Voting is Norman Rockwell's fifth freedom


During this unprecedented presidential campaign, when the state of our union seems fractured and fragile, it is worth looking back to another complicated era. Nearly the entire world was embroiled in war, and a president's call to come together in defense of freedom across the globe was given its most potent expression by a single, beloved illustrator.

Seventy-five years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his 1941 State of the Union Address to call on American citizens to "look to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms," to be enjoyed by everyone, "everywhere in the world." Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, which would be incorporated into the United Nations charter, were freedom of speech and of worship - both guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, though today under siege by campaign rhetoric - and freedom from want and from fear, whose manifestation is acrimoniously debated.

Two years later, with the United States fully engaged in World War II, Norman Rockwell created a series of paintings titled "The Four Freedoms," giving visual voice to Roosevelt's call to people everywhere to defend freedom as a universal human right. With their reproduction in the The Saturday Evening Post - and in a testament to the power of illustration - Rockwell's paintings were vigorously embraced by countless Americans, and became among the artist's most enduring and best known works.

In "Freedom of Speech," a casually dressed workingman, in a plaid flannel shirt and bomber jacket, stands to speak at a town meeting. He is flanked by older men in suit coats and ties who,

despite the difference in their circumstances, pay respectful attention - civility despite difference depicted as an American value.

In "Freedom to Worship," men and women of varied faiths, including a man wearing a yarmulke and an African-American woman in prayer, make a bold statement for equity and inclusion in 1943.

In "Freedom from Fear," a mother tucks in her sleeping children as her husband, holding the day's newspaper with headlines of bombings, looks on thoughtfully, pondering their children's safety in a world ravaged by a war that would soon reach American lives.

And in "Freedom from Want," multiple generations of a family sit at a simple yet elegant dining table as the grandmother lays a large turkey on the table.

Rockwell's translation of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms into these eloquent images brought those ideals into the homes and hearts of millions of Americans through scenes of everyday life that everyone could understand.

I've lingered with the work and writings of Rockwell for a while now, and the discordant tenor of the times has made me think about how he might have re-imagined freedom today. Although the voices back then may have more often been expressed in unison, there are voices heard today that were nearly mute 70 years ago, including those of African Americans and immigrants. Yet many voices are not translating into votes - one of the most powerful forms of expression.

Part of Rockwell's genius was the ability to find universal moments, told through stories. In fact, in most of his work, it would be easy to change the color of the subjects' skin without losing any of the paintings' impact. Certainly, he never considered whether the men huddled around a radio to hear the latest news were Democrats or Republicans or independents, whether they were gay or straight, immigrant or native born.

The freedoms that Roosevelt articulated, and that Rockwell brought so powerfully to life, are no less critical today than they were in 1943. So how might Rockwell portray freedom today? Perhaps he would depict a fifth freedom, ensuring the right of the people to self-govern: the Freedom to Vote. Indeed, when so much is at stake in this election, he might well wonder why so many Americans are willing to remain silent, leaving it to others to choose their leader.

It is not difficult to envision how the artist might portray the Freedom to Vote. One can imagine a tableau inspired by his masterpiece depicting the Golden Rule, with its diversity of people. This one might show a long line of people of all backgrounds - perhaps looking at their cellphones - and practicing a freedom that is not enjoyed by billions around the world, but one that, after decades of struggle, is available to all U.S. citizens: the freedom to have their voices heard. The freedom to vote.

Laurie Norton Moffatt is the director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. This commentary first appeared in USA TODAY.


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