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March 9, 2006

Your Turn: Bush Gothic


If you’ve written me in the past week and a half and you haven’t heard back, I ask your indulgence.  I was in D.C. Monday through Wednesday doing some recon at the Politics Online conference, and I now find myself turning and heading back to New York for a funeral. 

Luckily, I’ve got a desktop of interesting pics to tease apart.  (Mostly, more running elephants.)  In between the consoling, I’m hoping to cook up some fresh analysis.  In the meantime, however, I’m leaving you in charge for a day or so with a couple of images I picked out of the Bushes.

I love this first shot.  It was inspired by the new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.  According to the caption:

U.S. First Lady Laura Bush (2nd L) listens to curator Jane Milosch (R) as she talks about Grant Wood’s painting, ‘American Gothic‘, during a tour of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington March 9, 2006. First Lady Bush was touring the Renwick Gallery exhibit, ‘Grant Wood’s Studio: Birthplace of American Gothic,’ which is scheduled to open on Friday. At left is Ned L. Rifkin, under secretary of art at the Smithsonian Institution.

I invite you to pitch your thoughts (especially if you’re someone we don’t typically hear from).

(image: Shealah Craighead/The White House.  March 9, 2006.  Washington.  Via YahooNews.)

  • Micah

    I’ve come to believe that Laura Bush has only one smile, one very practiced smile. She smiles looking at American Gothic in the same way she smiled while the President tossed rose petals on Gandhi’s grave. Maybe it’s because of her librarian roots, but the smile is almost always a bit condescending, a bit matronly, and a bit void of any real feeling.

  • Ralph

    The most striking aspect of this photo is the color. Mrs. Bush brings the color of passion and life into this otherwise drab scene. By doing so, she also quietly asks for us to support her husband. The museum people are grateful to bask in her reflected glory.

  • Carl Manaster

    But the museum people don’t need to watch her every move, protective hands at the ready like others must watch her hustand’s, or any 3-year old’s at a crosswalk.
    Perhaps the first lady is percieved as being more competent than her husband or a 3-year old.

  • margaret

    Why is it that Washington women dress so poorly? Especially the political ones, who opt for bright, primary colours and the classic, ca. 1950’s tailored suit. It’s as if they are afraid of their femininity; afraid to wear a dress, or be, in any way, individuals. It doesn’t seem to matter which political party they belong to.
    The museum curator, on the other hand, shows some imagination in the play of different textures in her muted wardrobe, although black and gray and beige are a New York fashion cliche.
    So, the question is: what is the correlation between lack of imagination in dress and lack of imagination in governance?

  • Gussie

    I got nothing, sorry, but an OT requestion to check out the picture on Glenn Greenwald’s blog (, for analysis. Love to hear what the BAGheads think.

  • The Red Pen

    I’m noticing Laura Bush’s hands behind her back and that the visible one is clenched. This is a woman who is uncomfortable and impatient and doesn’t want anyone to notice.

  • marganonymous

    Mrs. Bush smiles approvingly at the image of a farmer and his wife which was used to whip up patriotic feelings during WWII. After all, the “wife” in the painting has that same “bad smell” expression on her face that Mrs. Bush wears so often. Perhaps she identifies. Grant Wood’s painting is iconic. It harkens back to a time when white men were men and sheep, women, darkies and other living things were scared. There is some kind of security in knowing that somebody else is in charge. You might not like the outcome, but it’s not your neck sticking out, is it?
    Mr. Wood was known to pooh-pooh the DAR as opportunists trying to create aristocracy where none, in fact, existed. It would seem that he took a rather sardonic view of regular folks as the salt of the earth… His paintings seem at once to celebrate and to mock his subjects. This is consistent with the Bush presidency.

  • marysz

    Even for Laura Bush, that suit is pretty loud. This administration is becoming coarser every day. But I hope Laura Bush doesn’t put anybody off the Grant Wood show, which looks terrific. I wonder if her group stopped and looked at Wood’s painting Daughters of the Revolution. That painting, which mocks smug Americanism, is just as pertinent today.

  • Purple

    Here’s one where I think you folks are overdoing the analysis.
    She’s standing about eight feet away from a truly famous painting. She’s being told something about the painting by someone who presumably knows a thing or two. I just don’t see any big deal here.
    Have you ever stood that close to a famous painting? I have. And my hands were behind me much of the time. For me, it was natural — I was keeping my hands away from the painting. The same thing is done by car lovers who are admiring a classic car up close. You put your hands away, so to speak, out of deference and to signal to the world that you won’t possibly be touching it.
    Side note: I’ve seen Starry Night from a distance of about two feet, as well as some Picassos, Monets and Mondrians.

  • Clint

    Anytime I see American Gothic, I think about this bookcover.
    Its a controversial book, but its mostly a history of the U.N. Security Council votes, set against American History.

  • Stiff Mittens

    I know this is kind of a silly observation, but it’s the first thing that struck me about the image. The tilt of the camera makes the scene reminiscent of those criminal hideouts in the old Adma West/Burt Ward Batman TV series. (American Gothic – Gotham City… I know, that’s really stretching). It also kind of looks like Laura is sinking.

