Saturday, February 5, 2011

Norman Rockwell: Public Diplomacy used as USG celebratory propaganda in Ethiopia?

Finale: Four Freedoms Exhibition at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - LNMoffatt, Norman Rockwell Museum: "My week in Addis Ababa ended on a celebratory note with the opening of the Four Freedoms exhibition at the U.S. Embassy on Entoto Road.

About 250 people attended the opening, many of them the artists who submitted works. They were eager to learn whose work was selected by the jury for the exhibition, and especially excited to learn who the four prize winners were who would each receive a cash prize and have their work hung in the embassy for the duration of Ambassador Booth’s tour." Image from blog, with caption: Ambassador to Ethoipia [sic] Donald Booth addresses more than 150 artists assembled for the awards and opening of the Four Freedoms exhibition.

Nothing wrong with a celebratory exhibit, of course. But, given the Addis Ababa exhibit's evident failure to underscore the complexity of/problems posed by Rockwell's admittedly minor oeuvre -- well, ok, at least Ethiopian artists, I'm sure scrapped for cash, willingly received money "prizes" for reacting to it -- please consider the following words by Duncan Mitchel:
Norman Rockwell's paintings are not so different in their style from Socialist Realism, or even in the kind of people and situations they depict; they've often been used as Americanist propaganda. The difference between what might be called "bourgeois realism" and Socialist Realism is not the manner, or even always the matter, it's the address of the artist.
Images illustrating this point, I hope not incorrectly:

Let me stress this, for what it's worth: US government-sponsored cultural events overseas should be asking important questions such as the following regarding Rockwell, as posed by the curator Tomas Pospiszyl in his article Socialist Evening Realistic Post:
It does not take an experienced connoisseur to notice the uncanny similarity between the widely popular art of Norman Rockwell and certain artworks of Socialist realism. Similarly, some of the official art created in the Soviet Union during Rockwell's most successful years could easily pass as emblematic of the Saturday Evening Post covers depicting that era.

This can be a confusing realization given that these images originated from the two very polarized ideological standpoints of that time. Is this a mere coincidence of style, or are these two forms of expression somehow more deeply bound?
I think Norman Rockwell, for all his limitations as an artist, would agree with this approach to his work.

1 comment:

Natalie Neviasky said...

It's sickening to read this numerous commentaries about this "likeness". The posters are all alike, you can compare any other American, French , Chinese and Soviet artists' posters of this kind and you will fund them alike. The visual "tools" and techniques used to create posters were, are, and always will be, the same. If you study art history or semiotics it's the basics.
A different aspect is the message and the place of an artist in these two societies. They are different indeed. To place Rockwell on the same tier with Soviet Socialist-Realism artists won't be relevant or fair. Rockwell himself, as you claim, would and always in reality, agreed to a technical comparison: he considered himself a realist and was O.K. with comparing himself, as his son wrote in his autobiography, with Russian /Soviet realist movement artists WITHOUT applying any political or ideological context, or for this stance, an analytical approach to this comparison.
This comparison is always based on a vulgar likeness and would not be valid if you or Pospiszyl widen the geographical area of the artists to justify do the comparison.
The two posters you bring as an example are not alike. One is a political propaganda poster with children holding a book with ideological dictators names; the children are members of a the mandatory youth organization sponsored by the government; Rockwell's poster for Boy Scouts of America is a cover of a magazine of a volunteer scout organization that promotes core ideas of its country (thus the Liberty Bell) but does not imply following a doctrin e, like the Soviet one. Both posters are if you wish advertisement poster (one of an autocratic government political doctrine, the other of a mainstream government ideas FREELY supporting movement). They alike only superficially because they use same tools and appeal to common conscience, however, they are not the same. Again, the tools are the same (I won't list basic level explanation here), thus the likeness. It's known that Rockwell created these images for the magazine for a course of many a year (it was at first his main and later supplementary income). He was comfortable creating posters that reflected mainstream American values. AS WELL AS MANY OTHER artists in many other countries involved in the same line of work.
Main q-n remains: where is propaganda here on Rockwell's side? Vulgar politicization of advertisement and poster work doesn't make them political propaganda.
Also, you should compare propaganda posters of war time: British, Soviet, Chinese, French, and American. They are almost identical. Does it gives us the right to say that all those artists are comparable to Soviet Socialist-Realism artists? It's a misplacement of definitions and a vulgarization of an analysts.

An interesting fact: Rockwell's Four Freedoms WERE propaganda paintings/posters he initially conceived as such. As those works are rarely compared to Soviet Socialist-Realism works unlike his works with children and Reshetnikovs pairings..