Is McNaughton an Artist? Or, what I said on RadioWest

By March 30, 2012

[These are fleshed-out notes of what I shared on RadioWest on their show dedicated to Jon McNaughton?s paintings. As such, it?s pretty disjointed and should be read more as notes than an essay.

The audio for the interview can be found here. The first half is a fascinating interview with McNaughton; the portion where I come on, along with brilliant artis Adam Bateman, is shortly after the 25 minute mark.]

The main focus of the discussion was whether McNaughton?s work could be legitimately defined as ?art,? and what McNaughton?s use of art tells us about the culture he is both coming from and speaking to.

Art is typically used as a venue to express ineffable things that words just can?t capture; it?s meant to be a canvass to transcend simplistic messages, and point to complexity, nuance, and multiple options. McNaughton, though, doesn?t allow that. On his website, he makes sure to interpret his art for us, and utilizes technological advances to detail what every inch of the painting means. With his ?One Nation Under Socialism,? the message is as clear as possible, down to using meme-like font to announce the painting?s title. There is no room left for nuance; everything is black and white.

As a result, I believe his political paintings?which he calls ?patriotic? paintings, a distinction that should probably be unpacked?should be considered more the work of a political pundit than a painter. It is more accurate to say that he uses art as a venue for his politics than that he uses politics as a topic for his art. I think they have more resemblance with political rally posters than they do an art collection. Art is merely the vehicle to make a political message.

I think there are two historical traditions that lead into McNaughton?s work. The first is undoubtedly LDS conservatism and Mormon kitsch. Mormon art has long struggled with devolving into kitsch. Similarly, there has been a common lack of distinction between sacred and profane. In some ways, McNaughton?s art stems from that tradition. But it also seems to go against it, especially in how it fully embraces contention and unapologetically endorses an exclusive and combative political message.

The second influence and pedigree is the long tradition of political cartoons. From the origins of the nation, polemical cartoons have been used to ridicule political figures and opponents?even if they often had more depth and complexity than McNaughton?s work. They often merge religion, patriotism, and specific political themes in the way that is prevalent in works like ?One Nation under Socialism.?

But McNaughton builds from that tradition in important and fascinating ways. Most especially, he simplifies his message down to such a basic level that he makes political cartoons look like doctoral dissertations in comparison. In the twitter age, where everything has to be limited to 140 characters, the importance is not the depth of the idea but how loud and basic the message is. Basically, McNaughton is painting a talking point in all caps that screams his frustration at the current political position. The result is a presumed audience of echo chambers, where it is merely reaffirming an already present idea.

Finally, it is interesting to step back and consider what type of understanding would lead to someone hanging this painting in his or her house. With political cartoons, they are left in your newspaper or, at best, cut out and hung on your refrigerator. But with a large canvass painting, you are basically dedicating a large space on your wall to a portrait of someone you hate doing something you despise. I think this speaks to the deep level of angst a certain community is coming from.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Current Events Politics Popular Culture Public History


  1. Good stuff, Ben. Thanks for posting. And I thought you did really well on the air yesterday. Way to represent JI.

    Comment by Christopher — March 30, 2012 @ 11:11 am

  2. Art is typically used as a venue to express ineffable things that words just can?t capture; it?s meant to be a canvass to transcend simplistic messages, and point to complexity, nuance, and multiple options.

    Perhaps, but to take a famous example of “piss Christ” which seems to have about as much nuance as McNaughton. I think the problem is that people want art to excuse a lot of politics and excess when it doesn’t. I don’t mind calling McNaughton’s stuff art. I think it’s pretty pedestrian art in style. i.e. not good art. But the criticisms people are making of it seems independent of whether it is art.

    To your criticism there is implicit a notion that say editorial cartoons can’t be art which I think I just disagree with.

    Comment by Clark — March 30, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

  3. This is great. I’ve seen his “The Forgotten Man” make the rounds of relatives and friends on Facebook and gawked at the sheer incoherence of its message.

    Comment by Michael H. — March 30, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

  4. If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that it’s not art because: 1) it’s not complex or nuanced enough to express the “ineffable things that words just can’t capture”, 2) that it is derivative of political cartoons and devolved Mormon kitsch, both of which don’t count as art, 3) that he seeks to interpret his art for the viewer, and 4) that it is the reaffirmation of an “already present idea”?

    I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a current art historical department that defined the field in such value-laden terms. There are better ways to critique McNaughton.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have a visceral distaste for his work, but perhaps it is that very response that justifies its inclusion in the category we label “art”.

    Comment by jupiterschild — March 30, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

  5. Whatever he is, he seems to be getting attention and making money, so…good on him, I guess 🙂

    Comment by Casey — March 30, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

  6. I’m not necessarily saying McNaughton’s work isn’t fully “art”—though I think it is questionable, and even if it does deserve the label, it is a very fringe version—but my primary point is McNaughton’s identity is 1) a political polemicist, and 2) an artist. Thus, I think art is more a vehicle for his political message, rather than the other way around.

    Also, I would be much more willing to accept many political cartoons as art. Like I said in the notes, I find many more artistic qualities in them than I do McNaughton’s work.

    Comment by Ben P — March 30, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

  7. Adam Bateman, a very respectable Utah artist who was on the show, made a great point that just because someone who can write doesn’t make them a poet; conversely, just because someone can draw doesn’t make them an artist.

