These days, those looking for a more in-your-face political print to hang above their couches can snap up a Jon McNaughton print. As reviewed today for Religion & Politics by Duke’s David Morgan, McNaughton’s work offers today’s conservative activists an unabashedly explicit political and cultural message.
In 2010’s “The Forgotten Man,” McNaugton offers what looks like an attack ad. In 2011’s “Wake Up America!” that forgotten man works his way to freedom by leading a Tea-Party-like protest against a sinister President Obama.
According to the Religion & Politics piece, this ardent partisanship led McNaughton’s alma mater Brigham Young University to cease selling one of McNaughton’s paintings. Yet McNaughton has remained a huge seller. And Morgan finds McNaughton’s work to be more than just a shill. Morgan compares McNaughton’s frank preachiness to the contemporary interests of artists such as Michaelango and Giotto. And, Morgan concludes,
“It is easy for art critics to scowl at McNaughton’s pictures as preachy, partisan, and cheesy. Their solemnity and their illustrational literalism tempt many observers to dismiss them as propaganda or kitsch. And Wake Up America! certainly seems more political cheerleading than artistic vision. But simply scorning the work misses the opportunity to understand something powerful moving through many religious sub-cultures in the United States today. These groups do not distinguish between religion and politics the way that many commentators and cultural analysts would prefer. For McNaughton and his admirers, as well as many more, there is nothing at all absurd about Jesus holding the Constitution as a sacred artifact, as evidence of his authorial intent.”
Morgan doesn’t make this connection, and perhaps it doesn’t hold water, but McNaughton’s popularity in Fundamentalist America may result from an even deeper cultural divide. Since at least Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “The Fountain,” high art in the Western Tradition has prided itself on NOT saying what it seems to be saying. Some of McNaughton’s popularity may come from simple resentment against a self-appointed cultural elite who look down their noses at any Art that does not somehow befuddle the uninitiated. American art museums have long embraced the pop art of Warhol’s Soup Cans and the ironic self-referentialism of Lichtenstein’s comic-bookism. Sworls of color and abstruse “performance pieces” have made art museums cold, forbidding, meaningless fortresses to all those who stand outside their elusive mysteries.
It makes a certain amount of sense that Fundamentalist America would celebrate Art that says what it means. After all, in Fundamentalist America, that is what the Bible and the Constitution have always done.