Gothic Tale: A Biography of Grant Wood

“I’m the plainest kind of fellow you can find,” painter Grant Wood told an interviewer in the 1930s, the height of his fame. “There isn’t a single thing I’ve done, or experienced, that’s been even the least bit exciting.” In Grant Wood: A Life, R. Tripp Evans demonstrates just how deceitful Wood’s protestations really were. Instead of the well-worn tale of normalcy beyond compare, Evans, an art history professor from Wheaton College in Massachusetts, weaves a more gothic tale of subversion and submersion that reveals a new view of Wood as a tortured homosexual artist miscast as a purveyor of Reagan-esque Americana in works such as the iconic American Gothic (shown above). Through new readings of the works themselves as well as of Wood’s posthumous existence in the popular consciousness, Evans gives us the Grant Wood that the artist himself never could.


Born into a highly conservative and homophobic time and place, the Midwestern Wood of the early twentieth century longed to be an artist while still finding acceptance in the home of his childhood. Wood carefully crafted a persona of a “farmer-painter” despite never actually farming himself. That persona “as the Artist in Overalls,” Evans explains, “allowed Wood to simply vanish when he appeared in his street clothes.” Unfortunately, that vanishing act extended to all aspects of the artist’s true self and forced him to embed his hidden self into his paintings—a secret life hidden in plain view. Despite these outward clues, critics willfully misread Wood’s art and person from the very beginning. “Rather than presenting Wood and his work as paradigms of Depression-era America, as so many have done,” Evans proposes, “this study seeks to illuminate the profound and fertile disconnection between the artist and his period.” Just as the woman in American Gothic averts her gaze from the viewer, critics have averted their eyes from the obvious unsettledness of such images and chosen to see instead a full-throated salute to a golden age of the past based on a mythical Midwest as a repository of all things American and, therefore, all things godly and good. Giving Grant Wood his life back, as Evans does, not only clears the record of the past, but also clears the record of the American present, which continues to cling to this Midwestern mythology in politics and culture as a stay against progress and tolerance, including tolerance of homosexuality.

One of the most striking images in the book is that of a young Grant Wood sitting at a Parisian café in 1920, cigarette in hand and bohemian beard on his chin. Studying art and simply living in Paris at that time meant living la vie boheme, which meant embracing modernism in art and a very un-American degree of sexual freedom. Upon his return to Iowa, friends and family besieged Wood to shave off the beard, which he did after enduring a week of complaints. It was as if Wood could remove his Parisian experience (and his sexual orientation) as simply as a set of whiskers. When searching for a title for his autobiography, Wood chose Return from Bohemia, a telling choice for a man whom many could never picture going there in the first place. In many ways, Evans’ book is a Return to Bohemia in regards to restoring Wood’s European roots (including exposure to the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity movement in Germany) and the sexual identity he may have explored on those travels (especially during the homophilic era of the Weimar Republic).

Evans excels in dismissing the “superficial folksiness” of overly familiar works such as American Gothic, which he sees as Wood’s attempt “to confront the complicated feelings he held for the places and people of his childhood.” Although Wood’s sister Nan and his dentist posed for the two figures in the painting, Evans sees the work as “a kind of double exposure” in which the two stand in for the artist’s parents and all the accompanying emotional baggage such a connection would bring. Instead of a bravura display of manly American bravado, American Gothic engages us with “an extraordinary sense of restraint, strength, and inventive subversion—all of which more accurately reflect the work’s ‘gay sensibility.’” For Evans, the “gothic” in American Gothic and all of Wood’s oeuvre descends from gothic literary genre with its “similarly complex matrix of unorthodox family relationships, sexual anxiety, and a recurring fascination with death.” When Wood’s dentist posed for the father figure in American Gothic, Wood replaced his square-framed glasses with the same round-framed style his father once wore. In the same way, Evans replaces the lenses we’ve viewed Woods through all these years and brings him into focus for both Wood’s time and ours.

After the immediate success of American Gothic, Wood found himself anointed as a Regionalist by the homophobic Thomas Hart Benton. The diminutive Benton presented Regionalism as a manly kind of art as a way of measuring up to a standard of masculinity opposed to homosexuality. Suddenly, Wood found himself not only hiding his orientation but actually involved in a movement condemning it. The pressures of this tangled web of associations essentially closed off all creativity for Wood, who produced barely a handful of works between 1936 and his death in 1942. One work, a 1937 lithograph titled Sultry Night, featured a full-frontal male nude cooling himself off with a bucket of water. The U.S. Postal system refused to deliver copies of Sultry Night, labeling it (but not similar female nudes) as pornography. That work and other male nudes in this final period show the cracks forming in the façade Wood had built up over the years.

After his death, critics quickly covered over these cracks, connecting Sultry Nude to classical allusions free of any taint of homosexuality. Wood’s sister Nan fiercely defended her brother’s manhood posthumously and stood in the way of any biographer who would say otherwise. Retrospectives since Wood’s death continually emphasized the simple “Artist in Overalls” Wood to the exclusion of any other. Against that long tidal wave of deception, R. Tripp Evans' Grant Wood: A Life swims bravely against the current. I read Evans’ book not long after the unfortunate suicide of Rutgers’ student Tyler Clementi after a homophobic hazing incident. Grant Wood: A Life is about much more than a single artist’s life. It’s about the life (and too often death) of so many people today fighting against intolerance in their individual lives. If Evans’ book can open the eyes of people to the self-destructiveness of the myth Grant Wood came to personify, then this is a gothic tale with a happy ending.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.