Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms”

by Errol Black and Jim Silver

An exhibition of Norman Rockwell paintings – American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell – opened this week at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (the only stop in Canada). It will run until May 20.

Rockwell is, of course, best known for covers on Saturday Evening Post. The majority of these covers depict folksy scenes from middle class America. However, there are exceptions published both as Post covers and elsewhere that reflected and spoke to the deep seated concerns and desires of American citizens. For example, Kate Taylor, in an article titled, “A Feel-Good Master’s Complex Message” (The Globe And Mail, March 3, 2012), cites a Rockwell painting published in Look Magazine in 1963, “The Problem We all Live With,” that makes a powerful statement on racism and the struggle for civil rights in that decade.

Another example of such work is a series of posters Rockwell was commissioned to do by the U.S. government as a means of educating American citizens about the four freedoms cited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (F.D.R.) in his 1941 State of the Union Address. In that speech, F.D.R. said that all people around the world should be guaranteed: Freedom of Speech; Freedom to Worship; Freedom from Want; and Freedom from Fear (by which he meant peace and a reduction in armaments). These paintings were published originally as Saturday Evening Post covers in February and March 1943, and then launched as posters on a war bonds tour in April 1943. Rockwell’s use of familiar depictions from the mainstream of U.S. society muted the impact of F.D.R.s powerful message. Nevertheless, according to all accounts, the posters had a profound impact on the American psyche.

In any event, F.D.R. followed up his 1941 message in his State of the Union Address in January, 1944, in which he proposed a Second Bill of Rights – an Economic Bill of Rights – as a complement to the political rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. In his preamble F.D.R. proposed a plan “for an enduring peace and improvements in the American standard of living for all Americans: “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth – is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.” His list of economic rights included: “employment, with a living wage; freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, housing, medical care, education and social security.”

F.D.R.’s vision for the future (a vision shared by many other countries) was obliterated, of course, in the immediate post-war period by the forces of reaction in the U.S. – business organizations, the banks, the white political leadership in the south dedicated to segregation and wage slavery, and Joseph McCarthy and the zealots involved with his anti-communist campaign. Consequently, instead of a U.S. that worked for the benefit of all its citizens, we got a U.S. that works for a small minority that dominates all aspects of economic and political life. This is why the U.S. now ranks near the bottom on every important socioeconomic indicator that is used to assess the economic well-being of the population. The sad thing is that Canada is now fully committed to joining the U.S. in a race to the bottom.

Enjoy the Exhibition. Afterwards take a drive around Winnipeg’s north end, check out the city’s food banks, soup kitchens, shelters for the homeless and the faces of the people in the queue. Then think about what might have been and what we’ve in fact got as a result of our slavish worship of greed, plunder and exploitation. The situation is sad and desperate.

Errol Black and Jim Silver are members of the CCPA-MB board.

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