America: Mr. Rockwell Goes to Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. Nothing proves Thomas Jefferson’s wisdom about the power of small-town hard work and creativity than the arrival of the much-maligned Mr. Norman Rockwell this summer in the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery courtesy of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

If you can visit this exhibition of their personal collections of Rockwell works before it closes in January, you’ll find this convergence of American symbols is more spectacular than the crescendo of July 4 fireworks.

Here is an artist who, until recently, was scoffed at by anyone with a pretense to appreciating fine arts, causing Rockwell’s millions of loyal fans to keep their affection a dark secret in many social circles. Yet, this summer, Mr. Rockwell has prompted the New York Times to cough loudly as if just awakening from a long nap and pontificating that this artist has officially “acquired a startling relevance both inside and outside the art world.”

The Times even provided a rationale for fine-arts lovers to explain this shocking revival of this mere illustrator. Rockwell’s serious value is his vivid window into our most beloved American aspirations, or as the Times describes his body of work: “This is America before the fall, or at least before searing divisions in our government and general population shattered any semblance of national solidarity.”

As they’ve said in Hollywood for 100 years: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

This long-traveling father and son fought traffic into Washington D.C., parked a long way from the Smithsonian, paid a hefty fee to leave our van, walked, took Metro trains and walked some more just to set foot in these galleries of beaming boys, proud fathers, loving teachers, hopeful girls and sage physicians. Immediately, we heard the familiar voices of Spielberg and Lucas beckoning us into a movie theater. There, on a big screen, these Hollywood titans greet tourists and explain why they have collected all of these Rockwell works and consider him a truly great American artist.

Remember that these are men who, once, were scoffed at themselves as clever young scavengers of Hollywood’s earlier great directors, cutting and pasting their themes together into new blockbusters that crossed nail-biting adventure with, sometimes, overly sweet affection. Of course, both men now have achieved the status of American media statesmen themselves, a perfect duo to pull off this reintroduction of Mr. Rockwell to what passes for respectable society today.

And remember, this is the venerable Smithsonian itself, the shrine of American cultural treasures from Archie Bunker’s chair to Dorothy’s ruby slippers, not to mention the artifacts from Washington, Jefferson and their colonial crowd. Nearby are the Washington Monument, the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Vietnam Memorial and on and on.

Here’s the real vibrancy of this Lucas-Spielberg fireworks display: It stars in extreme closeup the delightfully sly Mr. Rockwell, who resembles Jimmy Stewart’s less-good-looking brother. As it turns out, Lucas and Spielberg remind us, this painter was a storytelling genius. Case in point, Spielberg argues, is a huge, colorful canvas of a terrified little boy gripping the very end of a high-diving board, peering at the pool below with eyes as big as goose eggs.

Spielberg tells us that’s exactly what he feels like on the first day of any new movie. So, that particular painting hangs in his personal office, when it’s not touring with this new show.

Another huge painting shows a sort of Harry Potterish-looking boy reading an adventure book as a cloud of his imagination emerges above him, showing that same boy cast as a brave knight on a steed with a beautiful maiden clinging to him for dear life.

In yet another enormous canvas, 11 tough men in a small-town jury room are gesturing, shouting, smoking cigars and doing everything possible to sway the vote of the lone woman on the jury. As in the later drama, “Twelve Angry Men,” this holdout is determined not to waiver—an iconic image of our prized American value of self expression. Nine out of 10 of us still say we’ll defend the right of anyone to express even unpopular points of view without fear for their safety, according to the new survey by Dr. Wayne Baker at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

“Look at that,” said a mother to her daughter standing in front of the jury painting. “That’s when it was rare for a woman to be on a jury. Today, she wouldn’t be alone in that room.”

At a huge sketch of a proud, freckled, prospective Boy Scout trying on his brother’s far-too-big uniform, two older men walked away, one saying, “Remember that?”

The other chuckled. “Ohhhh yeah!”

Behind them, someone’s little boy wandered right up to the beaming Scout and stood, staring at him almost inches away.

And so, as a father and son ourselves, we walked and took it all in, warmly welcomed by Lucas and Spielberg’s assurances that it was perfectly appropriate, even smart and timely, for us to appreciate these artworks.

As we walked and smiled, one of us was remembering.

One of us was thinking about the future.

(Today’s story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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