07
Jul
10

Norman Rockwell’s America (is Dead)

If you’re familiar at all with contemporary art, then you’ll no doubt have heard of Norman Rockwell. Indeed, chances are if you’ve lived anywhere in the West you’ll have come across one of his iconic paintings (as an original or as a recreation). For the few of you who might not be aware of his work, Norman Rockwell created paintings depicting (most often) bourgeoisie life in idyllic Middle-America*. There’s the family farms and small, private businesses that politicians love to talk about (see Sarah Palin’s “Real America” speech) and Capitalism tries to market to you (see ‘Aunt Jemimah’, ‘Uncle Ben’, ‘Quaker Oats’, ‘State Farm‘, ‘Pepperidge Farm‘ etc.). For many it’s the very face of Capitalism- just look at this 1948 “instructional” video of (exclusively white) high-school teens discussing Capitalism.

Coronet Instructional Films “What Is Capitalism?”, 1948

This is a prime example of the twisted understanding of Capitalism many have, but even in this video we can see the roots of the disparity between the Rockwellian portrayal of Capitalism and the harsh reality. Throughout the film, one word stands out: Competition. The young woman to Jimmy’s right describes how the shop-owner, Mr. Brown, agrees to lend out his truck to ensure she and Jimmy buy from him, rather than the competition. She asserts that Mr. Brown’s interests aren’t in providing service but in making a profit, and it is here we have the crux of the matter. Mr. Brown wants to make profit- the sole existence of his business is to make profit, and so Mr. Brown does whatever he can to ensure his merchandise is sold, rather than the merchandise of his competitors. In short, Mr. Brown is trying to run the other shops in the community out of business to maximize his profits. I’m not arguing that Mr. Brown is morally corrupt (though let’s not rule out of the possibility), we have to understand that in a Capitalist system, the rules of competition apply to everyone. Mr. Brown has to run his competition out or his competition will run him out. Eat or be eaten. At the same time, if Mr. Brown is indeed concerned not with his own livelihood but with his profits, if he does succeed in running his competition out of business he will have a monopoly and Jimmy and his friends will be forced to buy “weenies” at whatever price Mr. Brown sets.

Melodramatic? Consider this:

Starbucks was a small, privately owned coffee shop that has burst into a world-wide empire that has obliterated competition. Walmart also started as a small shopping center before expanding to the point where it has replaced nearly all beloved mom-and-pop stores you see in Rockwell’s art. McDonalds didn’t start out was a global food-chain but just as a privately owned restaurant. Coca-Cola started out as a tonic.

Now of course, there’s the temptation to side with corporations on this issue. One might argue ‘Hey, the fact is that Starbucks, Walmart, and other stores became economic empires by being better than the competition- they deserve the power they have!’. This argument forgets, however, that most corporations don’t get to where they are by simply having better products. The Mr. Brown of the video might run his competition out of business by offering lower prices by (1) temporarily lowering his prices so that his competition will be destroyed and he will make more money in the long run, (2) lowering the quality of his goods, (3) smearing competitors (and if you don’t think this happens, look up a Mac vs PC commercial), (4) lowering the wages of his workers, (5) sabotaging his competitors (corporate espionage), (6) convincing the public that his products are better (actually making them better would decrease profit), or even (7) collaborating with other businesses to harm competition (just look up the tactics of J.D. Rockefeller). Now out of these seven options, do you think that Mr. Brown is going to go with the one that lowers his immediate income? And what happens when Mr. Brown gets a monopoly? Is he going to lose his customers to cheaper options in other towns? Of course not- the astute Mr. Brown is going to open a shop there, and use his profits to undersell his competitors into working for him.

It’s a sad but simple fact. No matter how much we swear by the good, ol’ family farm or shop, small businesses inevitably become big businesses, which become global corporations with a reputation for low prices and even lower wages, product safety standards, and environmental consciousness. To answer the question of the video, what is Capitalism? This is Capitalism: pointless competition, exploitation, monopolization, and the general degradation of all the values we see in Norman Rockwell’s paintings.

*Admittedly, he did do a few pictures of working class Americans and even school children in Soviet Russia- but overwhelmingly his paintings were of the bourgeoisie.

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