December 29, 2012

Viewpoints: Rockwell's lesson: Focus on human potential

At a time when darkness seems so often to dominate the news, a visit to "American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell" at the Crocker Art Museum amazingly lifts you up, as though something important you once knew has frayed over time and is vividly alive again.

The exhibit of more than 50 paintings and 323 of Rockwell's original Saturday Evening Post covers that depict American life from 1916 through 1963 reminds us that the solutions to our challenges lie in ourselves – in our character as individuals and as a people.

Instead of an extensive focus on income level, taxes, funding for government programs, as today's political debates so often do, Rockwell's work shows the importance of deeper aspects of life: family, faith, community, attitude and spirit.

Side by side with headlines about the country's struggles during World Wars I and II, the Cold War and the civil rights movement, Rockwell painted the details of everyday life – little boys with freckles and impish smiles scampering off after being caught swimming in a "No Swimming" area, a doctor taking the time to "cure" a little girl's doll, a Boy Scout carrying a child wrapped in a blanket away from a flood.

In "Family Grace" (1938) a grandmother in a long dress and apron, a grandfather with a cane resting nearby and their small grandson sit around a modest table with a single covered dish and three plates. Their heads are bowed and hands folded in prayer before their meal.

This simple image of humility and gratitude in the midst of scarcity exhibits an inner strength and humble faith in contrast to the materialistic values that so often dominate our culture today.

In "The Homecoming" (1945) a soldier arrives home from the war to his family's tenement apartment. Clothes are hanging out to dry. At the top of the stairs, the boy's mother flings her arms out wide, her eyes beaming, while his younger brother and sister fly down the steps to greet him. Immigrants of various ethnic groups from the packed next-door apartment run to welcome the soldier. No one seems to care that they are poor – they have each other.

Rockwell focused as well on scenes of childhood innocence, such as "Girl at Mirror" (1954), a fragile glimpse of a girl's passage from childhood to womanhood, with a doll tossed aside and freshly sampled makeup nearby.

He also portrayed the grit of the American character – perseverance in the face of adversity, the genius for innovation and unity for a moral cause. In "Boy on High Dive" (1947), a young boy peers over the edge of a diving board, in trepidation about whether to jump or not.

This painting hangs in Hollywood movie director Steven Spielberg's office. Spielberg uses it for inspiration before directing a movie, explaining, "We're all on diving boards, hundreds of times during our lives. Taking the plunge or pulling back from the abyss is something that we must face."

Rockwell's images "symbolized what America held most dear," Spielberg has said. The artist captured "what America is" and illustrated a "benign but important agenda of a kind of community a kind of civic responsibility to patriotism," understanding our nation "by embracing our neighbor."

Some believe Rockwell saw the world through rose-colored glasses. But wouldn't we be better off today if our cultural messages focused on our highest potential as human beings, rather than on our weaknesses?

Could it be that images of faith, family, neighbors caring for each other and innocent pastimes might have a more positive and uplifting effect on our children than violent video games and movies that promote a callous culture?

And if we portrayed respect for family life, wouldn't we have fewer children growing up in poverty and instability? The approach of the new year might be a good time to focus, as the Rockwell exhibit does, on "our collective memory of what it means to be an American," as the Norman Rockwell museum put it.

It might be a good time to dwell, as Rockwell did, less on our nation's weaknesses and more on the qualities of attitude and character that have been at the root of our country's greatest achievements, and reinvigorate a commitment to those qualities to meet today's challenges.

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