by Jeriah Hildwine
It may be a truism that the more a thing is beloved by the majority of the American population, the more it will be disdained by the art world. This is true of artists: consider Monet, Rockwell, and of course Thomas Kinkade.
(Bob Ross is somehow too lovable for even the most bitter cynics to dislike; I've never heard anyone breathe an ill word about him.) Andrew Wyeth is part of this phenomenon as well; serious art people look at his work like the non-art public look at conceptual installations: curious, but suspicious also that a trick is being played on them, to make them look dumb.
Maybe this, ultimately, is why so many in the art world are resistant to beauty, nostalgia, sincerity, and sentimentality: opening ourselves to these impulses requires a vulnerability that can be frightening.
This may be a part of why it is so difficult to look at an image of Thanksgiving without irony: if we admit that we like it, we're afraid that we might look stupid.
Our present-day image of what Thanksgiving, and particularly the First Thanksgiving, looks like, were created during the Colonial Revival period, from about 1860 to World War I.
The Pilgrims had what they called a Thanksgiving, but you certainly couldn't say that they "celebrated" it: their idea of Thanksgiving was a full-day prayer session, thanking God for holding back from the smiting for a little while. There wasn't any revelry going on.
What we think of as Thanksgiving is based on a traditional Harvest Festival, which in England has distinctly pagan roots. No doubt the Puritans had toned it down a bit by the time they got to what are now our shores.
By the late 19th Century, however, the American tradition of idealizing and revising the past was well underway, and Colonial Revival paintings of the First Thanksgiving eschew historical accuracy in favor of idealized icons of Americana.
"The First Thanksgiving" (1914), by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, is probably the best example of this. No wattle-and-daub houses in the English style for these Pilgrims; in the background you can see a log cabin, presumably the one in which Abe Lincoln was born, and which he built with his own two hands. (Time is broken here.)
Brownscombe's got Massasoit and his Wampanoags in Lakota attire, down to the feathered bonnets. In this version of Thanksgiving, you expect John Wayne to ride while Lee Greenwood plays and fireworks light up the sky. "The First Thanksgiving," 1915, by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris isn't quite so over-the-top.
Maybe there's something about gearing up for war that puts us in the mood for Ye Olde Chuckle-Cheezle celebrations of Americana: Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA was released in 1984 (ironic?), but no one gave a tin shit until 1990, when we were tuning up for Round One with Saddam. Hey, remember that guy? So images of the First Thanksgiving were in vogue during World War I, and thirty years later, we were ready for seconds.
Norman Rockwell is one of those painters that artists love to hate. He is more commonly referred to as an illustrator than an artist, and this is what he called himself (for example, in the title of his autobiography, My Life as an Illustrator).
His take on the art world might well be summed up by his painting for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, 1962, in which a viewer stands in front of what can only be interpreted as Rockwell's idea of a Pollock. And Rockwell was an optimist, at least in his paintings: he painted the world not the way it was, but as he wanted it to be.
And he knew it: he said so in interviews, and his Triple Self Portrait is an excellent piece of self-deprecating humor. The subtle idealization that he shows himself committing (hair darker and fuller, wrinkles smoothed, no glasses, pipe erect) mirrors the way he painted only the nicer aspects of life.
Norman Rockwell's "Thanksgiving Picture" is actually titled Freedom From Want. Freedom From Want is one of the Four Freedoms articulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941; the other three are Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Religion, and Freedom From Fear. Rockwell painted all four of them in a six-month period in 1943. The paintings ran on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post for four consecutive weeks in 1943. They were also exhibited to sell war bonds, and reproduced as posters under the heading, "Ours...To Fight For." This is what is essential, and often forgotten, about Rockwell's Thanksgiving: it is propaganda for war.
Brownscombe, Ferris, and Rockwell all depicted Thanksgiving in an idealized manner, and all of them made these depictions while America was engaged in a global war. They functioned as "why we fight" justifications of the superiority of the American way of life, of what we had to lose.
What, then, is the function of John Currin's Thanksgiving, 2003? Painted around the beginning of the Iraq War (Afghanistan had been underway for two years), it would seem to fit the pattern in terms of chronology. Yet Currin does not treat the subject matter with the deference of his predecessors. Could this image be, in fact, a mockery of the naive patriotism which was so fashionable in the first few years after September 11, 2001?
One reading would start with it being an appropriation of Rockwell, and then catalog the changes: the turkey is uncooked, and the three characters all appear to be similar women (Currin's wife Rachel, in fact). One of them is feeding another something off of a spoon; the vessel from which she is serving is unseen, but she holds its lid. The third woman fondles a grape with a gesture slightly reminiscent of Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of her Sisters in the Bath by the School of Fontainebleau.
Certainly the image does not speak to the joy and comfort of American life as Rockwell's did. One could easily infer from the painting's cultural context that a form of political subversion was intended: one subject being spoon-fed an unseen substance by another, an allegory of the lies and propaganda used by Bush and his administration in an attempt to justify an unecessary preemptive war?
The uncooked turkey, so different from Rockwell's well-done, golden brown bird a signifier that we were embarking on a course of action for which we were unprepared? Or that we had unfinished business (in Afghanistan) to be resolved before we started something new? The woman fiddling with the grape: Currin's way of telling us he was just fucking with us?
Currin says not. The following are his comments, which accompany the image in the book John Currin:
This was an idea that I had started before September 11, but it just didn't work--it was a failed painting that sat around in my studio. I decided to retry the idea, and that was when Rachel got pregnant. The funny thing is that the painting took me exactly nine months to finish, and the painting turned into an allegory of Rachel's pregnancy. Certain kinds of paintings were on my mind at the time--Dutch genre paintings, Velázquez's bodegones--but as soon as I began, it became more about Rachel, and she posed for the figures a lot. When my painting goes well, it's like rolling a ball down a hill: you try hard in the beginning, but then it takes on its own life and you let it go where it wants to go. Some things become allegorical, and other things are just about what you see. I had been told that my paintings were anachronistic, and so I wanted to do what I'd been accused of doing. That's why I included the old-fashioned mirror and the Corinthian columns.
This is as good a place as any to mention the fallacy of intentionality. Every hip postmodern art theorist takes this one for granted, for the most part because without it, they'd be out of a job. Want to know what a work of art means? Ask the artist!
Not so fast, says the fallacy of intentionality: the artist's interpretation of his or her own work isn't any more valid than anyone else's. Well, alright then. John Currin says the painting is about his wife Rachel, whereas I say it's an inversion of the typical depiction of Thanksgiving as exaltation of the American way and thus implicit justification for the war we were about to embark on at the time.
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Tags: @artsfront, Andrew Wyeth, Bob Ross, fallacy of intentionality, Four Freedoms, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Freedom From Want, God Bless the USA, Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Jeriah Hildwine, John Currin, Lee Greenwood, Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post, Thanksgiving, The First Thanksgiving, Thomas Kinkade