All paintings by George Tooker
I ran across a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It’s extraordinary that a book written in the 1830s about America holds so strikingly true today:
I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them but he does not see them. …
Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, farseeing, and mild. … It seeks only to keep men fixed irrevocably in childhood. … It provides for the citizens’ security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?
Thus after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; … it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.
The reason that what has changed has changed for the worse is I imagine due to what Gore Vidal observed: “We are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing.” One change has been that we’ve gotten rid of artists like George Tooker, who captures the the America de Tocqueville foresaw… the dreary conformism and social isolation. When Tooker was painting there were artists whose work had something to say that was worth paying attention to. Back in the days before “narrative” was ruled out as germane to art-making.
The painting above is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. In the forty-plus years I’ve visited MoMA I’ve never once seen it hanging on the wall. This is because artists like Tooker don’t figure into the thoroughly bankrupt Modernist “narrative” which leads directly into the empty cul-de-sac of MoMA’s present.
Tooker’s sleepers bring to mind George Carlin’s line: “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it.”