The Human Id and American Gothic: Evaluating Freud’s Theory and Art Essay
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Human beings are naturally barbaric and their pleasure center is similar to that of a newborn. Following Freud’s theory of the id, ego and superego, Grant Wood’s American Gothic represents a characterization of Freud’s pronouncements in Civilization and Discontents (Freud, 111) wherein he posited that the fateful question for the human species would how successful cultural development would be in mediating between communal life and human id particularly of aggression and self-destruction. While Wood, a proponent of representational art (as against abstract art) painted American Gothic with the goal of showing rural America with its rolling farmlands and the modest, hard-working people (Burgher, 35), several interpretations have resurfaced to provide a deeper meaning to the painting.
In this essay, it is argued that American Gothic aptly represents the fateful question posited by Freud- by making people adhere to the standards and norms of the society and repressing human instincts, we are stripped of the pleasures and the happiness of life.
Hence, cultural development is an instrument for repression and communal life, the prison of the human species.
American Gothic is considered to be one of the more popular paintings in the United States- it is a statement of contradiction to Europe’s abstract painting at the time and at the same time. Moreover, while several interpretations of the painting has the general conclusion that Wood has been showing and even criticizing the Midwestern culture of upright virtues, the painter have denied and illustrated that this is merely a showcase of regionalism or the use of local landscape in art (Burgher, 111).
However, from the picture of tight-lipped, conservatively dressed and aura of the man and woman in the picture (in actual life is his sister and her dentist) who appears to be husband and wife in the painting, it can be deduce that American Gothic is not merely a characterization of Midwestern culture but rather a critique on the moral uprightness and the narrow-mindedness to which this region have lived during that era.
First, societies have the power of reshaping the human being’s instinct to the extent that personal happiness is traded for a peaceful and satisfying communal life. In American Gothic for instance, we see the husband and the wife dressed respectfully and would appear to be somebody in the society where they live. This is evidenced in their dresses as well as their house which are not luxurious but appears to be comfortable and well-off.
The aura of the couple thus, characterizes that of the superego- that cultural regulation has succeeding in sanitizing the primal instincts of these two couples to an extent that they are seen as morally upright who cannot tolerate societal taboos such as libidinal intents in achieving happiness and satisfaction. Thus, in American Gothic, the cultural super-ego which comes from the biblical aura of the husband in the painting represents not only the ethical principles that this couple lives by but also in the fear of guilt and its repercussions.
Second, American Gothic did not only show morally upright people but basing from the coldness and the repression of the husband and wife, they appear to be unhappy. One is predisposed to ask, how come they are portrayed to be unhappy? The answer would be on the manner by which cultural development has shaped their behavior. In the Midwestern part of the country, cultural norms and societal values are held in high regard and those who would contradict the norm are considered to be outsiders.
Hence, it is fairly common that people would consider their superego before they would prioritize their id or their personal preferences. According to Freud, repression of the id and the prevalence of superego use while it makes a person “civilize” would take away the very nature of the human species- along with the instinct for aggression and self-destruction is the instinct for happiness.
Third, similar to the in Civilizations and Discontents (Freud, 111), American Gothic shows that the adherence to the super ego and the creation of cultural super ego would in the end make people unhappy and in the process create aggression from the repression that they feel. For instance, from the painting alone where we can see the wife with her brows slightly frowned together, it can be surmised that the woman would in the end break lose from the repression and unhappiness of her existence. This is as opposed to the sterner look of the husband who would not succumb and give up the communal life that he has.
Suffice it to say, a cultural super ego cannot be maintained because of the brewing dissents that people like the wife in American Gothic would surmount. For one, human aggression and self-destruction is inevitable and that conformity can only occur at a certain level. Consequently, human beings’ happiness no matter how civilized would always center on the pleasures of the id- this is something that not even a cultural super ego society can uproot.
While contemporary American society has instituted laws against human aggression and has governed self-destructive behaviors, the prevalence of crimes and the never-ending aggression in the world signifies that to a certain extent Freud is right in arguing that aggression and self-destruction cannot be fully controlled no matter what cultural teachings may occur. However, the fear of authority and fear of getting hurt are also primal drives among human beings and is the driving force in complying with cultural and societal regulations.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton, 111-112. 1989.
Burgher, Elijah. Grant Wood’s American Gothic. School Arts. Vol 105, Number 2: 35-36. 2005.