measure of power that is born of cohesion. The community says: This is where we are; these are our strengths and our weaknesses; we have each other’s backs, and can therefore endow the former and address the latter.

freedom-of-speech-rockwell-388x480 And, just because it’s July 4th, a little something on Norman Rockwell and Freedom of Speech:

[Blake] 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.

Depictions of atheists, communists, or exploitated Crucifixes are risk-free ventures. There will always be a Gopnik ready to call such depictions “smart” and an insecure, media-cue’d gentry ready to embrace them for social cachet, and a publicly funded art establishment eager to fund them. There will always be a career to be made.

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech” shows us a working-class man standing amid his neighbors. By the tilt of his gaze we know he is speaking to someone elevated, perhaps seated at a bench or dais — someone in authority. There are no nightsticks in sight, as there would have been and would be today in too many places in the world. There is no commissar, monitoring his comments, demanding either his acquiescence or his silence. There are only people, not all agreeing, yet giving a man his say. Somewhere behind him is, undoubtedly, a reporter from the local newspaper, a young Gopnik, free to write whatever he wants.

You’d think Gopnik would champion the painting, puckishly suggesting that the free-speaking common man may be defending … an artist’s right to express himself, even offensively, or stupidly. But he is both either too narrow-minded or too humorless to go there.

Rockwell’s paintings, writes Gopnik, “fail to grasp [that] the special, courageous greatness of the nation lies in its definitive refusal of any single ‘American way.’” I suspect most Americans believe that art should not be censored, and agree with him that people should be permitted to view an artist’s work and take it or leave it, whereby everyone has had his say. Just like the common man in Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech,” who is demonstrating — though with no credit from Blake Gopnik — the most singular of American ways, indeed.

Happy 4th.

Browse Our Archives