Over the summer the New York Historical Society had an exhibit, now over, on Norman Rockwell, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms. I think we may be down to one or two freedoms by now, but nevertheless. One weekend my wife and I went to the exhibition. She’d just read a biography of Rockwell, and although his Americana is my America, I suppose, his pluck is sometimes unnerving. You see, an artist has to show emotions on people’s faces and in their gestures. Long ago I learned that if you show what you’re feeling in real life, people will quickly take advantage of you. I learned, even as a teen, to be subtle. If you think you’ve got me figured out, here’s a hint—that subtlety continues even into my writing. It’s often not what it appears to be.
Some months back I wrote a funny piece on this blog. Some people who actually know me—or the part that I let be known—thought I was depressed. Or angry. Or both. That’s a side effect of subtlety. Episcopalians have it down to a science. At least they used to. The only place they showed emotion was in high mass, and that, if done right, packs a wallop. One of my brothers comments that I seldom smile. I might say too much about myself if I did. What would you do with that knowledge? In my earliest experience, you might use it to hurt me. Walking through Manhattan to the exhibit, I noticed the stone facades. Some buildings have solemn stonework, almost gothic is aspect. Behind the windows, however, I can sense emotion left unshown. It’s not very Rockwell.
I admire Rockwell’s outlook. Indeed, I might share more of it than I want to reveal. Rockwell, according to the exhibit, believed in America for all races and all creeds. Strong women dominate his paintings and illustrations. Equality was what America used to stand for. And although I’m reluctant to admit it, when my writing’s most serious an element of humor enters in. Like a Rockwell painting. He wished to be taken for a serious artist, but had a difficult time suppressing the irony of life itself. I get that. It’s just that if other people see what’s beneath the surface—what goes on behind that stone facade?—they will find a means of extorting it. Best to be subtle. Words can mean the opposite of what they say or can be literally true. The shades between the extremes are endless.