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Last night I finished reading American Gothic by Stephen Biel, a nice little book about the painting of the same name. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants a quick read about an art topic by someone from outside the Art Historical community (Biel was, at the time the book was written, Director of the History and Literature Program at Harvard). I think the insights you get are useful in that the “outsider’s” approach examines art’s social and cultural context and, at the same time, the critical and academic environment that created that context. I think this second point is the more important one, although many in the critical and historical community would never admit it because to do so would be to make themselves at least partially responsible for the trajectory of art trends through the ages rather than mere observers and recorders of it.

I was most disturbed by a passage near the end of the book, where Biel was discussing how, shortly after Grant Wood’s death in 1942, the critics were falling all over themselves to dismiss his work, especially  American Gothic in the harshest terms. They went as far as  comparing it with the propagandist art of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which was a powerful allusion in the mid-1940s. This is unsurprising, since art critics, led by Hilton Kramer, were busy singing the praises of Abstract Expressionism, but these words, where Biel is parenthetically talking about art historian H. W. Janson,  really took root in my mind:

“Janson…went on to write the popular and influential textbook History of Art, first published in 1962,which, not surprisingly, made no mention of Wood in the chapter on twentieth-century American painting. A few lines on Regionalism,  without naming Benton,Wood, or Curry, were added in third edition in 1986.”

You’ll find this on pages 128-29 of hardcover edition, just in case you’re curious. What strikes me about this is that omitting Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry from a book alleging itself to be a history of art sounds downright criminal to me, akin to fraud, and a blatant violation of whatever code of ethics art historians subscribe to. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think they suck, what matters is that their place in American Art History was/is substantial. American Gothic is probably the most recognizable American painting in our history. Whoever this Janson dude was, he had no right calling himself an Art Historian.He was a well-educated enthusiast.

This whole thing reminds me of a eerily similar passage I read in a book called Depth of Field by A. D. Coleman, which, if you’re a photographer, you should have read already. Coleman’s essay on William Mortensen ends with an exchange between Coleman and Beaumont Newhall where the latter defends his decision to leave Mortensen out of his seminal (but obviously deeply flawed) History of Photography because is was HIS book and he could “disinvite” anyone he cared to. Assuming that this happened as Coleman reports it, and I’ve never seen it refuted anywhere, I can now pronounce Newhall a dishonest fool rather than a scholar and must read everything he wrote with a suspicious eye.

Taken together, these incidents make me skeptical of all academic and critical writing on art in general, because scholars tend not to identify their biases for the reader but rather pontificate as if their opinions and conclusions were gospel. This school or movement or artist is good because of A B C and this school of movement or artist sucks because of X Y Z. And God only knows who and what has been ignored over the years because it wasn’t thought to be good enough to be praised or horrid enough to be vilified. What we, the readers, are left with is a heavily redacted but nonetheless endless collection of the opinions of generation upon generation of critic and scholar without the periodic fact-checking that comes with the critical view of outsiders.

In the main, this is the biggest benefit of Biel’s book; the exposure to the ephemeral nature of critical and public opinion on the arts. The winds shifted so many times on American Gothic that even its creator got confused about its meaning. Between the lines you’ll find that both those who praised Gothic and those who condemned it were both committing the same sin. Both sides howled that they, and only they, were right and that the others were morons lacking in refinement. The critical elite from the East coast treated the Midwest as if it were an intellectual prison to be escaped from. The Midwesterner described New York in the same way, as a latter day Sodom and Gomorrah from which the sane and righteous should immediately flee. By clinging to such extreme positions, they both demonstrated that they didn’t know anything.

Grant Wood returned from Paris and repudiated the Bohemia that he has been in such a hurry to find. He painted what he thought he knew about the good people of Iowa, in a way that I find almost a little over-dramatized. Whether he was attempting to hold these people up as the sole exemplar of what’s good about America is debatable.I admire his commitment to his work. I think what’s good about America is ALL the art we produce, even the art which I find vapid or dishonest or plain stupid, which includes a lot of work over which the art intelligentsia fairly wet itself with glee and approval.

The goal is to create. Everything else is mere sideshow.


Return from Bohemia (Grant Wood, American, 1935)

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