But the key to this painting's enduring appeal is not its subject or its inherent ambiguity, but its form—specifically, the stark frontality of the figures. Think about the other iconic images from art history: the Mona Lisa, Munch's Scream, Warhol's Marilyn, Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother. All of them depict human figures directly facing the viewer—just like the flatly frontal images of saints in medieval Christian icons. Rendering figures in this way imprints them on our memories and endows them with both authority and immediacy. Early Christians believed icons were like portals that allowed the viewer to communicate directly with the sacred figure represented. Modern secular icons like American Gothic still retain some vestige of sacredness, in the sense that they connect with something larger—not with the divine, but with the collective memory of our image-loving culture.
TODAY IN SLATE
Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.
The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly
How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.
A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently
How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully
On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.