Many of you know my special weakness. Because of my intellectual pride, I cannot stop myself from clicking on a link such as, 7 Pop Culture Classics That Don’t Mean What You Think. Is that so? Well, I’ll just have to see. And, of course, in my effort to show how knowledgeable I am, I am just like all the other fish who got hooked.
I wouldn’t have clicked on this link, because I don’t know much about pop culture. But it went along an image of American Gothic. And since I went slightly crazy about the painter Grant Wood for a couple of weeks, I kinda doubted that the article would surprise me. But I was kind of confused as to what anyone was supposed to think that American Gothic meant.
On Wood’s birthday two years ago, I wrote:
He is best known for the painting American Gothic. I think it is a remarkable painting just because of its composition. Thematically, no one seems to really agree about it. Some have claimed that it is satire about American repression, and others think it is a celebration of American hard work. I side more with the satire crowd. Wood, of course, was satirizing nothing.
My point was, as I have made many times before, that artists don’t define the meaning of their works — those who experience them do. And look at this Google Images search of Wood’s work. Does it seem like Wood was doing anything other than bringing together a few different American artistic trends and creating something all his own? Not to me.
I Never Knew!
So what is it that I didn’t know? “The American Gothic Painting Is Mocking Farmers.” But even the writer can’t hold onto that claim. After explaining how it is all about mocking farmers, the article says:
On the other hand, Grant Wood was a born-and-bred Iowan who, prior to painting American Gothic, spent more than six years studying art in Europe. That’s enough time to make anyone nostalgic for their childhood home, even if that home was a desolate hellscape. So, although Wood eventually poked fun at it, it’s not hard to imagine that, during his travels, he developed a loving appreciation for his people’s fortitude.
This gets back to this idea that the artist decides what the work means. This is one of the reasons that I’m not all that interested in American Gothic. It’s been so parodied that it is really hard to get past other people’s ideas about it and see it with fresh eyes. It’s easier to see his other work, and that’s where I see more clearly what he was doing. The fact that the artist would have gotten tired of this one painting and mocked it, is not surprising.
The Artist Does Not Know All
But the article is filled with this kind of “artist knows all” nonsense. There’s a Pearl Jam song that means whatever because the writer said so in an interview. Well, that’s fine. But I know with my own work that what I say it means changes over time. Apparently, Tolkien didn’t like people thinking Lord of the Rings was a World War II allegory. Okay. I think it is kind of silly myself. But who cares? I’d still be interested in reading a thoughtful discussion of the subject.
Moving on, you’ll learn Uncle Tom isn’t a coward, which you would only have thought if you took the book entirely out of context. You’ll also learn that “‘The Road Not Taken’ Is Robert Frost Making Fun Of His Friend.” This is based upon something Frost once said. Except that he said other things at different times. But again, who cares? “The Road Not Taken” is much like American Gothic in being so soiled by others’ opinions that I can’t really find any meaning in it because there is too much meaning piled on top of it.
Meaning Is Not Static
I love dealing with the meaning of artistic works. One of my articles, The Meaning of Marlene on the Wall, is one of my most popular articles. In it, I provide a detailed meaning of the song. But it is my meaning — based on a close analysis of the song. It isn’t the final word on the subject.
And how awful it would be if it were! I was talking to a (very open-minded) Christian friend of mine the other day about how heaven could never be a place where all the secrets of the universe were explained. That, in fact, would be hell. It’s the questions that make life interesting. Ultimately, American Gothic is just a bunch of oil paint applied to beaverboard. Its meaning transcends that, of course. But it also transcends what any given person or group thinks it means.
Two years ago, I wrote that I tended to see the painting as satire. Today, I don’t really see it that way. I see the painting as kind of sad — two people living the Schopenhauerian dream: getting through today so they can get through tomorrow. But as usual, that says more about me than it does the painting.
For the record, the painting is staged. The man is Grant Wood’s dentist, who was in his early 60s at the time and lived into his 80s. And the woman is Wood’s sister, who was about 30 and lived to be 91 years old. She died three years after I got on the internet.