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American Classic

Grant Wood and the meaning of his art.

Mar 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 24 • By PAUL A. CANTOR
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American Gothic

A Life of America's Most Famous Painting

by Steven Biel

Norton, 215 pp., $21.95

YOU KNOW THE PAINTING. It's the most famous American painting of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. It has been endlessly reproduced, imitated, and parodied. If we had any sense, we'd put it on the dollar bill. You probably know that it is called American Gothic, that it was painted by Grant Wood (in 1930), and that the original hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. But if, like me, you always wanted to know more about this much analyzed, but still enigmatic, painting, then by all means read Steven Biel's new book. He provides a lively, well-written, concise, and effectively organized account of the painting's genesis, the history of its reception by the general public and art critics, and the many controversies it has sparked over the years.

After reading this book, you will find yourself looking at this overly familiar work of art with fresh eyes, noting details you never spotted before, and wondering how such a deceptively simple painting could lead to so much discussion and debate.

Biel's book is an example of Cultural Studies at its best. He writes with a general audience in view and avoids the kind of dense jargon and obscure theoretical formulations that often make scholarly prose impenetrable to even educated readers these days. The great strength of Biel's book is the way he sets American Gothic in the broadest possible cultural context. By the time he is through, we learn that the history of this one painting is virtually the history of 20th-century America in microcosm. In obvious and sometimes not-so-obvious ways, the story of the painting intersects with fundamental moments in United States history, such as the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. By relating American Gothic to these and other important historical events, Biel shows that the Cultural Studies approach can genuinely enrich our understanding of art.

Biel rejects a narrowly aesthetic approach to the painting, which would concentrate on its purely formal properties. Rather than limit American Gothic to the isolated realm of High Art, Biel traces the many ways this painting has broken out of the confines of the museum and the art history textbook and circulated freely in the vibrant realm of American popular culture. We see the familiar couple popping up in musicals as diverse as The Music Man and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or in television programs from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Green Acres. In the many useful illustrations in the book, we view one odd couple after another stepping into the shoes of the famously posed Iowa couple: Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr, Buddy Ebsen and Irene Ryan as Jed and Granny Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie--even Ken and Barbie, looking more doll-like than usual.

Biel is clearly having fun with his subject, but at the same time, he makes a serious point. For a work of art truly to come alive, it needs to have a wide impact throughout a culture, and must be adopted and even appropriated by people from all walks of life for their own purposes. Charles Addams was right in his famous 1961 New Yorker cartoon to picture the American Gothic couple coming to life and promenading by a startled guard, presumably out into the streets of Middle America, where they belong and have been welcomed and embraced.

Working in the Cultural Studies mode, Biel, of course, feels obligated to go for the intellectual hat trick of race/class/gender analysis, but even here he demonstrates restraint and avoids the excesses of his colleagues. For example, Biel brings up a sort of Gay Studies reading of American Gothic--Robert Hughes's claim that "Wood was a timid and deeply closeted homosexual" and the painting is "an exercise in sly camp, the expression of a gay sensibility so cautious that it can hardly bring itself to mock its objects openly." Biel wisely rejects this reading, and on the refreshing grounds that Hughes is simply unable to offer any evidence for his claims.

On the issue of race, Biel eventually gets around to noting what might seem obvious from the beginning: that the figures in American Gothic are both white. But instead of accusing Wood of racism, Biel uses the occasion to discuss one of the many interesting variations on American Gothic, a photograph with the same title taken by the African-American artist Gordon Parks in Washington in 1942. In front of an enormous American flag hanging on the wall at the Farm Security Administration, Parks posed a black cleaning woman named Ella Watson--posed her in a way that clearly calls to mind the Grant Wood painting. According to Biel, this photo made an important statement: "The normative whiteness of the now iconic American Gothic did not go unrecognized and unchallenged."