Jon McNaughton has been a “hidden man” in many respects. A conservative painter with extensive knowledge of his craft, he was far from being a household name – until Sean Hannity introduced him to America in 2012.
Sean and Jon intersected through a link in the Drudge Report. It noted that images of his painting, “The Forgotten Man,” had racked up millions of hits. Hannity seemed enthralled with the bold, outrageously populist sentiments of the piece, and he also appreciated it as a work of art.
Six feet across, “The Forgotten Man” is a visual show-down between President Obama and past U.S. presidents. In roughly chronological order, the massed presidents witness Obama defiantly standing on the Constitution. Naughton adds touches of history and political commentary in his portrayal of presidents past. Some are disturbed, others stolidly stare. Clinton, FDR and Teddy Roosevelt are applauding.
To the left, a melancholy man sits dejectedly, ignoring the gesturing crowd. This is McNaughton’s “Forgotten Man” or 21st century Everyman. It was the first time he used Obama as a central subject. “I was inspired to do this after they first passed the Obamaicare in 2010,” he explained.
His statement for “One Nation …” begins this way:
I pledge allegiance to the United States of America,
And not to an ideology, which can never stand,
One nation under socialism, divisive,
With no liberty or justice for anyone. …
Expecting tsunamis of criticism over content, McNaughton claimed his artistic prowess was even more attacked – which is interesting, because he is an accomplished painter. All the presidents are easily distinguishable. McNaughton handles lace, metal, folds and other difficult objects deftly – and works complex mobs and backdrops into workable compositions. Considering this, charges of amateurism seem a bit contrived.
The reality is, a painting with Jesus Christ holding the American Constitution isn’t going down well with everyone. This image in “One Nation Under God” is a fully loaded theological, nationalistic, and political statement. With hints of American exceptionalism and even Manifest Destiny, it’s madly controversial. Paintings this explicit turn everyone into vicarious art critics, except those who agree entirely with the content. It begs a response, which is what the artist claims he is after.
Phenomenal amounts of attention over McNaughton stirred fears in the camps of liberals, who have refused so far to share their conquered territories (art and culture) with outsiders. Most hit pieces are in response to vast numbers of “likes” and links to his Facebook page – over three million in 2011, to just one image of his “Obama Foreign Policy.” These numbers have landed him on Drudge Report at least five times, he claims.
Critics and comments prove McNaughton’s message is the issue. A detractor of “The Forgotten Man” first claims McNaughton is a “hack,” but quickly detours back to the real issues: the “Tea Party,” “subversive propaganda” and “fascist hackwork.” Not “hatch-marks” or “brush work” – but “hackwork.” At least she acknowledged what most liberals never will: only right-wingers can be truly subversive at this point.
While dismissing McNaughton’s work as lacking “artistic merit or subtlety,” the Guardian put out a hit piece even after the 2016 election. They bemoaned McNaughton’s art gaining such prominence, as if it were a crime against culture. As proof, they gave the damning fact that Donald Trump “obliquely referenced it in his victory speech.” Trump may or may not be referencing this painting, but he did use the term “forgotten man.” It was too much for the left. Issues with technique are just red herrings in many of these critiques.
There hasn’t been a popular conservative artist since Norman Rockwell, McNaughton notes. There is a reason for that. Ideology like Rockwell’s is one of the crimes the Guardian listed against McNaughton. He “looks to the past,” they charge; to the “wholesome, easily legible Americana of Norman Rockwell.” Both Rockwell and McNaughton’s popularity merely prove there are many who don’t care for contemporary art. They also charged McNaughton with retreating to “representational certainties” when “the U.S. was presumably last great.” This comes from a British film critic, and isn’t a valid critique of art, but policy.
Liberals plastered Shephard Fairey’s vapid image of Obama across the world. Fairey “appropriated” another artist’s photograph of the POTUS (settled in court) and schlepped it around in Photoshop – something many 14-year-olds can do. And previous to that, the outpouring of wrath from art studios against G W Bush was astonishing.
Comic painter Alex Ross created a theatrical image of George Buch sucking blood from the Statue of Liberty. Kitschy much? The Village Voice not only failed to critique this, but chose it for its cover. Conservatives didn’t rush to defend the reputation of art or Bush, but rolled their eyes and did more important things. Ross also created an Obama Superman image, but this passed the propaganda meter as well. Considering the competition, the angst over McNaughton is comical.
Reaction to McNaughton’s sudden popularity was hilarious, and totally predictable. In opposition to free speech, Facebook removed his most “liked” and linked post. Media who had never acknowledged his existence rushed to the scene as if sinkholes were opening under Buckingham Palace. He’s been roasted by Rachel Maddow and Steven Colbert for his unorthodox opinions.
Hannity praised yet another McNaughton piece, “One Nation Under Socialism.” Done as a traditional portrait, it’s much like those hanging in board rooms and legislatures. This painting might even be considering flattering, if not for the flaming Constitution in Obama’s fingers. So carefully has he rendered the document, that it’s possible to even read portions of it. At this point, Hannity is a collector of McNaughton’s work, and considers him a friend.
That McNaughton may be accused of using art as “propaganda” is no surprise; and in some ways, his political pieces fit the generic description. Propaganda can be true; it is the direct promotion of ideas in speech, print and image. Many liberal artists openly describe social and political change (subversion, revolution, transgression) as their aim.
There is no problem with this until a conservative takes it on. McNaughton noted this difference: “I do this as an individual – a private citizen. Real propaganda is paid by the state.”
McNaughton didn’t start off with intending to enrage anyone. He attended BYU on an art scholarship, and began with landscapes. His influences were Michelangelo, DaVinci, the Impressionists, Goya, Picasso and Friberg. “I admire their unique perspectives and fierce independence from the establishment,” he said. Later he created figurative, religious paintings as well. Like any artist, some were more successful than others. He was born into the Mormon faith, but has a strong leaning toward Messianic Christianity. He explained, “I’m kind of my own thinker. It’s all about Jesus Christ for me.”
His “Beneath Golgotha” is excellent. Beautifully worked rocky ledge, he has imaginatively recreated the area that is there today. After Muslims put a cemetery directly on top of the place, and built a bus station into it, there is little landscape left. McNaughton’s rockwork here is dramatic and similar to English and American painters of the early 20th century. Figures are eclipsed in shadow. Unlike most crucifixion scenes, the world is the central character, and another witness to the crucifixion.
McNaughton’s work has been called “kitschy” by some critics, and to them it likely is. God, country and family are anathema to the larger art world, and can only be used with disdain or neutrality. It’s a rule, so McNaughton’s open celebration and implications of divine approval are considered kitschy in themselves.
Perhaps the bad reviews are out of sheer spite. More likely the losers in our last elections are aware that images can capture the public imagination. From the time of Dante to Picasso, they carry real political power. Biased attacks on the abilities of individual artists won’t resolve our political differences, though.
At this point, McNaughton is just brushing off the spittle and continuing on his quest. He explained, “I didn’t do this for money, but to get the message out.” What’s next? “I’m working on a painting that includes the forgotten man and President Trump,” he tells us.
By his own description, McNaughton’s style of art-making is “Americana” and “American Realism.” America is central to both. “Art is how I express my love for God and country. It’s like a personal ministry,” he explained. His logo is “Jon McNaughton – Patriotic Artist.”