POST BY PADDY JOHNSON
J. Seward Johnson Jr., God Bless America, 2009
A giant sculpture depicting the pair of farmers in Grant Wood’s America Gothic finds great popularity amongst the Chicago general public, reports the city’s Tribune. Located on Michigan Avenue just north of the Chicago River, the rub of J. Seward Johnson Jr.’s 25 foot tall work titled God Bless America, according the paper, is that it isn’t well liked by “cognoscenti.” This stands in contrast to another recent Chicago public art commission, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate. “You would be hard pressed to find someone in the art world who doesn’t think that it’s a terrific object as art, and then it’s beloved by the public as well,” Elizabeth Kelley, director of the city’s Public Art Program told the Chicago Tribune. “But that’s a rare recipe for a large-scale work that has no sentimental or historic attachment to it.”
Clearly, the world needs more Jeff Koons puppies — particularly if the only public art alternative is God Bless America. At the risk of stating the obvious, the American Gothic sculpture 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.
The paper cites a number of arguments for the sculpture, each holding up about as well as Camel advertisements claiming the “energizing” effects of their tobacco. A few examples:
- It brings art into [people’s] daily lives. And so will a good public sculpture. This is not an argument for “God Bless America,” but public sculpture in general.
- I never drive by it when [sic] someone isn’t taking a picture of it. People take pictures of a lot of things — Times Square’s Naked Cowboy for example — that isn’t evidence of its value, merely its spectacle.
- It speaks to Midwesterners, especially the farmer aspect of it. The mere facts that farmers are depicted in the sculpture and farms are a prominent fixture in Midwest life only signal an appropriateness of subject matter. If someone gives you a gift they know matches your interests because it replicates what you already own, is it useful or needless?
- It encourages people to go to the museum because the image is so iconic. To my mind, this is the only argument that has any merit, though it seems just as likely to leave people thinking they don’t have to visit the museum any more because they see the take-off every day. Frankly, I’d be surprised if the Chicago Art Institute’s visitor numbers were effected at all by the presence of the sculpture. Such numbers would suggest that an engagement in the equivalent of a wax figure would overcome the intimidation many feel towards art.