Saturday, March 7, 2009

Documenting and defining America

I had an enjoyable day yesterday, though not quite all I was hoping for. The noontime concert at the WSU music department was cancelled and they didn't even post a note on the venue door. Somehow all the students knew and didn't show…

That meant I was able to get to Part 2 of my day earlier than expected, which was the Detroit Institute of Arts, including member previews for their Norman Rockwell exhibit. More in a moment.

Part 3 was the show at the Hilberry Theatre of Born Yesterday. It's the story of a junk man who has become wealthy through WWII and is now in Washington to buy a senator. The story is actually more about his ditsy blond girlfriend whom he rescued from the chorus line of a Broadway show. He sees she will embarrass him as they move through high society, so he hires a newspaper reporter to make her a bit smarter. Two months later we see that plan works a little bit too well.

The Hilberry troupe has both black and white members, which can lead to some interesting casting decisions. The one black in this show, a woman, didn't play the hotel maid, but the senator's wife. In 1946 there would have been no white senators with a black wife, or at least not without drawing a great deal of comment. But the play offered no such comment. I applaud Hilberry for being color blind in their casting -- better yet of avoiding the easy way out by casting her as the maid -- even as I watch a black woman and thinking she's playing the role of a white woman. It is perhaps good for Detroit audiences to see a black person out of context and the situation taken in stride, showing why should there be anything out of the ordinary in this?

The Norman Rockwell exhibit showed a large number of the artists works (including and beyond the Saturday Evening Post covers) and put him into historical context. At the end were all 322 Post covers stretching over 47 years. First of all, the show demonstrated that Rockwell is a fine artist, especially good at facial expressions. His scenes are understood quickly, showing an instant from a story. It is usually obvious what brought the scene about and how it will probably play out. In that sense, he is a master storyteller.

The historical context first mentioned how Rockwell's art is a product of his time, but also how it shaped how American's view themselves, what it means to be American. One big example is Rockwell's Four Freedoms posters. The ideas came from a F.D. Roosevelt speech in which the president said freedom of speech, of religion, from fear, and from want are universal ideals and should be available around the world. But in portraying the Freedom From Want as a Thanksgiving feast Rockwell made Americans think the Four Freedoms were uniquely American ideals.

Another influence is in children. Rockwell was able to use cuteness and nostalgia to portray an idealized childhood. The exhibit's historical context said that Rockwell influenced early television and most TV families of the 50s and early 60s (and onward, including the Cosby show in the 80s) portrayed kids the same way Rockwell did. That got me wondering, as I stared at yet another cute kid (created for a cereal box), whether the Fundie's claim that everything they do is "for the children" is another Rockwell legacy.

While I come away with a higher appreciation of Rockwell's skills as an artist and storyteller, all that cuteness, white bread wholesomeness, and nostalgia can leave an excessively sweet taste behind. That is why I was pleased to see the second-to-last room of the exhibit (the last room had the 322 Post covers). These were paintings from the 50s and 60s when Rockwell began to be disturbed by institutionalized racism. One of the paintings here was about a young black girl being escorted by US Marshals so she could integrate a school (you can see this image in Rockwell's Wikipedia entry). The other was of two white and one black civil rights workers -- one white man is already down and the other is trying to hold up the black man who has been severely injured. The standing white man is facing the mob (we only see their shadows), knowing he's next. He did more art on racism in the 1960s for Look magazine.


  1. "the black"...person?

    From reading you I know you know better.

  2. The Detroit Repertory Theatre has had a 'non-traditional' casting policy since the beginning of their theatre. Unless the particular play is specific about the type of person playing a role, they cast according to the best actor for the role.