Norman Rockwell in Silverton, OR
Bill Long 1/16/05
Rockwell's Four Freedoms 62 Years Later
Silverton, OR is a quaint and pleasant town of 8,000 located about 15 miles east of Salem on OR 213. The restaurants hugging Silver Creek, which gently meanders through town, have balconies overlooking the Creek, thus allowing patrons a refreshing view on a warm summer day. Parking meters still take pennies and nickels, with a penny securing you five minutes of parking in the downtown "core." On the corner of 2nd and Main stands the Masonic building, with four neatly reproduced Norman Rockwell murals painted on the exterior wall facing the parking lot. Painted in 1993 (Rockwell painted the originals in 1943), these Silverton murals not only dominate the block but provide the occasion for the good Masons of Silverton to exhort their fellow citizens to embrace the freedoms depicted on this Four Freedoms series.
As I looked at the reproductions, I thought about the freedoms depicted and mused at how much America has changed since 1943. It is not as if Americans are unappreciative of these four freedoms (speech, worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear) in 2005; I think, however, that if you touch the pulse of America today to determine what they freedoms we truly prize, the list would be almost completely different. But, before telling you my "top four list" of freedoms in 2005, a word about the murals.
A State of the Union Speech/A Response
In 1941, before the US had entered into WWII, President Roosevelt mentioned, in his State of the Union speech, four great freedoms that Americans enjoy and ought not to forget: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Touched by the simplicity and vigor of the President's message, Norman Rockwell, who had been designing covers for the Saturday Evening Post since 1916 but whose name was not really a household word, decided to try his hand at depicting these four freedoms. Over the next year he sketched them, and they appeared on the cover of the SEP during spring 1943. The depictions have become probably among the most recognized images in America, and catapaulted Rockwell to the top of popular American painters.
You have all seen the pictures. If you want to study them more closely, this link will assist you. They speak with a transparency and immediacy that makes it almost impossible to misconstrue their message. Rockwell's favorite, Freedom of Speech was actually based on a town meeting in Rockwell's own Arlington, VT, where a man had taken an unpopular position on an issue and was respectfully heard by his fellow citizens. In the painting a vigorous and ruggedly handsome blue-eyed white male about 40 is standing up to voice his opinion, garnering the unfeigned respect and full attention of the listeners.
Rockwell later on was apparently less enthralled by his representations of Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear, believing that they might give the impression of overabundance in America or a certain smugness in the face of the World's suffering. Nevertheless, his work is a perfect illustration of art in unabashed service to national ideals. I sometimes wonder if his paintings, coming out as they did in Spring 1943, had anything to do with the US Supreme Court's Barnette decision, released in June 1943, where the Court reversed its 1940 Gobitis decision and held that it was unconstitutional for states to require school schildren to salute the flag. The laws were designed to reign in religious minorities (in this case the Jehovah's Witnesses).
Fast-Forward to 2005
But if we fast-forward to today, and ask the same question today regarding freedoms most prized in our land, I think we might come up with a considerably different list. Oh, many people would surely say "freedom of religion" is paramount for them, but such a confession runs off the lips like nursery rhymes from preschool children. In fact, I think the four freedoms most prized today are: (1) free time--especially the concept of the weekend; (2) freedom to shop and buy; (3) freedom to be left alone--that is, the respect for our privacy; and (4) freedom to indulge in junk--whether it be in overeating, in eating wrong stuff, in having one's stash of pornography, in playing solitaire on the computer during class time, or whatever other ways we have to waste the time we say we so much cherish.
A Comment on our Precious Freedoms in 2005
(1) The weekend didn't really exist as a concept in 1943. Even the title of Rockwell's magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, suggests that there really was only one evening where one could "relax" and enjoy some entertainment. Many professional men expected to work at least half-day on Saturday and sometime all day. Saturday evening alone was "free time," for it was followed by Church and then Sunday dinner at the in-laws before preparing everyone for the next week. Now we cherish the weekend. Check that, we live for the weekend. Our culture is set up to maximize every moment of your free weekend time. And the weekend is gradually becoming a 3 day (or even 3 1/2 day) experience. It is now our right to have a weekend. We cherish that freedom above almost everything else.
(2) Except maybe, our freedom to be left alone. Privacy is, I believe, our most cherished freedom today. We believe we have the right to a space, a place, where what we say and do is completely off limits not only to government forces but to anyone whom we don't let into our space. Whereas the weekend is only something that we can enjoy 2 or 3 days per week, expectations of privacy permeate nearly everything we do.
(3) And, then, we love to shop. At one time I entertained the mistaken idea that America would some day get beyond possessions and focus on ideas, the deepening of the inner life, service to the world. But, I was hopelessly naive. Shopping and acquisition is so deeply engrained into our culture that I have to list it as one of our most cherished freedoms.
(4) Finally, the "shadow" freedom, which I call "shadow" because we don't want to talk about it but we all want to indulge in it, is our freedom to indulge in junk. This freedom is different for different people. For some people it means to indulge in food far beyond what you should. Obesity is the result. For others (men mostly) it is to look at pornography. For others it is to waste endless hours engaging in things that we would readily admit even while we are engaging in them that they are a bunch of junk. Yet, we need and want our junk.
I couldn't help but think as I looked at the murals in Silverton today that they are not so much enduring American ideals (which they were supposed to depict) as they were historical symbols from an era that is largely passed. They helped to lend glue to a society which needed unity in the war effort in 1943. They are mouthed today by many of us, obedient to the creeds of our youth. But America has changed. We no doubt assume that those four freedoms will always be with us, but we are into other freedoms now.....
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long