Norman Rockwell's 'Which One?': Why it fetched $6.5 million

Norman Rockwell's painting is a tender sendup of the undecided voter. It might be tempting to see its sale symbolically.

Stephanie Zollshan\The Berkshire Eagle via AP
Albany Berkshire Ballet and The Norman Rockwell Museum bring their collaboration to Reid Middle School in Pittsfield, Ma., to perform their Norman Rockwell-inspired dance for students. Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.

Norman Rockwell’s gentle sendup of an undecided voter, “Which One? (Undecided; Man in Voting Booth),”sold Monday for $6.5 million in a Sotheby’s auction in New York, topping pre-auction expectations.

The painting depicts a man befuddled by the choice between the two main candidates in the 1944 elections, Democratic incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Republican Thomas Dewey – or maybe just befuddled by the whole business of politics itself. And for many Americans, Mr. Rockwell’s attitude toward his undecided voter lives on, even as decades of polarization may have made the artist’s ironic fondness seem like an unaffordable luxury.

The closest thing to Rockwell’s man today may be the “low-information voter.” Only 29 percent of American voters who were still undecided in the weeks leading up to the election, as UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck wrote for The New York Times in September, said that they paid attention to the news “most of the time.” Most are just not all that into politics.

Undecided voters "are less interested in politics and the news, less partisan, and less likely to hold opinions on issues dominating campaign discussions. Essentially, they think less about politics,” Dr. Vavreck wrote.

And many of them, she added, don’t really know what to believe about the campaign’s main issues.

“On the question of whether the United States should build a wall on its border with Mexico, a position central to Mr. Trump’s campaign for over a year, 28 percent of undecided voters are not sure whether they support or oppose this idea. That’s in contrast to only 7 percent of Mr. Trump’s committed voters (and 11 percent of Mrs. Clinton’s).”

There’s also a good many undecideds who are actually “disgruntled partisans,” noted The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier this month, in contrast with the Rockwellesque image. That might help explain the large numbers of "undecided voters" going into the Nov. 8 election, where both major-party candidates were historically unpopular.

Every so often, though – say, every second presidential debate – someone appears on our media radar who seems to fulfill our highest hopes for an undecided paragon. Someone who seems to trust in the good intentions of both candidates and esteem the importance of his or her own ballot-casting. Someone, in other words, who treats politics as if it works the way it’s supposed to.

In 2016, America got that person in Kenneth Bone of Bellville, Ill., who briefly became America’s red-sweatered sweetheart when he asked Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump a sensible question about how to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy while minimizing harm to fossil-fuel workers, as if 2016 had been a year of sensible debate on such matters.

“Most voters already know where they stand on climate change – and have chosen their candidate accordingly. That means further debate on the topic wouldn't necessarily add value,” wrote the Monitor’s Ellen Powell after that debate.

“A recent Pew poll found that almost half of Trump supporters say natural patterns are causing the Earth to warm, and 30 percent are not convinced that the Earth is warming. This compares to 70 percent of Clinton supporters who say warming is ‘mostly because of human activity.’”

That was part of the allure, for Mr. Bone’s fans. His appearance invited a storm of memes on social media about “the human version of a hug” who went about snapping photos of the debate stage with a disposable camera.

I try to be a friendly guy and shake hands and smile and all that,” he told the Washington Post. “And to see me try to be that huggable, likeable guy in the middle of a really nasty and divisive debate, I think, stood out to a lot of people.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.