Friday 3 January 2014

Art Matters: The Problem We All Live With (Norman Rockwell, 1964)

So in answer to a Facebook challenge from my erstwhile editor Saranga I was given an artist and asked to pick a piece of their work and talk about them. She assigned me Norman Rockwell and I thought "Well, this is dead easy, I'll do The Four Freedoms!" but instead I stumbled upon this in researching his more political art, "The Problem We All Live With" from 1964.

Rockwell is perhaps best known for his depictions of "everyday" American life, stereotypical scenes of middle class families gathered around the table for thanksgiving dinner and the like. This conservative image is only enhanced by works like The Four Freedoms, a series of four posters based on FDR's 1941 State of the Union speech. The Four Freedoms is even used in modern school textbooks (here and in the US) as an example of Allied propaganda but the label erases the fact that Rockwell didn't do it on commission: it was a considered political reaction on his part as is "The Problem We All Live With". So let's set the scene...

It's 1964. Less than a year ago Martin Luther King Jr declared that he had a dream and in a few months the Salma Voting Rights march on the capital will end with police brutally beating peaceful equal rights demonstrators after guaranteeing free and unmolested passage, Rosa Parks and the bus boycott she inspired were a decade ago and yet the US Supreme Court has only just ordered the desegregation of public schools be mandatory.

Which brings us to The Problem We Live With depicting a young black girl in a simple cotton dress carrying a book, the most elementary symbol of education, surrounded by white Federal Marshals. Rockwell depicts the girl in realistic terms, eschewing even the barest hint of the affectionate caricature his creations usually carry about the face. The Marshals escorting her (and, yes, this really did happen in many towns for the childrens' own protection) are faceless entities operating above the child's head and even above the frame of the picture on a level she likely doesn't fully comprehend. Behind her a cracked and decayed wall, old and damaged, bears the slur "NIGGER", a Ku Klux Klan tag and a stain from a thrown tomato: the sentiment and physical actions of those opposing desegregation here are allied with the physical ugliness of urban decay.

On a related note, Rockwell is also responsible for one of the more striking images of Rosie the Riveter. Not the iconic Rosie with her head scarf and flexed arm but an altogether more realistic one where Rosie has dirty skin, a less-idealised physique and a nice big workman's sandwich in her hand. Far from being a caricaturist or an unthinking propagandist for the American Dream, Rockwell was immensely invested in the material reality of his country: the faceless government, the innocent child, what sort of physical shape a woman would have to be in to operate a riveting gun eight hours a day. It's in this observational reality that his work had, and still has, real power.

As a short coda, in the original Facebook post Saranga commented that she wondered whether people seeing the picture for the first time and learning the title might image the problem to be the girl. And there's probably some truth to that. I think we're in the slyly satirical territory of Alf Garnet. For those unaware Alf Garnett was a character created by Johnny Speight and portrayed from 1965 to 1998 in various shows by the actor Warren Mitchell. The character is a working class, politically conservative, reactionary, sexist, racist cockney and the character had a cult following amongst people holding similar views in real life. Mitchell himself often recounted tales of being recognised in the street and being congratulated for whatever racist, hate-filled speech he'd performed on the television that week.

It should come as no surprise, given the previous content of this post, that both Speight and Mitchell were left wing (Speight a liberal, Mitchell a literally card-carrying member of the British Communist Party) and that the whole project was aimed at highlighting the absurd and repugnant nature of the views Alf Garnett was used to convey. 


SallyP said...

Very nice. Your television character sounds a lot like Archie Bunker...a character created to be mocked, but whom became incredibly popular. Of course, all the characters on "All in the Family" were mockable...yet very human.

I like Norman Rockwell actually. Yes, he can be a bit saccharine, and a little too folksy, but he didn't flinch from painting uncomfortable work either.

James Ashelford said...

I like Rockwell, I had to do a school project on his wartime work when I was about 15.

As to Archie Bunker, he's the same guy as it turns out, All In The Family was the US version of Till Death Do Us Part. I looked up some clips, I think All In The Family might actually be a bit better than the original.