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|The Return of Bad Taste
by Charlie Finch
|Are you as sad as I am when you read the eight or ninth article praising Norman Rockwell?
It all began last year. Famous bad-tastemaker Robert Rosenblum publicly compared Rocky Rockwell to Picasso in Bookforum. Then Deborah Solomon reified Rockwell and Rosenblum in a paean to kitsch in the New York Times Magazine. The floodgates opened.
Mimetic dingdong Collier Schorr published a how-to chapbook on Normal Norman. Every newspaper arts section in the country heralded a Rockwell revival, and per usual, Michael Kimmelman cleaned up after the elephants two weeks ago in the Times. As Marvin Gaye would say, "What's goin' on?"
Now it's hip for progressive deconstructors to look back on 20th-century America strictly in black-and-white terms, just a larger version of South Africa. Such a one-dimensional country is best represented by a one-dimensional, not to say flat, artist like Norman Rockwell.
Rockwell's lack of esthetic merit was really the only, narrow, way to communicate liberal views to the American yahoos out there. Thus Rockwell's message of homespun pluralism presaged the enlightened self-satisfaction of the postmodern critical elite.
These are unintended consequences to inflating the humble pretensions of Rockwell's insipid oeuvre, however.
When money flows, bad taste drives the market, and, as usual, the critical left becomes handmaiden to the wealthy, dusting off the kitsch in the attic and off to the auction market.
Egregious van Goghs and Monets command millions; Victorian kitsch (also championed by the moron Rosenblum) vaults the seven-figure wall; and new Rockwells, which went begging as recently as five years ago, set the low bar of esthetic acceptance. If a Rockwell has value, then, really, anything goes.
Perhaps progressive critics would better ask themselves what mortal coils drive the boomer lust to bid-and-buy inanimate objects ad nauseam, unsatiated?
These are also profoundly conservative times for artists, who tend to ignore the wider problems of the world for narcissistic navel-gazing in the Cindy Sherman tradition, pace John Currin, Sean Landers, Tracy Emin and a million girl planeteers.
The bogus "Sensation" controversy obscures the obvious trend to craft in the work of Chris Ofili, Jenny Saville and Cecily Brown, all of whom are excellent yet profoundly reactionary artists, as bourgeois as Tiepolo or Fragonard. The West African carney, the luscious polisher of beautiful fat, the queen of hetero sex -- the paintings of these three evoke a warm fire, a jug of grog and, yes, a Rockwell on the wall, right above a nice, kitschy bust of the blessed virgin.
How different from the driving wheels of David Hammons or Judy Chicago, or Robert Smithson, always engaging the world.
There's a consequent sadness in contrarian observers of a certain age like MoMA's Robert Storr, who has manifestly resisted the material temptations of the British invasion.
There has to be more to art than Tracy Emin's tubular tits floating in bubbles, tub-wise, Storr argues, but maybe he's just a whistlin' past the golden graveyard.
When the art you desire is as flat as this screen, well, you've entered the world of Norman Rockwell.
CHARLIE FINCH is author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (1998).