Norman Rockwell:

Once a shorthand for 'the American Way,' many of the paintings of Norman Rockwell have become less relevant as time has passed. Of "the Four Freedoms," only "Freedom of Speech" remains powerful, The Wall Street Journal explains:

"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.

"Freedom From Want" depicts a homey Thanksgiving dinner; it's more about what we have than what we want, surplus rather than scarcity. In "Freedom Fom Fear," a mother tucks in her children while her husband holds a newspaper with headlines reading "Bombings" and "Horror." This reference to the war is so specific that it conveys little about fear or Roosevelt's plan for universal disarmament. Rockwell just could not get his hands around these airy abstractions.

And, although he was proud of "Freedom of Worship," his depiction of spectral close-up faces and hands raised in prayer is bland, without any real message about religious freedom—again, no wallop. This is because faith, like the absence of fear and the absence of want, is essentially private, something personal, intangible and unpicturable.

In "Freedom of Speech," however, Rockwell found a subject that is active and public, a subject he could grasp and shape into his greatest painting forging traditional American illustration into a powerful and enduring work of art.
OK, but the best Rockwell paintings were barely political at all. Not that political lessons couldn't be drawn from them. For example, my favorite of his works has always been "The Runaway."

That captures the difference between a "Peace Officer" and a "Law Enforcement Officer." If I were in charge of the training of the police, I'd set aside a whole day of the course to reflect on that painting and write essays about how it defines your duty.

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