Ninety years separate Grant Wood’s American Gothic, a painting that crystallizes the enigma of our national character, and the viral photos of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, two personal-injury lawyers, brandishing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters who marched past their enormous mansion in the tony St. Louis neighborhood of Forest Park this weekend. But the comparison was irresistible, and so declared: Together, the McCloskeys were American Gothic for 2020.
Wood’s most iconic work is habitually misunderstood, and that’s still the case here. For one, American Gothic arguably depicts a man and his daughter rather than husband and wife (the artist used his own sister and the family dentist as models and never confirmed their exact relationship on the canvas). Wood also seems to have intended the portrait not as a deadpan mockery of the heartland — which many East Coast critics and offended Midwesterners of the time took it to be — but acknowledgment of quiet endurance, the stoicism of rural people. The Art Institute of Chicago, where the painting resides, has it that the emotionless figures, “in their solid and well-crafted world, with all their strengths and weaknesses, represent survivors.”
Like many enduring images, then, American Gothic reveals more in the viewer than about itself; it’s famous because of the controversy over its meaning. Similarly, the paranoid and haphazard McCloskeys drew instant ridicule (shoeless, wild-eyed, they accidentally took aim at each other), only to have video of their actions retweeted by President Trump, who presumably saw in them a reflection of true American values — protecting private property by exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms. It’s curious, too, that the scene would be set in Missouri; Grant Wood was an Iowan applying the rigidity of Flemish Renaissance style to his home state. But the strongest connection between American Gothic and the McCloskeys is architectural.
Wood was inspired by a real home — the Dibble House in Eldon, Iowa — built in the Carpenter Gothic aesthetic. He wanted to portray “American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house.” The simplicity and humility of the building is a backdrop for the expressions worn by the unruffled inhabitants. Conversely, the McCloskeys are a picture of chaos, the disordered energy that comes with fear and panic, and they outwardly lack either the poise or self-sufficiency of Wood’s characters. For context, we have their monstrosity of a five-level mausoleum of dumb antiques, with vast rooms modeled on an assortment of palazzos in Florence and Rome. The Dibble House contains 500 square feet of space, not much more than a two-car garage; the McCloskey estate is a fort of baroque signifiers, imported marble and aristocratic excess. It is a rejection of the quaint and picturesque ideals in Carpenter Gothic design.
And so, if they’ve accomplished anything, the McCloskeys may have put the lie to any notion that Trump’s presidency, and American conservatism in general, belong to hard-working, unpretentious men and women of the soil. They stepped outside and blew that archetype — which depends upon the cultural memory of artifacts like American Gothic — to kingdom come.
Instead of resembling capable masters of their land, they paced around uncertainly, looking every inch the coddled slime that makes up the country-club donor class, flabby parasites of a corrupt social order, with too much money for anything besides restoring a literal castle in accordance with some fetish for European profligacy. You couldn’t ask for a better encapsulation of how a term like “Real America” is just flattery for rich white suburbanites with arsenals and a burning desire to mow down anyone they suspect of coveting their stale, hollow, hideous luxury.
The McCloskeys aren’t, in other words, the “survivors” of Wood’s painting; they are part of a predatory, childish elite that has begun to notice how isolated and outnumbered it really is, completely unskilled and unprepared for the end of empire. The farmers in American Gothic are symbols set in another crisis, the Great Depression, and we have no doubt they will weather it in their flinty way, making do however they can. Our couple, meanwhile, had a meltdown before encountering the slightest hardship, and were at a total loss when a group of peaceful demonstrators didn’t provide a manger they might complain to.
That’s one way to find out that your gilded life of Ferraris and Florentine art has no parallel to centuries of frontier myth.