It is a cliché to admit the very basic truth that art “represents life”. Rather, art is a window into the varieties of intensities, flows of desires and psychical (dare I say metaphysical) dispositions of a certain episteme. Art not only represents the ages but transforms and explicates the hidden assumptions of those ages that have been caked in a layer of mundane everydayness. Art is a process of fantastical extrapolation of the goings-on behind the veil of the collectively agreed upon consensus reality. As Hegel observed, recognition comes through struggle, through the interplay of repellent forces that wish to dominate. In the art world there is very rarely two opposing views of a specific reality or zeitgeist that is so diametrically against the other, serving as negative ontological mirrors. When one image of the current state of “onto” (being) is presented, we are immediately greeted with its exact negative image. Herein lies the contrast and opposition between the artworks (and the pictures of the modern world that they paint) of two influential modernist American artists: Edward Hopper, the gritty and bleak realist, and Norman Rockwell, the illustrator and realist painter of the idealist “American dream”.
Made a household name by being America’s top illustrator, most notably at The Saturday Evening Post, perhaps one of the most famed Rockwell series is entitled “The Four Freedoms”, created as a tribute to the universalist message behind FDR’s “four freedoms speech”. The paintings are of the quintessentially idealistic Atlanticist vision: freedom of speech, of worship, freedom from want, and finally freedom from fear . From a nuclear family eating a Sunday evening meal to parents tucking their child safely in bed at night, the idyllic visions of Rockwell are the go-to fantasy of almost every American Boomer regardless of their political persuasion. In fact, the term itself “like a Rockwell painting” perfectly encapsulates the image everyone has in their head of the hyper-nostalgic, cleanly polished innocent and sweet as candy style of depiction Rockwell is so sought after for.
For the Boomers who ostensibly gate-keep the doors to society, Rockwell is the visual palliative of a bygone age. In fact, Rockwell and artists like him (perhaps Kinkade) manufactured a rose-colored nostalgia, completely detached from the depraved state of modern culture, one that serves as a mental reprieve for the post-war generation. The Kitschy artists of popular Americana have almost cynically giving Boomers a pleasant mental reverie and dumping ground of nostalgic sentiments, whilst said Boomers simultaneously grind away as the controllers of the large institutional and cultural bodies of post-industrial neoliberal society.
Let me be clear that I wish to not cross over into a level of aesthetic analysis that would come wish undue baggage. My critique of Rockwell does not come from the more well-known (and often left-leaning) scathing opprobrium of his work by the in-vogue contemporary art world. I admire Rockwell for his keen sense of realism in the age of the avant-garde styles of abstraction and expressionism. The critique of Rockwell and artists like him emanating from the modern art world charges that their work is not “revolutionary”, or conforms to the (at the time) art school/Clement Greenberg consensus of what modernist art should be is of course absurd. But the one critique modern art has against Rockwellian Americana that rings true is this: it does not depict the reality of things at the time. For this, we need not venture into the feats of absurdism and abstraction of the avant-garde art world to find a way of dethroning Kitsch, but rather presenting a realist alternative to the sappy-happy nostalgic vision of Rockwell.
Hopper presents the height of the American century in stark contrasting tones of light and dark, made more vivid by ubiquitous lights of modern technology that commence to shining eternally. His preferred subjects are few in kind, older, gored by their dislocation, and utterly detached from one another in demeanor. A Rockwell painting glows with mutual human activity and warmth, even his more explicitly political pieces later still come with an air of American triumphalist egalitarianism and wholesomeness, such as his ode to the civil rights movement in “the problem we all live with” (1943). For Hopper, the message is not political but psychological. His art crafts a psychology of the subject that has been thrown into an existential condition of pure alienation created from the onward march of changing social and technological conditions. Women are de-eroticized, and depicted in the works as always longing for a more natural state of being, such as his famous piece “morning sun” in which a woman is absorbed by the controlled environment of a hotel room, staring out of the window into a clear sky. The woman is fixed to her position by the solid walls, trapping her passion within, hiding genuine human emotion from the newly transformed world. Like the painting “New York Movie” (1939) where a female attendant sits idly by with her head slouched down on the side of a movie theater, waiting listlessly for the film to end. The stairs next to her indicates transcendence, but the curtains are only half-open, serving as a painful reminder of her inner torment, her longing for meaning. The theater is a modern wonder-box of illusions, projected onto the screen is a phantasmagoria of images and sounds, projecting realities and fictionalized past happenings most people never will encounter.
