Tag: American Gothic

American Gothic III by Connor O’Rourke

Gordon Parks made a huge statement with his photograph of Ella Watson, naming it American Gothic. A clear critique of the state of the country in 1942, Parks attempted to capture a screenshot of life in Washington, D.C. Parks claimed to experience bigotry unlike anything he had witnessed before while working in that city and felt very passionately about the issue.[1] Ironically, Parks was commissioned to work for the Farm Security Administration when he took this picture with the goal of bringing attention to the poverty among white farmers in the Midwest and West.[2] This photo that Parks took has the same effect that the administration was hoping for, just with a different demographic in the spotlight. Parks highlights the struggle of black citizens during this time. Ella Watson is portrayed as hard working, but her expression and the set-up of the picture speaks volumes about the situation she is in.


Photography can be an immensely moving platform for fighting for a cause, and a modern-day example, very similar to Parks’ work is shown in Colin Kaepernick’s photo-shoot with GQ for winning “Man of the Year”. Colin Kaepernick is famous for fighting for equal rights through his popularity as a quarterback in the NFL. A huge supporter of Black Lives Matter, Kaepernick drew national attention as he silently protested by kneeling during the national anthem before his games. He was shown massive support from teammates and other players around the league, but was heavily criticized by many white Americans, being told to stay in his place and shut up and play football.

People called him a hypocrite for protesting for equal rights when he was making millions of dollars a year, but the GQ photo-shoot speaks volumes for Kaepernick’s cause. He is shown in Harlem, among the people that he was fighting so heavily for.[3] Just like American Gothic by Parks, the photo shows Kaepernick and the people of Harlem in “natural” settings that are meant to portray their lives and their situations. This photo-shoot was meant to highlight Kaepernick and his cause, but I feel that it also does a very good job of bringing attention to people in bad situations who need help, similar to the goal of the Farm Security Administration. If Grant Wood’s painting was the first American Gothic, and Parks’ photo was the second American Gothic, I think that these photos of Kaepernick can be considered the third installment of the American Gothic series.

[1] “American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942,” Arts MIA. https://collections.artsmia.org/art/100557/american-gothic-washington-d-c-gordon-parks

[2] “Farm Security Administration,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farm_Security_Administration#Photography_program

[3] Martin Schoeller, “Colin Kaepernick Will Not Be Silenced,” GQ. November 13, 2017. https://www.gq.com/story/colin-kaepernick-will-not-be-silenced

American Gothic: A puzzling piece of American Iconography

By Owen McCue

Grant Wood’s 1930 painting, “American Gothic” is probably the most intriguing American icon we’ve studied this semester in that it is so different from the rest.

There is no doubt the image is universally recognized. As Wanda Corn describes, it “pervades our culture.”[1] She mentions its use in greeting cards, political cartoons and advertising.[2] It continues to have an impact in pop cultural today, especially through social media.

Like the statue of Liberty and Betsy Ross, the likeness of “American Gothic” has been merchandised and widely circulated, one of Martin Kemp’s qualifications for an icon, but why?[3] Unlike Ross and Lady Liberty, there is no clear American value the image evokes. The Statue of Liberty has tied to it values of freedom and opportunity. Ross’ tie to the American flag celebrates the patriotic woman and evokes the patriotism tied to the American Revolution.

So what about two stern looking Midwesterners posing in in front of their house? You could point to the pitchfork and say the painting carries with it the American value of hard work or look at the farmers in front of their house and make a claim people get a feeling of the individualism of the Heartland when they look at the image. However, as Corn explains, even those who studied the work at that time felt Wood’s work was a piece of satire directed at his upbringing.[4]

With all apologies to Wood, I think whatever the original intent of his image was, that message has been lost. His use of the gothic window, his painting of the potted plants on the front porch are no longer, or even is decision to substitute a rake for the pitchfork seem trivial when the pitchfork is now being replaced with light sabers and golf clubs.[5]

American Gothic doesn’t carry it with the sacredness or holiness, as Martin Kemp describes it, of the other American icons, which makes it OK to distort.[6]You can see how liberally people use the image above.

The reason the image is so iconic today is simply due to it’s … wait for it … simplicity. Because it is so simple, the painting can easily be manipulated for a quick joke or political and/or cultural jab. Add a prop in the man’s hand or paste some faces on the bodies, and suddenly you’ve got yourself a viral image. There is even an American Gothic meme generator.

