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On the Posthumous Presentation of the Iowa Award to Grant Wood

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Iowa City
410 East Washington Street
Iowa City, IA 52240
United States

October 2, 2009

Governor Culver, President Mason, fellow Iowans, particularly Jim Hayes, the benefactor and steward of this unique home of Grant Wood:

It’s wonderful to gather on this 140th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi to honor another kind of 20th century leader, that of an artist.

Perspective is difficult to bring to events of this nature, but I would like to address for a moment the subject of leadership. Despite unevenness in politics, America has demonstrated extraordinary leadership over the past century in almost every form of human endeavor from agriculture, the professions, and business to academia and the arts. On this celebratory occasion what stands out is the degree to which Grant Wood was a modernist leader in the creative arts.

When one speaks of leadership, state and national, comparisons are in order.

In politics three Iowans put a seminal stamp on American 20th-century governance: a president, Herbert Hoover; a vice-president, Henry Wallace; and the last century’s most important advisor to a president, Harry Hopkins. Today Iowa is fortunate to have representing us in Congress the most important Democratic Senator, Tom Harkin, and the most important Republican Senator, Chuck Grassley, in our history. And, in competition with the state of Massachusetts, we have a political dynasty-in-the-making with our current governor and his father, whom I respect greatly and with whom I had the privilege to serve briefly in the House before he opted to move to the “other body” and join the aristocracy.

Outside politics perhaps no state, per population, has had more significant leadership. A few examples: a mathematician, John Vincent Atanasoff of Ames, is responsible for what is arguably one of the two most important inventions of the 20th century—the digital computer; the founder of Intel, Robert Noyce of Burlington, is considered the co-inventor of the other most important invention, the microchip; Jim Van Allen of Mt. Pleasant and Iowa City is more responsible for pioneering unmanned space exploration than anyone on the planet; Norman Borlaug, our 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has with his scholarly leadership of the Green Revolution deterred what might have been an international Malthusian debacle, saving through plant genetics untold millions from starvation.

It is in the context of this diverse Iowa leadership that Wood’s artistic accomplishments should be measured.

Wood excelled in three artistic pursuits: easel painting, print making, and crafts—stained glass, wood and jewelry. Like all modernists, he built upon the past, borrowing painting techniques initially from French impressionism and then in his more memorable works from crisper, late Renaissance folk and fine art.

In art history there is a contrast often made between two French artists with names differentiated by a vowel: Monet, the impressionist, and Manet, the post-impressionist who painted in a flatter, more precisionist manner. Wood’s most notable paintings—“American Gothic,” “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” “Daughters of the American Revolution,” “Stone City,” “Fall Plowing”—are structurally more Manet-like. But his portrait of the young boy from Clinton holding a football in the University of Iowa’s impressive collection also has a woven depth. The 200 or so square inches of Wood’s depiction of Mel Blumberg’s sweater are as delicately painted as the lace gowns in the finest of 19th-century portraits.

When people think of Grant Wood, they generally conjure the image of an old-fashioned artist who pioneered American regionalism. There is some truth to this characterization, but while Wood masked himself as a regionalist and portrayed traditional rural values, his techniques were modern and his artistic endeavors national in scope.

Symbolized by the Hudson River School of painting and the poetry of Walt Whitman in the mid-19th century; then the social realism of the Ashcan artists of the early 20th century; Georgia O’Keefe and her skull paintings; the novels of Willa Cather; the movies of Charlie Chaplin; Meredith Willson (another creative Iowan) and his play “The Music Man;” Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town;” Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman;” Bix Beiderbecke from Davenport and the jazz emanating from New Orleans, artists of all kinds have been attempting to develop and project to the world a unique American culture.

No one did it more naturally than Grant Wood. He understood mother earth, its soil-dependent people, their human characteristics, and the trials of changing times. At 50, he died young. So an interesting question is where he would have gone in his artistic profession if he had lived another 20 years. My guess is that he would have continued to innovate. America was changing; artists were experimenting; he would in all likelihood as well. After all, his gifted Cedar Rapids colleague, Marvin Cone, did, and his fellow “regionalist,” Thomas Hart Benton, mentored Jackson Pollock.

While public surveys probably don’t exist, I suspect that the two best liked American artists of the 20th century were Grant Wood and Alexander Calder. The work of each is quite different but the two men had a lot in common. Wood, the Midwesterner, went from twisting metal into jewelry to painting and drawing on lithographic blocks to make black and white figural and landscape prints and a few still lifes with paint applied. Calder, the Easterner, went from drawing to twisting metal into sculpture and making a large variety of colorful abstract prints. Both were inventive, loved craft and craftsmanship. Both spent time in Europe, were influenced by the French—Wood by the impressionists, Calder by the Cubists and surrealists—but each found a greater influence outside France—Wood from the crisp detail of Dutch and German Gothic art, Calder from the sharp lines and color motifs of a contemporary Dutch artist, Mondrian. But what most ties them together is that each had a sense for uplift and for humor in art. In very different ways they captured the spirit of America.

The reason I mention Calder is that if I were to conjecture about the unanswerable question I posed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Wood wouldn’t have turned more to sculpture and the crafts if he had lived longer. Despite his early criticisms of abstract art, he might have been driven closer to Calder and further from Benton and John Steuart Curry.

I would like to end by returning to Wood’s ties to politics. He was, after all, at one point a bureaucrat. He worked for the WPA and before that a predecessor arts program established at Stone City with the help of the Carnegie Foundation and a Treasury Department Public Arts program. In this regard, there is a bit of a family tie. My mother’s father, the black sheep of our family, was chairman of the state Democratic Party, and for a dollar a year headed the WPA in Iowa. It may be a family exaggeration but Mom always claimed that the first person he hired was Grant Wood, due to the fact that a percentage of WPA funds in every state were statutorily directed to go to federal arts initiatives. I reference the WPA because when America was truly on its back in the Great Depression, citizens chose to devote a far greater percentage of public resources to the arts and humanities than today.

Initiated by a previously mentioned Iowan, Harry Hopkins, the precept of the WPA was that artists and scholars needed jobs, too, and that in difficult times the arts and humanities were considered central to a people groping to understand hardship and the challenges of modernity. By contrast, today—no lobbying intended—the percentage of federal outlays that go to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities is twelve one-thousandths of one percent of federal outlays.

Finally, with regard to this unusual celebration of the posthumous presentation of Iowa’s highest award, the Governor is to be commended for reminding us all of our wonderful Iowa roots and of what is so uplifting about the creative arts. Grant Wood was an Iowa treasure who reflected to the world American values.