Question: How American is "American Gothic," Grant Wood’s 1930 painting of a stern-faced Iowa farmer brandishing a pitchfork standing next to his anxious-looking daughter?

An essay in Hyperallergic magazine by culture writer Sarah Rose Sharp prompts my question. She points to several contemporary take-offs of the painting, saying they’re “in pursuit of depicting the real America.”

The good old days?

If "American Gothic" is a symbol of our identity as Sharp thinks it is, then poor, poor America. Wood’s pinch-faced portrait of farmer and daughter is so bleak that Van Gogh’s gloomy "Potato Eaters" comes off as a bountiful picnic by comparison.

"American Gothic" is also scary looking. The daughter is obviously frightened. And who wouldn’t be standing beside a sullen-looking man with a pitchfork?

Why Wood’s painting is so popular is beyond my understanding. But then again, I don’t get why Mona Lisa gets so much attention, either, so you can’t go by me.

One of the artworks that Sharp mentioned as an example of a take-off of "American Gothic" is by Nathan Sawaya, known for using Lego bricks to form images.

In his blocky rendition of "American Gothic," Sawaya says he used 8,000 Lego bricks to create the figures. As far as I’m concerned, the blocky look tells the real story of Wood’s painting perfectly – stiff and unyielding.

"I wanted to capture the stern looks in my depiction," Sawaya told Sharp.

His Lego interpretation picks up the forbidding air of Wood’s painting. You imagine the farmer saying to all comers, “if you don’t get off my land, I will run you through with my pitchfork.”

And with that menacing stare, the farmer seems to imply that his Midwest farm is the real America, and anywhere else – all those big cities with their urban liberalism – are foreign countries.

It’s worthwhile to consider the second word in Wood’s picture title – “Gothic” – an architecture style out of the Middle Ages, marked by the pointed-arched windows of the farmhouse behind the figures.

Middle Ages redux

But just as Wood’s vision of America is a puzzle, so is his reference to Gothic. The style arose out of an attempt to form a pretty picture in brutal times.

Consider the very gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame that cast a spell of romance and days of old when knights slew dragons. Think of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Gothic architecture offered fairytales to people who needed an escape from the harsh Middle Ages.

Was Wood telling us that his painting, made when the Great Depression took America down, was a portrait of steadfastness in the face of adversity?

Or is it a satire lampooning the rigidity of small-town life? A satire is as British art critic Robert Hughes saw Wood’s painting. In his 1997 book “American Vision: The Epic History of Art in America,” as he asked this question:

“Was Wood at the denizens of Iowa and their fetishized values of sobriety, moral vigilance, patriarchy, and the rest?

Or was he...actually praising those virtues?”

Hughes decided both answers were true, contending that Wood probably couldn’t decide. I’m not so ambivalent. The fact that he named his painting after the architectural style created expressly to relieve the misery of the Middle Ages with the look of fairytale castles clues you into his intent.

Granted, there are no flying buttresses, extravagant tracery, or stained window, the stuff of fairytale castles that typifies Gothic architecture. The style is alternatively called pointed architecture, and that’s what you get at the farmhouse.

It’s also hard to disregard the daughter’s wary eyes, the beady eyes of her father, and, well, his forbidding pitchfork – hardly the look of an ideal America. I’m guessing that Wood’s picture is a spoof. Chime in if you like.