Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Authoritarian Conservative Mind at Work: Jon McNaughton Explains his Painting, "The Forgotten Man"

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?

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.
The painting features a broken, tired, "Forgotten Man." Apparently, Obama has destroyed him. Here is McNaughton's explanation of this metaphor:
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.

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.
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.

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:

And Obama?
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.


Nebris said...

chaunceydevega said...

@Nebris. I have been reading some more on WW1--so fascinating, and am struck by the propaganda of the era. Will post something on said topic, the war and ethnicity, next week.

fred c said...

The painting is, of course, unalloyed bullshit, and pedestrian in its execution. It's an awkward mess, like the politics that it swims in.

Alas, Babylon! What's to be done about the mess that we find ourselves in? A problem for greater minds than mine, and people with more energy, I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

Someone on JJP had the best comment I've seen all night, "he's stepping on the 3/5ths part"

Anonymous said...

Racist GOP/Ron Paul bullshit. Add in some coded John Birch Society allusions (FDR & Clinton clapping) and you have a Teahadist manifesto.

slmeyer said...

So all the constitutional stepping on, trampling and serious ignoring of rights bullshit that came between 9/11/01 and 01/08 from GW Bush with his cronies John Ashcroft, Don Rumsfeld, et al was WHAT? Or is this painting and the wingnuts just another form of collective white peoples amnesia that's spreading like the plague? Just sayin.

Shady_Grady said...

There are a great many reasons for various people to be upset with the Administration's views on many things-particularly separation of powers-who gets to declare war, civil liberties, etc.

The fact that some racists and/or Republicans are critical for bad reasons doesn't mean there's nothing to be upset about.

DebC said...

Shady_Grady...Amen, and Amen again!

chaunceydevega said...

@Fred. i am sure you can be more scathing than that! You are getting to be too kind in your old age.

@Anon. That is funny. Is that a stepper's set to go with it? Chicago joke.

@Anon2. Give me teahadism or give me death!

@Sl. There is no history before Obama. We need to send you to a reeducation camp.

@Shady. Much to be upset about. He is not perfect; politics is about compromise. But, let's not get in bed with right wing reactionary clowns who don't share our long term interests. Fallows has a great long form essay on grading Obama's first term that is wonderfully insightful that you should check out on the atlantic site.

@Deb. See above. Is the enemy of my enemy my friend?

DebC said...

cd...Absolutely not! However, when the enemy is in fact, someone who should be my friend (at least that's how he played it) - I call it like I see it.

For the life of me, I can't understand why we, Black folk can't see that the Changeling, in no way, "shares OUR long term interests." Politics being about compromise IMHO, is BS learned at the knee of the white gaze (no offense intended). When something is patently wrong (and there is much that is - and has been, both pre- and post-Changeling), compromising doesn't change that.

We're like Stephen King's Carrie at the big dance, having pig's blood poured all over our heads after thinking we were "accepted" and cared about by our First Black President. But instead of getting enraged at the okie-doke and doing something about it (No, not kill everybody in the gym, but damn, do SOMETHING!) - we simply turn to Brown Jesus and say, "Please, give us more of your bullshit, Sir!" as he obligingly continues to empty his damned bucket. {smdh}

We can continue to blame it on "right wing reactionary clowns" til the cows come home, cd. This game was never meant for us, though we could have hijacked it with a leader, confident in his convictions and honest about his motives, who was steadfast in his beliefs, rather than pining to be "accepted" among the string-pullers, while he got as much as he could - for himself.

Some points to ponder:

Anonymous said...

After skimming Mr. McNaughton's site I am guessing he is LDS and is using a gimmick made popular among LDS circles by Gayla Price who claimed divine inspiration for a painting titled The Parable of the Virgins where she has a presentation explaining the meaning behind each figure in here painting.

McNaughton also seems heavily influenced by some Mormon mythology known as The White Horse Prophecy supposedly given by Joseph Smith (read the Wiki Entry for White Horse Prophesy). Whenever you hear Glenn Beck or Orrin Hatch or even Mitt Romney mention the Constitution hanging by a thread they are referencing this prophecy although the official church position is that there is no evidence Joseph Smith gave this prophecy.

Thank you for this site.

nomad said...

"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.

I mean, he was a constitutional law professor.

And that’s the irony. [laughs]" He was not. Ain't it funny how some myths are taken to be true? He was a lecturer. Not exactly the same thing.

Q: Was Barack Obama really a constitutional law professor?
A: His formal title was "senior lecturer," but the University of Chicago Law School says he "served as a professor" and was "regarded as" a professor.
[The above parsing of the facts, of course, is bullshit. I post this because before now I thought it was true. The MSM fed us a lot of propaganda to get this guy elected. Or rather they rubber-stamped a lot of propaganda.]
Marketing. I should call it marketing. Padding the old resume. Exaggeration. Misrepresentation.

chaunceydevega said...

@Nomad. You got the anti-Obama fever. Low hanging Fox News fruit brother, those folks who are trying to besmirch his bonafides probably couldn't even get a job mopping floors at the U of C.

He was a professor. Now let's get into minutia if you would like, he was a lecturer because of the rank system at the law school and because his primary job was teaching and lecturing. On the rank scale, and the salaries if I recall, he would be an Assistant or maybe even an Associate on the other side of the Midway.

Interestingly, "professor" is actually a title given way at the end after usually years of service. But that is inside baseball.

Go after the O-man for something substantive, don't given into foolishness.

nomad said...

Come on, CD. You know that that's a distinction thats blurred by the title. The point is that a lecturer's knowledge of the law is not likely to be as extensive as what is represented by the title constitutional law professor. What did he do his doctoral thesis on? What is his particular area of expertise within the field? What kinds of publications, books?

I don't really know why I brought this up here. I guess cause it's something I recently discovered. It may not be substantive, in isolation, but it is a part of a pattern that is.

I should comment on that horrible painting. I am, after all, in that profession. I'll just go to the core, here. The symbology is ridiculous. In reality, Obama is not the only president treading the constitution underfoot. So it lacks an essential component for a symbolic composition: truth. Also the iconography gives rise to subliminal unintended suggestions in the typical observer. Since race is such a primary factor in our social environment. Political issues aside the painting is about an uppity Negro oppressing white America. It is an inadvertent visual representation of the white racial frame. Definitely.

chaunceydevega said...

@nomad. as i said above, go after him for something substantive. you don't just walk off the street and get a job at the u of c. i am very familiar with the institution, and know folks who have taken Obama's classes. He is the real deal.

I didn't know you were an artist. Can you teach talent? Can it be learned? And does he have any?

nomad said...

"He is the real deal." Certainly you know more about it than I do. However, I need further corroboration before conceding that. At any rate he is not the expert on constitutional law suggested by the designation "constitutional lawyer".

Talent. Given what passes for art today, virtually every human being on earth has artistic talent. Naturalism (realistic looking artwork) on the other hand, is something that requires a particular set of talents. I don't say it can't be taught but it's a lot harder for some folks than others.

This guy has talent. It ain't easy capturing likeness. His composition is pedestrian though. Boring and patronizingly obvious. His modeling of form is not quite convincing. Particularly Obama's pants. That said, he's got talent. A painting like this takes a lot of skill. If only he would use his powers for good.

C'mon. You didn't know I was an artist? Yep, that's my field. Art and art history.

CNu said...


what used-ta-be 2nd/3rd line inheritor steez - now be catchin fade daily!!!