Necessary Ambiguity

1930 was a good year for ambiguity. The artist from Iowa, Grant Wood, painted American Gothic and the Bloomsbury critic William Empson published Seven Types of Ambiguity.


p04cm1xz.jpg  Conventional wisdom sees Wood’s picture describing the puritan life-style of the American mid-west – dour rigidity about hard work and sexuality. But there are questions that the sceptical scientist will ask. Are the couple brother and sister or husband and wife?  Are their frowns normal or is there a recent tragedy? Why does the man hold the fork when they wear their Sunday clothes?

Even more sceptical scientific scrutiny reveals further ambiguity. Below the woman’s right ear there is a serpentine-shaped tress that’s fallen loose from the tied-back hair of the prim, apron-clad woman. Is her falling hair evidence of a recent ravishing?

She also wears a Persephone brooch, invoking the mythological story of that goddess’s rape by Hades. The man’s hayfork echoes Hades’ signature two-pronged weapon. Does this suggest a modern rehearsal of that brutal myth?

Can a scientist devise an experiment to resolve these matters? But that would remove our interest in the picture.