I have wanted to post a comment about Jon McNaughton's new found fame for his painting of President Obama trampling the Constitution for a week or so. Apparently, being a political "artist" can pay the bills, as his website was crashed and the Youtube "making of"/exegesis/commentary on this most-desired piece of work has received 3.5 million views. Yes. You read that correctly. 3.5 million views. It would seem that Jon McNaughton has gone from art conventions at the Motel Six to eating prime rib at the local Denny's.
One of the most difficult concepts to communicate to undergraduates who are taking their first steps in cultural theory and analysis is that a text--be it a movie, novel, comic book , TV show, etc.--tells us something about the moment in which it was produced. Moreover, aesthetics matter as well. The language of "beauty," "style," and "craft" are implicit value judgments: they do not exist in a social or historical vacuum.
Folks often get caught up on the question of intent, i.e. what did the creator of this cultural text want the public to "get" out of it? Are we being "fair" in how we locate and situate a piece of work in a given political context, and with our analysis regarding the type of ideological work that it is doing? These questions of intent are interesting. They can also serve as distractions from a more rigorous and intensive critical project.
However, there are rare moments when the creator of a text actually explains his or her work. There is no veil to peek through as the author shares the "preferred meaning" with the public. While I am quite tempted to make an effort at deconstructing what is a flat and rather uninteresting piece of agitprop conservative "art," I have always struggled with what to say about the obvious and banal.
[Perhaps, one of you budding art critics can offer some observations about the composition of this painting, its use of color and light, and what you take the semiotics of the image to be? To my eyes, the most interesting aspect of "The Forgotten Man" is that of James Madison trying to cop a feel on Obama's glorious buttocks before he goes ass to mouth on the country's first black president.]
Salon's interview with Jon McNaughton is more revealing than the art itself. McNaughton's answers to questions about history, race, and the American narrative are a powerful and telling insight into the brand of conservative populist authoritarianism that has beguiled a good number of people in this country.
For example, McNaughton notes on the relationship between the Framers, religion, and the Constitution:
Several of your paintings, like “One Nation Under God” [in which Jesus holds aloft the Constitution, while, at his feel, various American archetypes sit in two groups, Last Judgment-style -- a Marine, a schoolteacher, a farmer and a minister on the left, a news reporter, a professor, a politician, a lawyer and a weeping Supreme Court Justice on the right] draw a strong link between religion and politics. How does that square constitutionally?The painting features a broken, tired, "Forgotten Man." Apparently, Obama has destroyed him. Here is McNaughton's explanation of this metaphor:
I don’t have an issue with separation of church and state. I just believe the Constitution is divinely inspired and our Founders were inspired by God.
And the metaphor in the Forgotten Man?
The Forgotten Man is the the average American — every man, woman and child — who may not have the same opportunities in the future because of what our presidents have done, which strays from the original intent of the Constitution.This is a great example of the white racial frame in action. I have seen few better examples of white privilege and the pathological normality of Whiteness than the above explanation for an "artistic" choice.
The Forgotten Man is very handsome. Who’s the model?
[Laughs] I’ve got a close friend I use. I’m not ready to reveal him yet.
He’s got that look of abject despair down pat, with those hunched shoulders …
Some people make issue of the fact that it’s a white guy sitting on the bench, like it’s somehow racial. I was talking with an African-American man and he asked why I didn’t make him black or something else. And I said, “Well, if I made him black, then certainly the issue of the painting would have been racial.” If I had made him Latino, then it would have been about illegal immigration. And if I’d made him a woman, imagine what that would have been.
Question: what the hell is "limited government?" Notice the power of codewords, the compelling nature of simple concepts, and how masterful the Right has been in developing an empty vocabulary which resonates with the mouth breathing classes:
Obama standing on the Constitution represents his taking action against what the Constitution stands for, which, to my mind, is limited government. I wasn’t trying to make fun of Obama I tried to paint him in a very serious manner. He understands the Constitution and he knows exactly what he’s doing.As Kevin Drum and others have pointed out, the Right-wing establishment has created its own reality and alternative knowledge system. These are the hallmarks of a cult, one with which negotiations in the interest of the Common Good are impossible because the terms of debate (and reality) are not in agreement. Ironically, you can educate and work with folks who are ignorant. The populist conservatives of the present day are not ignorant, they have cultivated a set of tautological beliefs in a closed system where a thing is true simply because they will it to be. Facts be damned. McNaughton's interview is a great example of the George Constanza rule in American political culture: remember, it's not a lie if you believe it.
And what is Jon McNaughton's newest painting? "One Nation Under Socialism." Meh. Insert finger into mouth in order to induce vomiting.