By Robert A. Rees
[The artist] will endeavor to awake subtler emotions, as yet unnamed. Living himself a complicated and comparatively subtle life, his work will give to those observers capable of feeling them lofty emotions beyond the reach of words.
Whenever we find in poetry that which gives us existence on an exquisite plane, is it necessary to ask the meaning of the poem?
Jon McNaughton is the most popular and commercially successful Mormon artist since the beginning of the Restoration. His popularity extends well beyond Mormon circles to include national and international audiences, especially among conservative Christians, many of whom admire his art but would likely be disturbed by his Mormon beliefs. His most popular and most controversial paintings are in a category that can best be described as political, endorsing a decidedly extreme right-wing stance—a “dramatic fusion of Christian piety and conservative ideology.” Explaining his penchant for such art, McNaughton states, “I started painting patriotic art because it allows me to express my frustrations in ways I cannot do with words.”
The painting that has probably garnered him the most attention is titled “One Nation under God.” Christ stands at the center of this painting, dressed in a golden robe, a nimbus shining around his head. One hand holds the Constitution while the other points to it. In the background stand the Supreme Court Building, Congress, and the American flag. Around Jesus are gathered the Founding Fathers such as George Washington, American heroes and patriots such as Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, and Dolly Madison, prominent politicians such as Ronald Regan, and soldiers from various American wars.
On Jesus’s right sit a marine, a family doctor, a school teacher, a business woman, a Christian minister, a farmer, an immigrant, a mother, a disabled child, and a student holding a copy of Cleon Skousen’s The Five Thousand Year Leap, a group McNaughton identifies as “your strong, patriotic, hard-working Americans—the real backbone of our country.”
On Jesus’ left huddle a professor (holding Darwin’s Origin of Species), a politician, a news reporter, a lawyer, a Hollywood producer, and—darkening the extreme edge of the painting—Satan.
McNaughton’s use of such stereotypical figures makes the interpretation of this painting obvious. But to make sure viewers get his message, McNaughton has provided a detailed explanatory commentary on his website of this as well as his other political paintings. For example, for “Mr. Hollywood” he comments, “The majority of those who work [in Hollywood] are intensely liberal and lean toward a Socialist form of government. . . . Right behind him is the Adversary which [sic] whispers in his ear subtle lies which will eventually lead to his destruction.”
Then of the professor he says, “Humanism [has] dominated the educational system of America and I believe this is wrong.” In relation to his Satan figure, he writes, “I believe in the reality of the Adversary and that he interferes in the affairs of men.” Commenting on Skousen’s book, McNaughton says, “The book is in my opinion the most important book written as to why America is so great.”
In other words, McNaughton seems to not be painting art as much as propaganda, especially if we are speaking of it as defined by Richard Alan Nelson: “a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels.” Indeed, McNaughton has been quoted as saying “I prefer to paint pictures that I believe have relevance to what is going on in the world, that make a statement, that stand for something.”
Having lived in the former Soviet Union for nearly four years, I had an opportunity to observe the difference between fine art and art which serves the political and social agenda of a political party or state. The latter promoted a Communist ideology; the former attempted to subvert that same ideology by appealing to people’s humane and spiritual sensibilities or by providing aesthetic pleasure in the face of socialistic tyranny.
It is true that “fine art” can have political undertones. For example, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) and Jean Miro’s “Still Life with Old Shoe” (1937) can be seen as allegorical protests against the Spanish Nationalists and their allies in Spain’s Civil War. Indeed, both paintings have a decidedly leftist, anti-war sentiment, but neither uses overt graphic or rhetorical imagery to articulate its message as baldly as do McNaughton’s.
McNaughton’s online guide reminds me of Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry” in which the speaker tries to get his students to use their own wits in approaching a poem. He invites them to “press an ear against [the poem’s] hive” or “walk inside the poem’s room/and feel the walls for a light switch.” Instead, he laments,
. . . all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
By spelling out each detail of his painting, by providing the code for the interpretation of every single symbol and historic event, it seems that McNaughton robs viewers of the opportunity to come to terms with his paintings themselves, to provide their own interpretations, to find their own meaning. If there is a one-to-one correlation between every inch of the canvas and some aspect of McNaughton’s political/social vision, then there is nothing left for the viewer to interpret or discover.
Imaginative possibilities are one of the things that give both art and religion their mysterious essence and their transformative power. To quote Wallace Stevens, “The wonder and mystery of art, as indeed of religion in the last resort, is the revelation of something ‘wholly other’ by which the inexpressible loneliness of thinking is broken and enriched.”
Indeed, it is the marvelous uniqueness of individual experience, the multiplicity of human imagination, and the fecundity of human invention that allow each of us to approach any work of art with our particular brand of intelligence, experience, sensitivity and interpretive gifts. That such capacity constitutes a spiritual gift can be seen in the fact that so much of holy writ is expressed in poetic and metaphoric language. So many of Jesus’ teachings are couched in parables; so much of scripture is crafted so that those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to feel might plumb the depths of meaning according to their lights.
I believe that what Robert Frost says of poetry is true of all the arts: that they cannot be thought out, plotted, and rationalized ahead of time. “The logic is backward, in retrospect, after the act. It must be more felt than seen ahead like prophecy. It must be a revelation, a series of revelations, as much for the poet [and artist] as for the reader [and viewer].” In his essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost says that poetry should begin in delight and end in wisdom. It is that combination that draws us continually back to the arts in all their forms.
What McNaughton’s didacticism and penchant for literalism do is to commandeer our imaginations, to shackle our interpretive faculties, and to put our cognitive process on the Procrustean bed of his own private interpretation, leaving us no room to come to his art on our own. In other words, he does not trust us to make up our own minds or to know our own hearts.
