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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rockwell makes me think about.. Europe

I'm back from the Normal Rockwell exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art. For readers of this blog who aren't local, the exhibition features 40 original works of Rockwell's art -- mostly large-format oils -- and a complete set of 323 Saturday Evening Post cover tear sheets, spanning 47 years. The exhibition, organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., will travel around the country for the next two years. I recommend it highly.

Some high-art critics approve of Rockwell's art and others don't, but everyone agrees that his art is quintessentially American. How so? I leave tonight for a business trip to Europe. If my schedule permits, I may drop by a museum or two there. What differentiates Rockwell's art from any European 20th-century nationalistic painter?

Or, for that matter, what differentiates American culture from European culture in general? Many Americans can trace their ancestry to Europe. We are taught the western European tradition from elementary school onward. There are places in the United States where western European culture does not dominate -- isolated neighborhoods in northern cities, "Chinatowns", native American reservations, etc -- but for the most part, western European culture permeates our lives.

I know Americans who have an attitude of superiority towards Europeans, and I know other Americans who have an attitude of inferiority. Both are partly right and partly wrong. There are things to admire and emulate -- or at least to respect -- in European culture. In other ways, however, American culture does have advantages; Europe has fundamental problems, and I'm not thinking merely of the current fiscal crisis there.

Sorting the favorable and unfavorable comparisons one-by-one is something I'll be thinking about this week. I don't know much about Rockwell, but I assume that during his career, someone asked him about contemporary European art. I'd like to know what he said.