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Goodbye, American Gothic People

Sadly, the American Gothic statues that graced Pioneer Court next to Tribune Tower for lo these many months has been dismantled and sent on its way. It was one of the best things Chicago has had going for it in the way of public art since the cows - even if some art critics bristled (at both).

Both were tremendous, but the Gothic people - the work is officially called "God Bless America" - were fairly mesmerizing.

Yes, the "real thing" by Grant Wood is at the Art Institute, but the towering sculpture by J. Seward Johnson Jr. derives its power from the real thing - that's why it connects with people. Isn't that a tribute?

The Johnson piece also drew its power from its location in Chicago. Put it at the Indiana State Fair - one of its future stops - and it's almost a gimmick. Put it in a crowded downtown surrounded by skyscrapers and it takes on a multi-layered resonance not easily duplicated.

I don't know if there was any way the city could have made this a permanent exhibit, but if they didn't try, they are fools.

Here's to Johnson's work - and Wood's.

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1. Their kind of town.


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2. A farmer and his daughter face foreclosure.

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3. "The work stands about 25ft high majestically at Michigan Ave."

4. With suitcase.

5. Mom and Dad.

6. Bean and Bail.

7. Goth American Gothic.

8. The American Gothic House Facebook Page.

9. The American Gothic Appreciation Facebook Page "for one kickbutt painting."

10. American Gothic's Wikipedia entry.

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Comments welcome.

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1. From Jeff Huebner:

Yes - "God Bless America" may have been making a sly critique of the outsourced corporate economy - all those Asian ports of call stickers plastered on the suitcase represent places where many American jobs have gone, giving the "man with a pitchfork" a whole new meaning.

Other than that, the sculpture sets a bad-and-getting-worse precedent for urban public-art policy. With city percent-for-art budgets (here in Chicago managed by the Dept. of Cultural Affairs' Public Art Program) shrinking due to the dearth of taxpayer-funded public-building construction, cities increasingly can lean on the private and corporate sectors for their latest public-art cultural-tourism razzmatazz extravaganzas (the nation's most significant case in point: Millennium Park). Like almost everything else in Daley's Chicago, "God Bless America" represents the ongoing privatization of public art. It is not "public" at all.

In fact, as I uncovered/explained in the fall/winter 2009 issue of Public Art Review magazine (in a piece on the current state of public art and sculpture in Chicago): the plaza - Pioneer Court - is privately owned by the Zeller Realty Group. (It is not owned by the Tribune Co.) A few years ago, Zeller entered into an agreement - sorry, I don't have a dollar amount, at least yet - with an organization called The Sculpture Foundation to program its plaza with sculptures. Who founded The Sculpture Foundation? Why, J. Seward Johnson. Who is he? The "God Bless America" sculptor. He's had previous works in the plaza, and will have more of them there in the future, according to a ZRG spokesperson.

What a great deal! But since it's private art in a private space, well, then I guess we don't have any right to complain because it's not our money, right? (All the public artwork for Medici - I mean, Millennium - Park was selected by a private committee, even though taxpayer money was eventually tapped to build the park.) The city's Percent-for-Art/Public Art Program once had local project advisory panels and a larger Public Art Committee composed of citizens and artists (as well as city officials) to help select public art projects. But these were abolished by a Daley-rammed ordinance in 2007. As attorney Scott Hodes - who filed a series of suits against the city's Public Art Program over an 8-year period, resulting in some public-accountability reforms - told me: "We have art that's public, but we don't have the public in art."

To me, bad policy trumps good aesthetics, anytime, anywhere. It's why I look at the Bean and only see a $23 million Bean-doggle that does not even belong to Chicago citizens. But of course, doesn't that sound increasingly familiar? Local artists: Where is our representation of a giant expired parking meter?

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Editor's Note: Please also see The Broom of Wicker Park, which Huebner wrote for the Beachwood in February 2009.




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Posted on March 3, 2010


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