Rand in D.C.: An Objectivist Art Tour of the Smithsonian’s Norman Rockwell Exhibit
Luc Travers is an Objectivist art critic—an Objectivist art critic who leads $30 art-appreciation tours for other Objectivists (sometimes non-Objectivists, too). You’d think he’d hate the Norman Rockwell exhibit currently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum—not for snobby reasons, but on principle.
“I love Norman Rockwell,” says Travers, who is half-French, green-eyed, soft-spoken, and almost 31 years old. A private school teacher by day, he regularly leads museum tours around the country and recently wrote a book on art appreciation. He’s also much nicer than you might expect an Objectivist to be, but that could be because you have silly expectations.
Objectivists are followers of the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand—they believe pollution represents human achievement and altruism is bad because it involves putting another life above one’s own. Objectivists believe in “rational self-interest”—living in a way that best advances a person’s own values. “Damn the masses” is one interpretation of the philosophy—though Objectivists could, and sometimes do, take umbrage with this phrasing.
To Objectivists, art has a moral dimension. Art should show scenes of greatness—it should be uplifting, and present a slice of the world as it would be at its best. It should highlight and reinforce fundamental values. Forget abstract art, or art showing decay or darkness. Here’s how Rand famously once described her conception of Romantic Realism: “I am a Romantic in the sense that I present men as they ought to be. I am Realistic in the sense that I place them here and now and on this earth.”
So what do men as they ought to be, placed here and now on this earth, look like? In Objectivist art, and there is such a thing, you see a lot of the lithe and naked, often cast in bronze or stone. Think Michelangelo’s “David,” but more chiseled. A browsing of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-First Century website reveals that Objectivist art can lean toward the beefcake. But sculptor Sandra Shaw, an Objectivist who writes and lectures on Rand’s aesthetics, says, that Objectivist art doesn’t have to take any particular stylistic form, beefcake or otherwise, so long as the art represents some piece of reality in its highest form. Shaw’s website, not incidentally, features a bronze bust of Ayn Rand.
So you’ve probably already guessed where this is going—right to what you can imagine would be the Objectivists’ nightmare: the Smithsonian’s current “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg” exhibition, which features dozens of works that filter the conformist, middle-American zeitgeist of the early and mid-20th century, and that find a rosy sentimentality in moments of ordinariness.
“I like his kind of light-hearted approach,” says Travers. “There’s a carefreeness in these images that maybe a lot people don’t identify with as much today.”
Travers lives in Laguna Hills, Calif., and was in D.C. in October, leading two art appreciation tours at the National Gallery of Art. He has just self-published a book called Touching the Art: A Guide to Enjoying Art at a Museum, which explains a lot about his “naïve” approach to art appreciation. Yes, technique and subject matter draw Travers in. But his pleasure in art, which he tries to share with others, comes from relating to the characters depicted on the canvas. You won’t hear any art history or philosophy in Travers’ art lectures, even though he studied both in college. You will hear stories about his neice, who inspired Travers’ art appreciation by hugging a statue at the zoo.
Travers likes Rockwell because he relates to Rockwell’s characters. Like Miss Jones, from “Happy Birthday Miss Jones,” a large painting showing a shy teacher standing in front of
her students, who have written “Happy Birthday” in various ways on the blackboard.
Travers relates to Miss Jones—to the moment where the kids show their appreciation of her, and the powerful feelings of happiness, as well as the reversal of roles, that accompany that moment.
Sure, Travers says, as an Objectivist he is against public education—taxes are dollars taken at gunpoint, according to Objectivists, even when those dollars are taken to educate kids. “But I don’t see a public school teacher. I see a teacher.”
“Freedom of Speech” shows a young man in a plaid shirt and a leather bomber jacket standing up at what looks like a town meeting, surrounded by seated and agitated-seeming older men in suits. Travers notices that the plaid-shirted man is confident; he looks like he’s speaking up. Travers likes the image of a person standing up in the middle of a crowd that looks intimidating. He’s not interested that the painting is meant to promote presidential power and war.
Travers has a similar reaction to “A Time for Greatness”—the illustration showing a victorious John F. Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention, surrounded by patriotic signs and raised arms.
“It’s upbeat, triumphant,” says Travers. “Optimism, that’s good.” Because JFK is such a recognizable character, however, it’s hard to separate his knowledge of JFK from the sense of optimism shown in the picture; this picture, he says, is less art—which tends toward the universal—than journalism, which tends toward the specific. (Rand wasn’t interested in art as journalism—she specifically said as much in her pleasingly named 1969 art tract, The Romantic Manifesto.) “The fact that Rockwell is promoting the status quo might mean that the artwork wouldn’t have everything you might want in a piece of art,” Travers says.
Travers sees his art-appreciation approach and his love of Norman Rockwell not as diverging from Objectivism but promoting it; both make his life better.
Shaw, the sculptor, says she doesn’t know that Ayn Rand ever wrote about Rockwell, even though they were contemporaries, and she insists that she can’t speak for Rand and what she would have made of Rockwell.
But Shaw likes Rockwell, too—and she thinks Rockwell’s realistic and uplifting scenes would have earned Rand’s endorsement as well.
“He was one of the last great American illustrators,” she says. “He never did anything that was vicious, or ugly, or offensive. He never brought down his subjects. He was a tremendous success and a very good illustrator. And I don’t think any Objectivist worth their salt would sniff at that.”
And there’s a therapeutic element to Travers’ approach to art, and to Rockwell, that Rand might also have appreciated. By examining your own responses to different works, and discovering what about your life spurs those responses, you become a better you. A you who is better able to live a life of…rational self-interest.
So what about the fact that the Rockwell exhibit, which draws from the collections of two titans of liberal Hollywood, is being shown at a public institution? Objectivists don’t believe that art institutions—such as the Smithsonian—should be funded publicly.
Travers says that ideally there would be no public museums, of course.
But things are as they are, and there are public museums. So Travers is going to visit them, and is going to take other Objectivists to visit them, too. He would be happy to have non-Objectivists come along, too, if they’re interested when he comes back to D.C. in the spring for more tours.
“What, go out and protest in front of the National Gallery instead of going inside and enjoying the art?” he says. “Objectivism is about making the most out of your life. Art is meant to enhance your life. To show you what’s possible. For a lot of Objectivists that means the great heroism. But there’s a whole range of experiences and values that are worthy to contemplate.”