If the Mona Lisa is the world’s most instantly recognizable piece of art, then what’s the best-known piece of art to come from America?
That’s easy: It’s the painting that won third place in the Art Institute of Chicago’s 43rd annual exhibition on American paintings and sculpture, in 1930.
You know the one. You’ve seen it hundreds of times before: American Gothic, by Grant Wood.
This fall marks the 75th anniversary of the painting’s bronze-medal performance, and Harvard scholar Steven Biel marks the occasion with a short book on its curious history, American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting.
A picture may be worth a thousand words–but few are worth tens of thousands of them. American Gothic is one of the few, and Biel’s slender volume provides a quick but comprehensive look at this iconic image. Much of it is fascinating trivia: Did you know, for instance, that the stern-faced man and woman in the foreground were modeled after real people? The man was a dentist and the woman was Wood’s sister. (They didn’t actually pose together, though Biel includes a photograph of them standing in front of the painting about a dozen years after it was finished.) Also, the white house in the background is based on a real house–stop by the next time you’re near the Iowa hamlet of Eldon. It’s currently unoccupied, and there’s a city maintenance building across the road.
Then there are the deeper questions about American Gothic: “What does it mean?” asks Biel. “What has it meant?”
It turns out that American Gothic can mean just about anything to anybody. My favorite post-9/11 political cartoon is an arresting likeness of American Gothic: The couple in the picture are wearing “I [heart] NY” t-shirts. It appeared in The New Yorker about a month after the destruction of the World Trade Center. The message was clear: United we stand.
Yet there was a time when American Gothic was not seen as a celebration of patriotism or the heartland. In fact, when it first went on display, many people considered it a savage parody of farm-country yahoos: “It lampooned American rural or small-town life, its rigidity and provincialism, its repressed and oppressive people, pinched, puritanical Bible-thumpers, fundamentalists … Ku Kluxers perhaps, powerful atavisms in a society that the census had proclaimed predominantly urban in 1920.”
This is the interpretation that Biel seems to prefer, albeit with the postmodern flourishes of a 21st-century Harvard man. He writes of how the Reagan presidency “made patriotic kitsch the official culture of the United States in the 1980s” and dutifully notes that “patriarchy remains visibly intact in the painting,” because the man stands slightly in front of the woman. (We might say that “patriarchy kitsch” has become the official culture of the American academy.)
Then there’s this clunker of a passage: “American Gothic personifies the nation: gives it white faces, locates it in the ‘middle’ both geographically and socioeconomically, establishes that middle as the national identity (‘identity’ literally means ’sameness’), situates, by implication, other faces and places on the margins or outside.”
Oh dear. A picture of a man and a woman in small-town Iowa, and all the Harvard guy can think about is that there aren’t black or brown faces in it.
What’s manifestly clear, however, is that the painting is large and contains multitudes: In Cambridge, academics obsess over sexism and racism; elsewhere, others can think different thoughts. For his part, Grant Wood left behind only a few vague and contradictory comments about his intentions. And despite early opinions that tended to treat American Gothic as a satire, observers increasingly came to view it in positive ways. The figures, writes Biel, “transmuted from nasty Puritans to hardy folk”–the people whose work and values formed the rigid backbone of the United States. The send-up evolved into a symbol, an emblem of gritty nationalism.
This didn’t happen overnight. During the Second World War, one critic condemned American Gothic as “isolationist.” Meanwhile, Fortune urged the Roosevelt administration to use the painting in war posters as a representation of fighting democracy. As they say: eye of the beholder.
Then there are the creepy parts. The word gothic, of course, holds several meanings. One of them is architectural, and in the context of Wood’s painting it would seem to refer to the pointed window on the house. But gothic also alludes to the barbaric Goths, and the word gave itself to a brand of literature associated with hidden vices and morbid terror. Throw into this wicked brew a common observation about the painting–the woman looks younger than the man, to the extent that she could be his daughter rather than his wife–and we have the makings of a steamy potboiler for the lit-crit crowd. “Could the woman, dwelling in the lonely house in the cornfields or on the edge of town, be both ‘wife’ and daughter?” wonders Biel. “Does the pitchfork signify something secret, dark, satanic?”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, a relativist in Harvard’s philosophy department might say. But for the rest of us, there’s a good word for this kind of speculation: Yuck!
Steven Biel is free to hold such views. But he ought to keep them to himself, in the privacy of his own home.
–John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.