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Thursday, August 16, 2012
Those Were the Good Old Days . . . Or were they?
Years ago when my cretive outlet was painting, I was lucky to find stacks of art books at a garage sale for ridiculously low prices. One of those was a huge volume of Norman Rockwell paintings published in 1970. Originally it sold for $45.00, a large amount back then, but I came home with at least a dozen or more books so I must not have paid more than $5.00 for it.
Norman Rockwell's paintings bring nostalgia for a simpler time, a better time even for those not old enought to have lived when he started painting. He's mostly known for his Saturday Evening Post covers - 318 covers in all. But he's appeared on almost every other magazine cover, in advertisements and painted almost every Boy Scout calendar while he was alive. He painted average people using his family, his neighbors and friends as models. That's why these people seem like someone we know since we've seen them so often.
Although he was often looked down on by "serious artists and critics," he's always been one of the most loved and popular American artist. In recent years, he's finally become recognized by art critics as the fine artist he is. What makes him so loved is how his paintings tell a story. We writers need to use words to tell our story. To let a reader know what the character is feeling, we often resort to describing body language. Rockwell painted the body language. One of my many favorite Rockwell pictures is "Breaking Home Ties." It doesn't even need the title to show that. A father, maybe a farmer but definitely a simple working man, is sitting on the running board of his truck with his son. His shoulders slump, his elbows rest on his legs with his hands hanging down between his legs and they hold both his hat and his son's hat. The position of the father shows he's despondent over seeing his son go off to college. The son, however, is sitting straight up and looking eagerly down the track as they wait for the train. His hair is freshly cut, he's wearing a new suit and tie and new shoes that shine. Beside him is a simple suitcase with a pennant on the side with the only words in the picture - State U. On top of the suitcase are three books. A faithful mixed breed collie, sensing the boy is leaving, has its chin resting on the boy's leg. The dog looks sad, too. I had to use over 100 words to incompletely describe the story a viewer could have understood immediately just looking at the picture while still noticing other details I didn't mention. Of course, it only took me minutes to describe the scene while Norman Rockwell would have spent hours or days creating this work of art.
An earlier painting of Rockwell's shows the shock on a little boy's face when he discovers a Santa suit in his father's dresser drawer. As adults we can smile at it, but those of us who remember finding out Santa Claus wasn't real, can relate to that little boy.
Not all his paintings bring smiles or nostalgia. In the 1960s, his paintings showed the strife, the pain of the Civil Rights era. Who can forget the original oil sketch for Look Magazine in 1965 once they've seen it that shows a white man holding a wounded black teenager with another one, probably dead, lying nearby as the shadows of a club wielding mob approaches. And then there's the poignant painting of U.S. marshals walking a little black girl to school. The background is a dull cement wall with splashes of red where tomatoes had been thrown. What stands out the most is the girl's bright white dress and white ribbons in her hair signifying her innocence and purity.
In spite of the fact that Norman Rockwell's paintings weren't always light, it's what we most remember him for because those paintings were his most common. We think of it as the "Good Old Days" when children respected their parents, people were kinder and more considerate and where neighbor watched out for neighbor. It was a safer time with less crime and fewer bad people. I know my siblings, cousins and I wandered the fields and woods and would be gone for hours and our parents didn't worry about us.
But that picture isn't complete. In the early years when Norman Rockwell painted, the Ku Klux Clan was active and lynchings common. Factory workers and miners were forced to unionize because of unsafe working conditions and low pay. The mine and factory owners brought in thugs and the National Guard to stop the unionizing. Working in a mine was dangerous and the owners didn't want to expend any money on safety measures. Prohibition provided fertile territory for the Mafia and other criminal elements. We worry about our recession, but during the Great Depression, young teenagers were often sent off to make their own way in the world because their family couldn't afford to feed them. There was no unemployment, Social Security or Medicaid then.
Racism, although still with us, isn't as bad as it was before the Civil Rights Movement. We still have a long way to go since there will always be people who look for those they can hate or look down on to make themselves feel more important.
Today I can see areas where life is better than previously; better medicine, at least for those who can afford it, and quicker and more complete response to natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, etc., and many more things I could name. Unfortunately, though, we now have mass shootings where any wacko can get an assault gun and kill people who anger them, or even those they don't even know and kill for no discernable reason.
So what do you think? Was there a better time in our past when people were nicer? Or have we simply covered up the bad things from the past and no long talk about them in order to pine for a nostalgic past?