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My Gripe with American Gothic

I imagine most people know Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930). Sometimes I wonder whether people like it because they think they’re somehow supposed to like it, if that makes any sense. “It’s art, it’s famous, everyone else likes and so should I,” kind of thing. I wonder that about the Mona Lisa, too. Well, I don’t like American Gothic all that much. I’ve thought for a while that it would be fun to write about a well-known piece that everyone else seems to like but that I don’t like. This is a good place to start.

I should begin by making a case for its virtues. At least that seems like a good rule of thumb. Wood set out to render an American Midwestern archetype and in that I think he was largely successful. The house in the background underscores the cultural importance Americans place on their homes, almost like houses are an extension of those who live there. Their stoic expressions and positioning in front of their home imitates standard practice of the era’s traveling photographers. He also effectively repeats patterns throughout the painting, which really adds something to how you view it. Her dress pattern is closely mimicked by the window curtains upstairs, for example, and the shape of the pitchfork tines is subtly repeated in his overalls. More than a few have pointed out that the gothic window looks like the pitchfork turned upside down.

So what’s not to like then? In this case, I only have minor quibbles with the painting itself. One of those is how distracted I get by the daughter’s really elongated face, which isn’t how his model looked. It was an artistic choice that doesn’t work for me. But really it isn’t the piece that turns me off; it’s more how clichéd it has become. Once American Gothic made the leap from fine art to pop culture, it seemed to stay there. And then multiply. One source of the painting’s fame has to be the unbelievable number of spoofs that have piled up over the decades. There are some good parodies, don’t get me wrong. I’ll always love the one from Spongebob Squarepants or the brief humorous allusion in the animated Mulan. It’s been recreated for The X Files (can we please have the 90s back?), the Muppets, Star Wars, political cartoons, and advertising. It circulated last year as a plug for mask wearing. All this is to say that American Gothic has become like the song overplayed on the radio. I’ve just gotten tired of the image. I used to think the parodies were fun; now they’re boring. And unfortunately that has somehow translated over to how I see the original. It’s too bad because looking at it again to write this post, I really appreciated it as a painting. I was able to detach it from the myriad imitations and see it again for the first time. I suppose there’s a life lesson in there somewhere.

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