Also, by claiming the Holy Ghost as his muse, McNaughton makes it difficult for Mormon/Christian viewers to see his paintings objectively. Explaining the inspiration behind “One Nation under God,” McNaughton describes himself sitting his front of his easel, “[I saw] what I can best describe as a vision. I saw the painting in my mind as clear [sic] as if it were unveiled right in front of me, like standing before a stage when the curtains are slowly pulled back.” He claims that even the title of the painting was revealed to him. Elsewhere, McNaughton describes the painting as his “witness.”
The inspiration for his painting “The Forgotten Man” “came after I prayed regarding the passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act [“Obamacare”]. I think that the Lord often waits for us to simply come to Him and ask the question . . . what should I do?” The answer, he says, shook him “to the very core!”
Interestingly, at the BYU Museum of Art hang three of a series of paintings by Maynard Dixon also titled “Forgotten Man.” As McNaughton was an art and design student at BYU, these could not have escaped his notice. Ironically, these paintings, which Dixon rendered during the 1930s and 1940s, reflect Socialist and New Deal ideology. McNaughton’s appropriation of Dixon’s graphic rendering of despair and hopelessness caused by the Great Depression is especially troubling because he uses it to convey ideas diametrically opposed to those in Dixon’s paintings. Dixon and his second wife, the photographer Dorothea Lange, were both interested in social realism and the sympathetic portrayal of Americans adversely affected by the economic and social upheaval of the period.
Given the ascendency of the Tea Party and the growth of fundamentalist Christianity, it seems likely that McNaughton’s work will continue to grow in influence and power. McNaughton is on a self-appointed mission to set America back on what he sees as its destined track. In 2011 he informed his followers, “In the next 16 months I will offer some solutions in both visual and multimedia manner as to how we can take our country from where we are now to where it would be incredibly prosperous.”
McNaughton’s newest politically-motivated paintings continue his campaign against President Obama and progressives/liberals. He reported in August of 2011 that he was “in seclusion” to work on “Wake Up America,” saying, “I want this painting to create a shocking visual truth of what is happening in our country and hopefully wake up America as to what’s at stake.”
In this painting, McNaughton portrays Obama as a kind of welfare-state savior who has used government subsidies and financial give-aways to seduce and enslave the populace. Standing behind and applauding Obama are Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Wen Jiabao, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il, Saudi king Abdullah, and, curiously (or perhaps not), Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner. In the foreground sawing away at his chains is a familiar figure—the Forgotten Man from McNaughton’s earlier painting. The rooster in the lower right is obviously set to warn viewers to “wake up” before it is too late.
Another recent political painting, “One Nation under Socialism,” portrays President Obama burning the Constitution, his stance and gesture being very similar to Jesus’s in “One Nation under God.” The “anti-Christ” implication is difficult to miss.
To go along with the painting, McNaughton recorded and posted the following on his website: “I pledge allegiance to the United States of America and not to an ideology that can never stand—‘One nation under socialism, divisive, with no liberty or justice for anyone.’ This November you will make a choice. Will you choose one nation under socialism?”
In the “Artists [sic] Notes” section on his website, McNaughton writes, “Somebody once said to me that if you mix politics and religion in painting . . . that is not art. I told them [sic] that is exactly what art is . . . if it makes you think and feel it is the greatest art of all!”
One wonders where in his “fine art” education at Brigham Young University and elsewhere McNaughton learned such aesthetic nonsense. Totalitarian art, kitsch, and overly sentimental or romanticized art all cause one to “think and feel,” but it is the method by which such feeling and thinking are evoked and the quality of the thinking and feeling that are significant. Milan Kundera, argues that propagandistic art presents a view of the world in which “all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions,” which seems to me an accurate depiction of McNaughton’s political art. In my opinion, McNaughton’s subverts both art and religion by substituting a partisan political agenda for open spiritual and imaginative processes and by claiming revelation (as opposed to mere inspiration) for a political ideology that I find at odds with central gospel principles.
McNaughton will likely continue to be a popular, commercially successful painter celebrated by many on the Christian right and by some of his fellow Latter-day Saints. Undoubtedly, McNaughton and his followers feel he is on a divinely-inspired mission, one in which he sees himself as a sort of painter-prophet called by God and inspired by the Holy Ghost to promote Mormonism, conservative Christianity, and American exceptionalism—not to mention his own chosenness as an artist. He claims that God reveals not only the subject matter of his paintings but also how to render them in pigment. “[I] only paint the truth. I think about it, I pray about it, I paint about it.”
As someone whose life—personal, professional and spiritual—has been centered on the arts, I care deeply about their role within Mormonism and their place within the Restoration. I contend that the imagination is one of the important but often neglected gifts of the Spirit. In fact, I don’t believe that one can have a truly mature faith that isn’t to some degree graced with imagination—something I think Joseph Smith understood. As Harold Bloom says, it was his “religion-making imagination” that set Joseph Smith apart from all religionists in American history. I am convinced that when artists like McNaughton turn their talents to propagandistic ends, it represents a counter-force to the great vision that began when Joseph walked in that grove of trees in 1820.
The message of the Lord’s great latter-day work deserves, perhaps even demands, the best art, music, literature and architecture that it is possible for our culture to produce. In fact, one could argue that only through such elevated artistic and imaginative tellings can we fully understand and celebrate “the visions and blessings and glories of God” inherent in the Restoration.
I believe that an artist as gifted as McNaughton could play such a role were he to shed his political agenda for a more expansive vision. In doing so, he might not be as commercially successful as he is now, but my guess is that he and his art would have both a more profound impact on Mormon culture and be longer and better remembered.