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The 35th Anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre

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Image by Flickr user David Goehring, used under Creative Commons license.

The phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" is common in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means "to blindly follow," and it usually has a negative connotation: iPhone buyers waiting in line for days have "drunk Apple's Kool-Aid," so to speak. But where did this phrase come from? And does it even refer to the correct beverage? We're gonna have to go all the way back to the 1950s to answer this one.

The Road to Jonestown

Jonestown cottages and infirmary
Jonestown cottage photograph © The Jonestown Institute.

Before we get to the Kool-Aid part, let's recap some horrible American history. Jim Jones was a complex man. Long story short, he was a communist and occasional Methodist minister who founded his own pseudo-church in the late 1950s, the "Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church," known in short as the "Peoples Temple." (And yes, the omission of the possessive apostrophe is intentional, as the name apparently refers to peoples of the world.) While Jones called it a church, it was actually his version of a Marxist commune, with a smattering of Christian references thrown into his sermons/diatribes. The Peoples Temple was arguably a cult, demanding serious dedication (and financial support) from its members.

While Jones was a cult leader and ultimately a homicidal madman, there was one bright spot: Jones and his wife Marceline were strongly in favor of racial integration, and they adopted a bunch of kids from different racial backgrounds. In fact, they were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African American boy. (Other adopted children included three Korean Americans, a Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had one biological child.) Jones called his adopted retinue the "Rainbow Family," and he made a name for himself desegregating various institutions in Indiana.

As the Peoples Temple grew throughout the 1960s, Jones lost the plot on the whole Marxism thing, and began to preach about an impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date (July 15, 1967), and suggested that after the apocalypse, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. And where would that new Eden be? Jones selected the remote town of Redwood Valley, California, and moved the Peoples Temple (and its peoples...) there prior to the deadline.

As you know, that end-of-the-world deadline came and went with no nuclear holocaust. In the following years, Jones abandoned all pretenses of Christianity and revealed himself to be an atheist who had simply used religion as a tool to legitimize his views. Jones said: "Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion had to be brought to enlightenment -- socialism." Oh, and Jones was a drug addict, preferring literal opiates to metaphorical ones.

As media scrutiny increased and his political profile became more complicated, Jones became concerned that the Peoples Temple's tax-exempt religious status in the U.S. would eventually be revoked. He was also paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community. So in 1977, Jones again moved the Temple and its peoples, this time to a settlement he had been building since 1974 in the South American nation of Guyana. He named it "Jonestown," and it was not a nice place. It occupied nearly 4,000 acres, had poor soil and limited fresh water, was dramatically overcrowded, and Temple members were forced to work long hours. Jones figured his people could farm the land in this new utopia. It didn't hurt that he had amassed a multi-million-dollar fortune prior to arriving in Jonestown, though he did not share (or even use) the wealth. Jones himself lived in a small shared house with few luxuries.

What Happened at Jonestown

Jonestown aerial view
Jonestown aerial view © The Jonestown Institute.

Again, let's make a really long story just a smidge shorter. U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978, investigating allegations of human rights abuses within the Jonestown community. Ryan was accompanied by NBC News correspondent Don Harris, various other members of the media, and concerned family members of Jonestown residents. While visiting Jonestown, Congressman Ryan met a little over a dozen Temple members who wanted to leave (including a couple who passed a note reading in part, "Please help us get out of Jonestown" to news anchor Harris, mistaking him for Congressman Ryan). That number of defectors was actually quite low, considering the population of Jonestown, which was then over 900.

Congressman Leo RyanWhile processing paperwork to help Temple members return to the U.S., Ryan was attacked by knife-wielding Temple member Don Sly, but the would-be assassin was restrained before he could injure Ryan. Eventually the entire Ryan party plus the group of Jonestown defectors drove to a nearby airstrip and boarded planes, hoping to leave. But Jim Jones had sent armed Temple members (his creepily-named "Red Brigade") with the group, and the Red Brigade opened fire, killing Ryan, one Temple defector, and three members of the media -- and injuring eleven others. Those who survived fled into the jungle.

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started up what he called a "White Night" meeting, inviting all Temple members. But this wasn't the first White Night. On various occasions prior to the murders, Jones had hosted White Night meetings in which he suggested that U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown; he had even staged fake attackers around Jonestown to add an air of pseudo-realism to the proceedings (though it's hard to imagine that such a small community wouldn't recognize their own people pretending to threaten the Temple). Faced with this hypothetical invasion scenario, Jones offered Temple members these choices: stay and fight the imaginary invaders, head for the USSR, head for the Guyana jungle, or commit "revolutionary suicide" (in other words, mass suicide as an act of political protest). On previous occasions when Temple members mock-voted for suicide, Jones tested them: Temple members were given small cups of liquid purportedly containing poison, and were asked to drink it. They did. After a while, Jones revealed that the liquid didn't contain poison -- but that one day it would. And, by the way, he had been stockpiling cyanide for years (not to mention piles of other drugs).

On the final White Night, Jones was not testing his Temple followers. He was killing them all.

Don't Drink the Poisonous Fruit-Flavored Beverage

Kool-Aid Man Stencil
Image by Flickr user Clyde Robinson, used under Creative Commons license.

After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals including cyanide, diazepam (aka Valium -- an anti-anxiety medication), promethazine (aka Phenergan -- a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called "knockout drops"), and most interestingly...Flavor Aid -- a grape-flavored beverage similar to Kool-Aid. We'll get back to that last one in a moment.

