01/15/2014 04:31 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

Was Norman Rockwell a Hack?

Deborah Solomon is on the defensive. In American Mirror, she made some alarming claims about Norman Rockwell, including the charge that he had pedophilic urges. Critics have been pointing out some of the many problems with her book, and to some extent Solomon is trying to fend off these criticisms. But her defense is dishonest.

For one thing, she is minimizing the scope of her claims. (Check out my earlier review of her book for an extensive collection of her assertions.) In recent interviews, Solomon has pretended that she does not say Rockwell was homosexual. She says in one place, "If I were writing about Picasso and pointed out that he painted women because he was interested in the female form, that would seem like an obvious point. I don't know why people revolt when I point out that Rockwell painted the male figure and was interested in it." In another place, she says "All I say is that he painted men more than women [...] I wasn't making claims about his behavior. I was looking at his work."

So, she wants the reader to think that she's not taking any position on Rockwell's own sexuality -- that's for shrinks, not art critics -- she's just pointing out some facts about his paintings.

But as I said, this is minimizing. And it's minimizing in two ways. First, it changes the issue. The biggest single problem with Solomon's book is that she calls Rockwell a pedophile, not that she calls him homosexual. I mean, she does call him homosexual, and that is a problem, insofar as it is contrary to all available evidence. But it's not the central problem. By changing the subject from pedophilia to homosexuality, Solomon is trying some simple misdirection. Many writers are falling for it. You should not.

But it's minimizing in a second way: namely, it restricts the scope of her actual claims, even regarding the subject of homosexuality. On that subject, she wrote (among many other things), in her book:

Was Rockwell homosexual? It depends on what you mean by the word. He demonstrated an intense need for emotional and physical closeness with men. From the viewpoint of twenty-first century gender studies, a man who yearns for the company of men is considered homosexual, whether or not he has sex with other men. In Rockwell's case, there is nothing to suggest that he had sex with men. The distinction between secret desires and frank sexual acts, though perhaps not crucial to theorists today, was certainly crucial to Rockwell. Granted, he was married, but his first marriage and to some extent his second were not happy. They seem less like genuine unions than a strategy for 'passing' and controlling his homoerotic desires, whose expression he confined to his art. (163-4)

In this passage, she says (a) Rockwell was homosexual according to contemporary theory, (b) Rockwell was aware of these homoerotic desires (i.e. they weren't thoroughly repressed), and it was crucial to him to distinguish between having them and acting on them, (c) consequently Rockwell developed strategies for controlling these desires in life, and (d) Rockwell expressed them in his art. There are four claims here. In the interviews I cited above, though, she admits only to one-(d)-and denies making the rest.

Moreover, as you can see, in her book, she doesn't base her case for Rockwell's homosexuality exclusively on her tortured interpretations of his painting: she tries to provide a biographical argument for his homosexuality. Now that I think of it, for me to call this "minimizing" is to minimize the extent of the deception.

In her Colbert interview, Solomon minimized (or, if you prefer, you can substitute a harsher and more accurate term of your choice), in a third way. "'Homoerotic' doesn't mean that you are permanently anything. It just refers to a passing impulse. So if one feels a homoerotic impulse in his work, as an art historian might say, it means that we have two male figures showing affection for each other." Some might call that friendship, rather than homoeroticism, but ignore that.

Does she not see that this is completely irreconcilable with her other claims about Rockwell? Solomon insists that Rockwell's career was focused on painting boys and men, his marriages were loveless coping strategies, his close friendships were strictly with other male artists, all because of his homosexuality. And in order to play this kind of persistent explanatory role, his homosexuality can't possibly be considered mere passing impulses. But now she tells Colbert that of course the homoeroticism she finds in Rockwell's paintings is just a passing impulse, and that's all she meant. We've gone from minimization to straight self-contradiction. What a tangled web, etc.

But although Solomon is backpedaling, she still wants to try to defend her claims. She says:

I am saying he painted the male figure. He did so for one of two reasons. Some people say he painted boys because it turned out to be a lucrative niche for him. But that suggests he was a hack, that he painted for money, and I don't believe he was a hack. I believe he was a true artist who was emotionally invested in his work and felt connected to the figures in his pictures.

Ah, yes, like those notorious renaissance hacks Leonardo, Michelangelo, or Caravaggio, whose picture subjects were so often dictated to them by the client.

But really, even overlooking Solomon's confusions about how and why artists do what they do, she's just dead wrong in the supposed dichotomy she presents here. Rockwell painted what he painted both because he liked to be employed, and because he liked painting it and found he was good at it. We know that Rockwell unapologetically wanted people to like his paintings. He found people liked his paintings of kids, and so he kept painting them. If that makes him a hack in Solomon's eyes, so be it. The rest of us will probably notice we've got other alternatives than "hack" and "pedophile" when it comes to understanding Rockwell.