Controversial artist Jon McNaughton has been back in the spotlight again following Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election. The proudly conservative painter of politically-charged provocations has been endorsed by the right wing in America for taking aim at the commonly agreed evils of progressive liberalism, globalised geopolitics, and Barack Obama.
Having primarily been a painter of biblical scenes, patriotic tableaus, and combinations of the two – see his rousing portrayal of Christ holding aloft the US constitution – the recurring image of an aloof and immoral Obama has become ubiquitous in McNaughton’s work ever since the media exposure given to his dubious master-/disaster-piece ‘The Forgotten Man’ (2010), pictured below.
This painting has been making headlines again ever since the story broke that Fox News anchor Sean Hannity had bought the painting and was planning to present it to Trump to hang in the newly conquered White House. Sadly, Newsweek have reported that Hannity’s Twitter feed has clarified that he does not, in fact, intend to gift the painting to Trump after all, yet the image’s wide media exposure has served to make ‘The Forgotten Man’ a totem of Trump’s dual victories in sweeping away Obama’s Democratic regime and in winning the white working class vote. That poor schlub dejectedly benched in the foreground finally has his champion.
The ‘Forgotten Man’ does not really require unpacking in all its barely-allegorical glory. With all the previous US presidents gathered in front of an ominously distant White House, Abraham Lincoln amongst others rallies around the titular figure supposedly left behind by a changing America. The appeals for this man to be seen and heard go unheeded by Obama, who stands with his arms folded and his right foot literally crushing the US constitution. Obama is positioned fronting a crowd of previous presidents also implicated in the neglect of the ordinary man, with Bill Clinton benignly applauding. In all it’s about as subtle as McNaughton’s sort-of-sequel ‘Wake Up America’ (2011) and its portrayal of an ebullient Obama orating under a shower of dollar bills before a crowd in chains. There’s our forgotten man in the foreground again, face again downturned but now in defiant concentration as he hacksaws through his bondage.
McNaughton’s oeuvre has been widely derided for its bludgeoning messages, so why is it, and ‘The Forgotten Man’ in particular, worthy of any further comment? Surely anything so nakedly propagandist is to be regarded as an amusing outlier, an almost-harmless artefact from a parallel universe. But perhaps such nakedness, such lack of effect or experimentation, gestures towards a new aesthetic that represents the political and social right; and for everyone who condescends its lack of guile, there is someone who finds in a comforting return to pictorial realism in painting the expression of their desire to reclaim an imagined past and its values.
When McNaughton appeared on Hannity’s Fox News show several years ago, the two chummily laughed off any critique of the artist’s work and politics from ‘liberals’ and ‘the left’. Interestingly, McNaughton suggested that most of their criticism was focused not on the narratives of his pictures but on his aesthetic: “They just make fun of it, the way it looks, my reasoning… don’t have anything to do with the content, it usually has to do with the way it’s painted, somehow.”
And in what is being widely spoken of as the new age of post-truth politics, in which conspiracy and conjecture take precedence over ‘establishment’ and ‘expertise’, it’s appropriate that the content of McNaughton’s paintings is barely a matter for debate; both sides of a terribly polarized American public are likely to look at his depictions of a profane President committing evil acts and respond, “Well, of course.” Any discussion of whether Obama has, for instance, wilfully desecrated the nation’s constitution is redundant, because there are seemingly only two pre-ordained responses to these artworks. Any attempt to disagree with someone responding in one of these two ways is likely to descend into pantomime.
Instead, the debate as to whether McNaughton is a visionary or an idiot rests on the aesthetic, the presentation of his artistic vision (in his case a moral message) in terms of realist painting. With his commitment to narrative and likeness, he is telling his captive audience that his images are representational and therefore representative. Their easy intelligibility makes them truthful, regardless of the outlandish and often offensive situations they so often depict. To others, the overstated gestures of his figures, the crowded nature of his compositions, and his fussy miniaturist’s brushwork make him a somewhat kitsch throwback, dated and out of touch with his own medium.
For all his evident advocacy for the religious right and professed concern for the common or ‘forgotten’ man, there seems to be little if no reflection in McNaughton’s work on the role of the artist in American social or political life. Interestingly, the painting that does actually offer a portrayal of an artist – of course in the most clichéd and accessible way possible, with palette and brush in hand – is The Con Artist (2015), in which none other than Hillary Clinton stands near square-on facing the viewer, in trademark one-colour pantsuit, her head held high with a defiant smirk on her lips, in front of a simulacrum of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ (1893).
Care has been taken to render her flesh wrinkled and pallid, her hair somewhat lank and as straggly as the frayed streaks of the painted sky behind her. It’s significant that this is Munch’s work she is depicted as either imitating or endorsing; elusive, mysterious, and disorientating, Munch’s world of interiorised anguish is reality as undone and interrogated by modernity. It is in many ways the antithesis of good honest ‘realism’, something protean and untrustworthy. The aesthetic is modern, challenging, and quintessentially European. (My implication here is not that Clinton’s politics are necessarily any of those things.)
McNaughton’s website advertises prints of The Con Artist above the caption, “Hillary is a con-artist and has painted a careful picture of herself, but behind the brushstrokes lies the truth.” It seems art itself, as represented by Munch’s canonical ‘Scream’, is not to be trusted. For those who wish to make the case, this picture could be the smoking gun that incriminates McNaughton as the artist who hates art.
The Guardian’s amused assessment of McNaughton’s renewed notoriety, speculating that the late great critic Robert Hughes would have christened his kitsch ‘the shock of the old’, reassures its readers that art critics are at best ambivalent to such nakedly propagandising efforts if indeed they’re deigning to engage with it at all. Yet it’s worth cautioning the pollsters and arbiters of what is and isn’t credible, particularly in this political and cultural moment, that the story of art has always been, to varying extents, the story of the tastes of wealthy patrons.
To dismiss the tastemaking influence of a Teflon tycoon, an elite of well-funded fundamentalists, or a populist platform preaching to millions is to underestimate the impact of the brash, simplistic statement delivered as a statement of truth. For as long as many are presented with an image like McNaughton’s ‘The Forgotten Man’ as being a sign of their times, such images will garner more attention and likely many more imitators. Ω