For Hopper, the theater is the ultimate refuge for the perpetually detached in the modern world. We all sit quietly, sink into ourselves in the darkness that surrounds, and absorb in the art of mechanical reproduction. Only this attendant is in the “light”, inside the revelation of her own sullen and dissatisfied state. In another piece entitled “solitary figure” (1903) Hopper presents a tonal grey sketch of a single movie patrol being sucked into a pale grey screen, reminiscent of how the famed cave allegory of Plato is described in Book 7 of The Republic. "a woman in the sun" (1961) is one of His only nudes, a woman is in a hotel room, her lithe figure stands in front of a window with the shining ray of the sun. in this place of solitude, she is transcendent, an ode to the old masters who believed the naked female form is the height of sublime beauty, only now she is encased in the desolate world around her.
In the modern industrialized West, there is no meaningful engagement between people, but only simulations of passions, endless repetition of actions, and the demure, quiet desperation of everydayness that cuts us off from any sense of authenticity. Purposefulness in life for Hopper can only come from a connection to the nature world, but in America (Ala the closing of the frontier thesis) nature has been totally dominated or reterritorialized to Borrow a phrase from Deleuze. There only exists reminders, fringe outlets, and peoples who operate on the quiet borders between wild nature and the “civilized” and over-coded world of modernity. Hence Hopper always gives his subjects an outlet of wild nature, like in “Gas Station” (1940) where a station attendant is tending to the pumps at dawn closing. He is next to the forest tree-line, separated by the road, the last place of momentary freedom and movement for most moderns. Once again, the figure is in isolation, as if to say that only a few can exist in this in-between state of nature and industrial society. Nowhere is this apparent than in his famed “Compartment C Car” (1938), where a woman is staring down at her paper apathetically on a passenger train, a symbol of modern speed, efficiency and the growing mechanized nature of existence. Outside is a bridge between the tracks and a deep forest underneath a dawn sky. Nature becomes mere scenery to us, the nature from without and within is framed as a forgotten pleasantry beyond the bridge. The dawn sky represents a closing of the wild frontier as if Hopper is giving a nod to the American transcendentalists in the assertion that industrial civilization has withered away some spiritual thing desperate in us that wishes to come out. By the time we get to the later work “Hotel Lobby” (1943) we see reserved individuals haunting the halls of an old hotel, women sitting opposite from each other and a man holding a coat gazing out into nowhere in particular with a look of impotent frustration. The only piece of stunning ceiling light is shining over a generic landscape painting, in our age, you typically find prints of a Bob Ross special in hotel rooms. Nature is now completely reified as an ideal, a subject of aesthetic beauty that is muted and rendered ineffectual from its previous state of full presence in the lives of most people. even the landscapes of hopper are barren, often with only a road, a single house or figure that almost looks abandoned, with long desolate planes of fields or oceans.
In Hopper, we see a subtle beauty to the alienated character of the modern, a sort of aesthetic negotiation with the surroundings around us. We often see a single subject occupying a painting around roadways, bridges, trains, and hotels, in other words, places of transience that are emblematic of the American obsession with “getting away” at the time. The lore of Route 66, the closing of all frontiers, and the utilization of mobility technology to express a need within the modern to possess a sense of escape and purpose is what Hopper is depicting in 20th century industrial America. Places of anonymity such as hotels and diners are places of perpetual intrigue, enticement, as well as sadness and longing. The ones who take on the brave route of vagrant-hood, who travel the backroads and live a life of detachment are those who end up having a greater connectivity to wild nature; in this way, we see that Hopper is the B-side co-artist of Rockwell. One paints the vision of the masses, the Boomer-led society of postcards, calendar gifts, and generic prints that hang in every office, etc. the vision of a pseudo-traditional outlook that only in America could pass as being authentically traditional given the newness of the American century. Hopper is the painter of the fringes, giving voice to the wondering and uprooted subject that the visions of Rockwell forgot.