What Would Rockwell Paint?
by Sheila Velazquez
On January 6, 1941, in a message to Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants–everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.”
In that same speech, Roosevelt said, “The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are: Equality of opportunity for youth and for others. Jobs for those who can work. Security for those who need it. The ending of special privilege for the few. The preservation of civil liberties for all. The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.”
Artist Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was so inspired that he reflected Roosevelt’s four freedoms in paintings completed in 1943 and published by the “Saturday Evening Post” magazine. They were beloved by the American people and used to promote the sale of war bonds. Now those and other freedoms are slipping away.
Rockwell’s art is nostalgic, and his people, like the working-class man speaking in a public forum in “Freedom of Speech,” are small-town Americans. Our words are now drowned out by corporate messages and media hacks who claim this freedom exclusively as their own, while our protests and demonstrations are hidden from others who agree with and would join us, if they only knew, by government fences and un-Constitutional restrictions. We have lost our voice.
The people in “Freedom to Worship” are ethnically diverse and represent the countries that have contributed to the greatness that is America today. But many of us are now suspect because of our beliefs and practices, the color of our skin or the language we speak. Those who believe in the greatness of the human spirit but not a formal god are considered by many to be un-American, even though our forefathers were clear about the separation of church and state.
“Freedom from Want” portrays a large multi-generational family at Thanksgiving. The grandparents preparing to carve the turkey stand at one end of the table, surrounded by smiling children and grandchildren. The ability to feed and clothe one’s family is a freedom that should be enjoyed by every man and woman who is willing to work. But we have lost the jobs that guaranteed this freedom and many have no choice but to slave for wages that in real terms have not risen in decades, and have actually fallen.
Many American corporations have destroyed the towns and cities that made them great. They take their profits offshore, shifting the burden of the billions of tax dollars they avoid paying onto the tired shoulders of heads of families, like the elderly man in the painting. The CEOs of these corporations have obviously secured their own freedom from want.
“Freedom from Fear” shows a young father and mother bending over their sleeping children. The father holds a folded newspaper from which we can read words in the headline, “Bombings … Horror.” The men and women of their generation gave their lives and limbs to bring the freedom from fear to oppressed countries abroad and to secure it on our own shores.
Drone strikes, the collateral damage from which kills and maims thousands of innocents, are now destroying that freedom in other nations, and in so doing are creating enemies of the country that was once recognized worldwide as the leading protector of freedom. At the same time, Americans have begun to fear and resent their own government as it intrudes and pries into every aspect of our lives and acts in direct opposition to the very principles for which every member of the American military has fought, thereby threatening to destroy the allegiance we pledge when we hold our hands over our hearts.
For decades, a brave and hopeful America was reflected in Rockwell’s art. I wonder how he would paint us now.