Jones urged Temple members to commit suicide in order to make a political point. Some discussion ensued -- an alternate plan put forth by Temple member Christine Miller involved flying Temple members to the USSR -- but Jones prevailed, after repeatedly telling his followers that Congressman Ryan was dead, and that would bring the authorities soon (an audiotape of this meeting exists, and is just as creepy as you'd think). Jones first insisted that mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, the mothers were dosed as well, though they were allowed to drink from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground, where eventually just over 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped Jonestown -- primarily residents who happened to be away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place.

Jones, his wife, and various other members of the Temple left wills stating that their assets should go to the Communist Party of the USSR. Jones himself did not drink poison; he died from a gunshot to the head, though it's not entirely clear whether it was self-inflicted. (Because Jones likely died last or nearly so, he may have chosen suicide by gun rather than by cyanide, because a cyanide death is extremely traumatic -- and he would have seen hundreds of people experiencing cyanide death's effects, including foaming at the mouth and convulsions.) Toxicology reports found high levels of barbiturates (sedatives) in his blood. Jones was reportedly hooked on a variety of substances, possibly explaining his increasingly erratic behavior over the decades.

What Does Kool-Aid Have to Do With Anything?!

In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" became a popular term for blind obedience, as the Temple members had apparently accepted cups of fruity poison willingly. What's strange is that, according to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes styled "Flav-R-Aid") -- although there is photographic evidence that packets of both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were present at the scene. In an early inquest (PDF), coroners referred to "Cool Aid" [sic]. But initial media coverage described the scene differently. One read, in part (emphasis added):

A pair of woman's eyeglasses, a towel, a pair of shorts, packets of unopened Flavor-Aid lie scattered about waiting for the final cleanup that may one day return Jonestown to the tidy, if overcrowded, little community it once was.

This snippet was from an article printed in the Washington Post on December 17, 1978, written by Charles A. Krause. Less than a month after the deaths, here was major media specifying that the beverage was "Flavor Aid," but "Kool-Aid" is the term that stuck in Americans' minds. Why?

The most likely explanation comes in three parts.

The Kool-Aid Brand

First, Kool-Aid was a better known brand than Flavor Aid. Flavor Aid was a Jel Sert product first sold in 1929 and it was a rival of Kool-Aid, which was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. (Trivia note: prior to the Kool-Aid powder, the same beverage was available in liquid form as "Fruit Smack." Powdering the drink reduced shipping costs.) So when Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (at least one that was not "Tang"), "Kool-Aid" came to mind as the market leader. A major brand builder for Kool-Aid was Kool-Aid Man, the anthropomorphic pitcher of red Kool-Aid who is best known for his 1980s catchphrase "Oh Yeah!" He was already in the media spotlight in the 1970s.

The Merry Pranksters & LSD

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (paperback cover)Second, and more intriguing, was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe's nonfiction book published in 1968. In the book, Wolfe follows Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they travel the country in their party bus, encouraging non-drug users to try LSD in an Acid Test -- including a formulation of LSD in Kool-Aid, dubbed "Electric Kool-Aid." The book includes possibly the first negative instance of the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid," and it came a decade before the deaths at Jonestown. Wolfe's book includes this passage, describing a man who had a bad trip (emphasis added):

"... There was one man who became completely withdrawn ... I want to say catatonic, because we tried to bring him out of it, and could not make contact at all ... he was sort of a friend of mine, and I had some responsibility for getting him back to town ... he had a previous history of mental hospitals, lack of contact with reality, etc., and when I realized what had happened, I begged him not to drink the Kool-Aid, but he did ... and it was very bad."

Because of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, many Americans were familiar with the idea of being urged to drink Kool-Aid containing, um, unusual chemicals -- even if they hadn't themselves participated in an Acid Test. This familiarity perversely boosted the profile of Kool-Aid, especially in this particular (adulterated) circumstance.

Both Beverages Were Onsite

Third, plenty of evidence suggests that both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were present at Jonestown -- though there was more of the latter. Therefore, in a sense, everybody's right. It may simply come down to whether the term "Kool-Aid" is catchier than "Flavor Aid," and history decided -- much to the consternation of Kool-Aid's marketing department.

Today, the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" is firmly entrenched in popular language, although the evidence suggests that it should more realistically be either "drink the Flavor Aid/Kool Aid mix" or the even less-catchy suggestion by Al Tompkins of Poynter: "[drink the] grape-flavored drink mix laced with poison." I think this linguistic horse has left the barn, quenching our thirst for metaphors with it. "OH YEAH!"

Further Reading

For a thorough examination of the cultural and linguistic effects of the Jonestown massacre, check out Drinking the Kool-Aid: The Cultural Transformation of a Tragedy by Rebecca Moore. In it, she makes the point:

... References [to "drinking the Kool-Aid"] are not uniformly negative. On the contrary, they describe the positive qualities of corporate loyalty or team spirit. For example, when Michael Jordan, a former Chicago Bulls basketball player who now plays for a competing team, returned to his former home to attend a Chicago Bears football game, he was willing to drink "Bears' Kool-Aid."[ii] This meant that Jordan was willing to set aside basketball rivalries in support of the home team at a football game.

Moore's paper is just one part of the encyclopedic Jonestown Institute website.

It's also worth checking out this Chicago Tribune story rounding up various media mentions of Kool-Aid versus Flavor Aid, 30 years after the Jonestown massacre. If you're into documentaries, I recommend Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (it's on YouTube), which aired on PBS's American Experience in 2008.

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20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers’ Movies
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Gramercy Pictures

Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers’s movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’ 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS'S WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that featured a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination). 

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. "The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, "Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that."

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen Brothers are plenty fond of The Dude: after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen Brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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