Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Norman Rockwell's America

In Saturday's WSJ, Bruce Cole had a good piece on Norman Rockwell's Masterpiece Painting "Freedom of Speech" (sub req):

Sponsored by the Treasury Department and the Saturday Evening Post, the 1943 "Four Freedoms War Bond Exhibition" was our first national "blockbuster." Exhibited not in museums or galleries, but in department stores for a year during the depths of World War II, it made an already well-known illustrator a household name.

What the crowds came to see were paintings: "Freedom of Speech," "Freedom of Worship," "Freedom From Want" and "Freedom From Fear" (now all prominently displayed in the Norman Rockwell Museum). In 1943 each had been reproduced, along with an accompanying essay by leading literary lights including Booth Tarkington and Stephen Vincent Benét, in successive issues of the Saturday Evening Post, a popular magazine for which Norman Rockwell had worked since 1916.

Rockwell discovered his subjects in Franklin Roosevelt's State of the Union speech of Jan. 6, 1941, delivered 11 months before Pearl Harbor. In it, the president warns of the looming danger posed by aggressor nations, proposes Lend-Lease, and calls for a major increase in armament production. At the speech's conclusion he looks toward the future, to a world founded upon "four essential freedoms."

"Freedom of speech and expression" and "freedom of worship" are, of course, from the Bill of Rights. But the other two--"freedom from want" and "freedom from fear," which the president defines as "a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point...that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor"--are Roosevelt's, or perhaps his wife Eleanor's, utopian wishes for universal rights that were to become part of the United Nations Charter.

As a superb illustrator who used the familiar world of his viewers to tell them stories with messages that touched their hearts, Rockwell said in his autobiography that he had difficulty conceptualizing the abstract, and internationalist, Four Freedoms, especially the negative rights of "want" and "fear": "I never liked 'Freedom from Fear' or, for that matter, 'Freedom from Want,'" he wrote. "Neither of them," Rockwell thought, "had any wallop." He was right.

Interesting to note that Rockwell, a painter famous for ability to portray the spirit of America and her people, understood that at heart the traditional American notion of freedom is not about what the government can do for you, but rather about individual rights to exercise freedom without government interference. The difference between defining freedoms with "from" or "of" is one that still resonates with the way that people view the proper role of government today.

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