  • Stiff Mittens

    BTW, Gussie, check out this picture of the same event:

  • ummabdulla

    The first thing I noticed was the tilt, too – and why is the picture tilted that way? Was she leaning back, and the photographer got her looking sort of straight, which made everything else tilted?
    That suit is pretty loud for Laura. I saw her picture at a charity function at the Kuwaiti ambassador’s residence, and she was wearing a sort of gold color.
    (In the picture in my newspaper, Condi was next to her, wearing what looked like the same design as the blue dress we discussed recently, except that it was black and the shawl/tablecloth was mostly black. The only picture I can find online is this one, without the shawl.)
    Laura, Condi, and Michael Douglas were getting awards for their work for education of girls in Afghanistan. Kirk Douglas apparently had a good time, too.

  • RomanticOtaku

    The tilt of the picture puts the Painting at a higher altitude than Laura.
    Laura seems to be looking up to the American Gothic.
    No so much as she looks to analyze or enjoy or to ponder but to worship.

  • gussie

    Stiff Mittens:
    Thank you! That’s just … too perfect.

  • readytoblowagasket

    I think the most striking aspect of this image is that Laura Bush is having “American Gothic” explained to her. I guess I should be happy she’s looking at art at all.
    Laura’s red suit makes me think she’s doing her Nancy Reagan imitation.
    fwiw, the curator pictured, Jane Milosch, is not a New York curator, although I’m sure she’d be flattered if people thought so. She’s been at the Renwick in D.C. since 2004. Before that she was chief curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Iowa. She looks pretty Midwestern to me. But she does in fact know a thing or two about Grant Wood, having written a book about him.

  • Jason Willard

    If only Mr. could have been standing to her right – What a fabulous reflection that would have made!

  • Cargocult

    She’s giving her standard very practiced smile to two painted americans who seem .uh. unresponsive. I don’t know the woman gesturing toward the work, but I’m afraid the (R) you posted in the blurb planted in my mind the idea that these are the DAUGHTERS OF THE REVOLUTION politely explaining to each other what AMERICAN GOTHIC ‘is about’. But maybe that is me responding to the blurb rather than the image.
    Thanks for the heads up on the Wood exhibit! I’ve always enjoyed his work (just don’t try to put it on the tail side of a quarter!)…Also, I’m was once a student of a teacher who was once a student of a teacher who was the son of the dentist who was the model for the farmer…so I kind got that six degrees of kevin bacon thing going on.

  • futurebird

    Who smiles like that when looking at such a moving and grim painting? I guess she finds the salt of the earth types quaint and cute.
    The photo is dark in lighting, tilted. We can’t see her face or the painting well. the photographer seems to be trying to do too much. But I guess over the shoulder, or a shot showing more of her face might run the risk of having some kind of meaning.
    I get the sense she wants to move on.
    Fascination, wonder, appreciation of beauty, emotion etc. are all absent. I imagine she might look at gurnica the same way.

  • PTate in MN

    For me the most interesting question is WHY is this picture newsworthy? The President’s wife does a tour with the mucky-mucks at the Smithsonian to promote a new exhibition by a wonderful American painter. For the photo-op, she stands before the iconic “American Gothic”–of a farmer and his unmarried daughter.
    We could have great conversations plumbing contrasts between the worldview and art of Woods & the worldview & policies of Bushco: Wood’s art aesthetic, the 30s glorification of the common man, the moral strength of the farmer-laborers, the social and political forces during the Depression years, progressive politics. We could talk about the 30s and the rise of fascism.
    I am interested in the context of this picture. Is this part of the WH promotion of the imperial presidency and the “royal” Bush family. The POTUS is annointed by God, above the laws that bind the rest of us, condescending, all-powerful, all-gracious. We “owe” him our obedience. This is the kind of photo one sees in the British press of the extended royal family–the Princess Royal speaks to girl guides, Princess Michael opens an exhibition at the Tate, the Queen at Ascot. They serve a ceremonial function in the cultural life of the nation.
    Is it an attempt to reassure the base as favorability ratings slip below 30%? The Bushes value traditional American values, rural life, wholesome people, Bushco has a regional vision. Laura is such a NICE woman! They are cultured people, but not uppity. They are like you! We can trust them.
    Pay no attention to the biggest expansion of federal government ever. Pay no attention to the failures of that government. Pay no attention to the crumbling of Congressional oversight and attacks on the Constitution. Pay no attention to the failures of Iraq, the loss of civil liberties, the secrecy,the justification of torture. Pay no attention to increasing inequality in American life.
    Do pay attention to that nice man behind the curtain?

  • sgaber

    What strikes me is that American Gothic is part of Wood’s contribution to the American Regionalist movement, which had some trumped up notions and even a manifesto regarding its ‘break from Europe’ and attempts to recapture an American essence. What you end up with is essentially an American simulacrum, of countrysides and fields that never existed, with yeoman farmers who never were. It’s an excellent example of propagandist nostalgia, especially from the wife of perhaps our folksiest straight shooter president

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