Saturday, October 30, 2010

American Gothic to Bondi

Yesterday’s item about the Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres included a picture of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which depicts a farmer and his unmarried daughter, modelled by the artist’s dentist and wife respectively. The image is so well known that it is one of the most parodied of art works. A Google image search on American Gothic parody will bring up Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in a similar photograph promoting their reality show; an Arabic couple wearing traditional dress in front of a burning building, the picture entitled Iranian Gothic; and the American Gothic couple updated to the present day with its emphasis on the acquisition of belongings…

(Click on pics to enlarge)

There are literally thousands of others, including even a Muppet version.

What did strike me in the images I saw was a sculpture created by J Seward Johnson, a three dimensional depiction of the dad and daughter in American Gothic. It is called God Bless America, it stands more than  8 metres tall and has two notable differences from the painting:  it is a full body study, whereas the painting shows the persons only from the waist up, and at the feet of the sculpted daughter is a suitcase covered in travel stickers from India, China and Taiwan. The sculpture originally stood outside the Museum of Art & History in Chicago and then moved to Indiana. The artist, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, is known for his public art sculptures of ordinary people doing ordinary things.

This will give an idea of the scale:

The meaning behind the sculpture is open to conjecture. One commentator sees the travel stickers on an American icon as symbolic of the outsourcing of American jobs to places such as India and China, a sentiment also common in Australia.

What  I found especially interesting, however, was the widespread negative comment from critics about the work.

International Australian art critic Robert Hughes once said “Johnson’s work is chocolate-box rubbish. It has no imaginative component that I can see and apparently appeals to dull corporate minds like his own — the sort of people who run American motels and malls.”

Chicago Tribune art critic Paddy Johnson wrote "At the risk of stating the obvious, the American Gothic sculpture [i.e., God Bless America] isn't any good, and being popular doesn't make it any better. Cigarettes and candy are well liked too, it doesn't mean they're good for you."

Critic Robert Holland defended the work: "I think it's great! We needed a monument to bad taste."

So what is the final determination of quality? Popularity? Critical opinion? Does popularity lessen its perceived quality in the eyes of the critics, as with movies?  And what is important in relation to public art? Is it viewer involvement?  Must a work of art tell us something?  Must it challenge us in some way?  Hoiw valid is Picasso's Bull's Head a quality work of art?  Sure, you and I, having seen him do it, can fit together a bicycle seat and handlebars and make a bull's head but he was the first to see it and do it.  Does it make it art?  How good is it? 

Don't ask me for answers, I am the question asker.

You can consider some of the above issues by looking at the the works in the annual Sculpture By The Sea exhibition, which is on again, from 28 October to 14 November. It features over 100 sculptures on the coastal walk between Bondi and Bronte.  You can see some of the sculptures by clicking on the image gallery at the official website at:

The sculptures include:

Alex Kosmas, Gilded Cage

Joan Hutchinson, Because I Said So

Keld Moseholm, Mirroring 1995
(Winner of the $60,000 Balnaves Foundation prize)

Tomas Misura, Splash

We know that the tail must wag the dog, as the horse is drawn by the cart;
But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: "It's clever, but is it Art?"

- Rudyard Kipling, The Conumdrum of the Workshops

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