It doesn’t sound academic, and I’m sure Wood would roll over in grave if he saw his work of art is being used today, but I believe the reason that’s the reason it continues to be an image recognized by so many Americans.

[1] Wanda, Corn. The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The Art Institue of Chicago, 1983.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kemp, Martin. In Christ to Coke: How Image Become Icon. Oxford University Press, 2012.

[4] Wanda, Corn. The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The Art Institue of Chicago, 1983.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kemp, Martin. In Christ to Coke: How Image Become Icon. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Something Lurking Beneath “American Gothic” And S-Town By Morgan O’Donnell

Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is one of the most iconic depictions of American Midwestern life, and more than 80 years after its creation, it still eludes popular agreement on a definitive meaning or interpretation. But something almost everyone can conclude from looking at the painting, and something I picked up on the first time I was introduced to “American Gothic” in my third grade art class, is that it feels hardened.

Certain elements of the image — the  farmer’s weathered face and stern expression, his tight grip of the pitchfork, the woman’s distant eyes and tight lips, and the darkness of the Gothic window on the house — have distinctly ominous undertones to me. They suggest that everything is not as plain or simple as it seems, a sentiment that I immediately connected to S-Town, a podcast from the creators of Serial and This American Life that became a smash hit when it was released in March of 2017.

S-Town (short for Shittown) is hosted by reporter Brian Reed and follows the real story of John B. McLemore, a brilliant, eccentric, cynical clock maker who sends an e-mail to This American Life and asks Reed to investigate a rumored murder in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama. In following e-mail exchanges and phone calls with Reed, McLemore expresses his intense hatred of Woodstock and the people in it, and he often refers to it as a “shit town.” [1]

But when McLemore commits suicide on June 22, 2015 (in the midst of the podcast’s production and as narrated at the end of the second episode) the narrative shifts to Reed’s exploration of McLemore’s personal life through the Woodstock residents who knew him, his black sheep status in the community, a property dispute and possible buried treasure, and broader questions of small town Southern life.

When “American Gothic” was first shown in 1930, art critics interpreted it as a satirical mocking of the conformity and narrow-mindedness of Midwestern life, and many still see the painting this way. [2] One could strip away the satire attached to the artwork and try to take it as it is, but there is still the feeling of some deeper statement about the couple, or farming, or the poor Midwest (who knows?) beneath the surface that can’t quite be put into words. S-Town, which media critics have equated to the style and tone of the Southern Gothic literary genre [3], evokes a similar sensation. The podcast has far more space and ability to dig deeper into McLemore’s life than the painting does of its subjects’ lives, but just the same, mystery and melancholy linger throughout the listening experience and even after the last episode.

The most important thing I learned from both “American Gothic” and S-Town is how powerful and dangerous it is when we as human beings attach stereotypes or labels based solely on individual experience to the people, objects, and systems we encounter in society. Reed, the podcast’s producer, could have easily let the stereotypes about poor white Southerners that McLemore believed in (as uneducated, narrow minded, dull simpletons, for example) influence his reporting, but he went to find out for himself.

“The vision that John was feeding me of this Shittown or S-Town that he lived in, it had all the trappings of the stereotypes you think of when you think of rural Alabama,” Reed said in an interview with Deep South Magazine. “My knee-jerk was to go against that. It can’t be exactly that. I know it’s more complicated than that.” [4]

Reed uses his conversations with McLemore and just about everyone in Bibb County, Alabama to gain a wide variety of perspectives that helps him construct an accurate portrait of a complicated man’s layered existence in a complicated town. It is up to the listener to determine how to put the puzzle pieces together. I think Wood does the same with “American Gothic.” The painting and the podcast both seem elementary at face value, but they present much more than just the Midwest or a Shittown in the Deep South. They possess a hidden depth that allows for countless interpretations and questions of humanity. Their mysterious undertones spark the audience’s curiosity in a way that can never quite be satisfied; they are gloriously unresolved.


1.”S-Town.” Wikipedia. March 9, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S-Town.

2. Corn, Wanda M., and Grant Wood. “The Birth of a National Icon: Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”, 255. Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 10 (1983).

3. Romano, Aja. “The New S-Town Podcast, from the Serial Team, Is a Real-life Southern Gothic.” Vox. March 28, 2017. https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/3/28/15082166/s-town-podcast-episodes-release.

4. Bass, Erin Z. “Inside “S-Town” Alabama.” Deep South Magazine. March 29, 2017. http://deepsouthmag.com/2017/03/29/inside-s-town-alabama/.