Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Evolution of American Gothic

Since the portion of my brain that generates original thought (I believe it is the cerebral cortex, but I don’t really know) appears to be on strike, today’s blog will be a exert from a 2005 PopEntertainment interview conducted by Ronald Sklar with Steven Biel, author of, American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting.  (Plug: The book is stocked in our gift shop.) Biel, the executive director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University and senior lecturer in History and Literature, provides insight as to how the perception of the painting has changed over time and how he was introduced to American Gothic.

Sklar: In the beginning, the painting was despised by certain people and celebrated by others. As time went on, the painting took on new meanings.

Biel: It was despised and embraced, as far as I can tell, for the same reasons. It was perceived as being a work of satire. The critics who really made Wood’s reputation understood it that way. They understood him as a victim of these people and their repressiveness and hostility.

Sklar: How exactly did this painting become an American icon, the most famous painting in American history?

Biel: There is no quantifying that, really, but I would say so. It happened because over the course of the thirties in the context of the depression and throughout World War II, it changed from being that satirical image to a national symbol of stability, order, prosperity, virtue and wholesomeness.

Instead of holding its subjects up to ridicule, it now came to be seen as holding them up for admiration as quintessential Americans.  In hard times, the “let’s make fun of yokels” idea seemed kind of cruel. The conservative virtues of the Midwest were re-embraced by some East Coast critics, and even the left in the 1930s paid homage to the fortitude of the “folk.” It was a way of fighting off despair.

Sklar: From the sixties onward, this painting becomes a real source of parody -- everything from Green Acres to the yuppies to The Simple Life.

Biel: I started thinking about where I first became aware of this image. It certainly wasn’t at the Art Institute of Chicago and I certainly didn’t see it in a non-parodied form first. The first time I became aware of it was in a Country Corn Flakes commercial and in the opening credits of Green Acres. It had already become such a well-known image that it was an easy move to make. If you want to send up American heartland values or if you want to encapsulate those values in a single image, you use “American Gothic.” It’s a really effective shorthand way of capturing those myths of the true America.

The Beverly Hillbillies on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post [in 1963] is suggesting something about the wholesomeness of these yokels who find themselves in the corruption of LA. In an issue of TV Guide in the late sixties, Irene Ryan [who played Granny] really defends the non-ironic interpretation of “American Gothic.” Ryan said that the timeless values of “American Gothic” are the antidote to what was going on in the late sixties. She really identified with that image.

After that, the floodgates just opened. The first presidential couple to be parodied was the Johnsons. Every presidential couple since then have been plugged into the “American Gothic” pose.

Then you start to get these lifestyle parodies, where those old-fashioned people in the painting aren’t having any fun, but we are, with a tennis racquet or an electronics product instead of a pitchfork. They are playing on the immediate recognition of the image and at the same time saying that consuming this or that product is wholeheartedly American.

The joke couldn’t be more blatant than with Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in The Simple Life. These people are being plopped into middle America and there is a clash of values. That’s the whole premise of the show.

Sklar: Is the actual painting itself still relevant today?

Biel: It’s hard for a parody of this painting to really work anymore, to carry any kind of potent message. To give it some power, to make it stand out from all the other parodies, takes extraordinary creativity. Of course, it’s impossible for it to stir up the passions that it stirred up in 1930. But it’s well worth understanding its rich history and coming to see how and why, at one time, it had the power to offend people

Me: It is difficult to imagine how American Gothic would offend anyone, but I did not live during that time, and like Biel, was introduced to American Gothic in a similar fashion. If nothing else the evolution of American Gothic is food for thought, especially when it is applied in a broader sense. But that will be for another day when my brain goes off strike.
Don’t forget the upcoming events:

October 27: Children’s Gothic Halloween Party, 2-4 pm

November 15: Humanities Iowa Lecturer Larry Stone. Eldon Library Hall, 7 pm

December 1-14: Gingerbread House Display

December 8: Gingerbread House Decorating, 1-4 pm

Brian Chambers
Media Coordinator
The American Gothic House Center

The American Gothic House Center strives to become financially independent through gift shop revenue, sponsorships, and by establishing an endowment fund. Funds raised in this campaign will be used to match the Iowa Cultural Trust Endowment Challenge Grant and will become endowment funds to support the Center's annual operations. As a subscriber to the weekly newsletter, you have already shown support for the American Gothic House Center. I invite you to strengthen your role in the valuable experience we provide the community by making a contribution to our fund drive. Click here to give your tax deductible gift, or head to our website for more information. Thank you to all who have donated so far!
        Our Mission: Integrating the puzzle pieces of American Gothic
300 American Gothic St | Eldon, IA 52554 | 641-652-3352 |

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