    Comment by Ben P — March 30, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

  8. One more comment before the UVU conference starts again: while the discussion was framed around the question of “is McNaughton an artist?”, I find the more relevant issue (and the question my comments are more directed toward) to be:

    What does McNaughton’s understanding of art–and, to broaden out, the understanding of the audience that is gulping up his work–tell us about current cultural anxieties: American fundamentalism, the religious right, intersections of religion and politics, and the simplistic idea of knowledge in today’s twitter-world.

    Comment by Ben P — March 30, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

  9. I guess my point is that polemics seems to be the standard fare among artists – just that they are primarily from a fairly liberal perspective. I do agree with you though that my biggest complaint about McNaughton is simply that I don’t think it good art. I thought that long before I saw any of his political art and just was looking at his landscapes on display across from the movie theatres in Provo.

    It’s just that when I hear the anti-McNaughton backlash the primary focus seems to be on the politics. That seems unfortunate because honestly I think that the only difference there is that he happens to be right wing while most artists are on the far left. People are shocked that he drew Obama ripping up the constitution but I can pretty well guarantee that you don’t have to visit many galleries to find far worse done of Bush. In a sense this is a man bites dog story.

    Comment by Clark — March 30, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

  10. Regarding what it tells us – I don’t think a whole lot simply because it is a dog bites man story. It’s noted precisely because it is so unusual politically. I think the more interesting story might be about the particular embrace of a certain style of art that seems oddly popular among Mormons. A kind of quasi-realism that McNaughton is characteristic of but which I think most people interested in art find pretty poor.

    Why is it that popular art among Mormons tends to that particular realist strain? (I think one can point to Friberg as characteristic of this movement although clearly Friberg is a vastly better artist in terms of technique than McNaughton whether you care for his style or not)

    Comment by Clark — March 30, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

  11. People are shocked that he drew Obama ripping up the constitution but I can pretty well guarantee that you don?t have to visit many galleries to find far worse done of Bush. In a sense this is a man bites dog story.

    Tell you what, show me a respectable art gallery that houses the liberal equivalent of McNaughton’s “One Nation Under Socialism,” and I’ll concede the point. It’s not only that it’s polemic, but that it’s pure polemicism with nothing beyond a superficial and pithy political message. Please, show me a work that people consider “art” that is equal to Obama burning the constitution.

    I sincerely doubt you can find one.

    Comment by Ben P — March 30, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

  12. I see the subject piece as fart art.

    It stinks.

    It emanates almost exclusively from the viscera and a desire for attention. It lacks the nuances of mind, heart, libido, and the viscera, which is seen in most great art.

    It’s no different than facile verbal and visual diatribes by radio and tv hosts on the extreme right, people like Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, etc.

    Comment by wreddyornot — March 30, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

  13. Re #10: I don’t think this can be dismissed as an unusual, isolated, on even “Mormon” story. This is a national expression touching much further than Wasatch front. He sells more artwork outside of Utah than inside now, and is a guest on national shows like Sean Hannity. To dismiss McNaughton’s work as a small Mormon niche is to miss a much broader national angst and cultural expression going on right now–no matter how silly (and disturbing) it seems to some of us.

    Comment by Ben P — March 30, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

  14. It is art. But it’s disposable and only appeals to a political cross-section of “art” consumers.

    Kitsch about sums it up.

    Basically McNaughton has found a gimmick and as long as there are buyers he will continue to produce.

    Much like the producers of cheap t-shirts at Walmart.

    Comment by Bonnie — March 31, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

  15. Tell you what, show me a respectable art gallery that houses the liberal equivalent of McNaughton?s ?One Nation Under Socialism,? and I?ll concede the point.

    Start with Alex Ross’ painting of Bush as a vampire sucking lady liberty dry. That’s someone probably of the stature of a McNaughton. (Ross is better known for doing comic art, but his famous one of Bush was displayed in many places and actually made it on the cover of The Village Voice) Obviously it’s not a completely fair comparison as Ross is much better known and regarded.

    An other one might be Derek Chatwood’s Bush eating the constitution.

    But without looking for regional figures like McCnaughton that’s the best I can come up with on short notice.

    Better examples from famous artists would of course be Andy Warhol’s painting of Nixon as a goul or any of a number of Enrique Chagoya’s political works. (He has a famous one of Reagan and the constitution) But honestly just stop by some galleries next time you’re in the bay area. Political art is par for the course and it’s rare a liberal is the one being attacked.

    Comment by Clark — April 1, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

  16. I wouldn’t consider any of those works of art any more than I would McNaughton.

    Comment by Ben P — April 1, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

  17. Well be that as it may both Chagoya and Warhol’s paintings are exhibited in the best galleries across the country and frequently go on tour. So the art community definitely sees them as great art.

    Comment by Clark — April 1, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

  18. Re: #8:

    What does McNaughton?s understanding of art?and, to broaden out, the understanding of the audience that is gulping up his work?tell us about current cultural anxieties: American fundamentalism, the religious right, intersections of religion and politics, and the simplistic idea of knowledge in today?s twitter-world.

    I couldn’t agree more (though again, value-laden adjectives like “simplistic” undermine the honesty of the question). This is the type of question that should be asked in the first place. The question of whether or not it is art (which, as we see, devolves into whether I like it or not, whether I think it is shallow or not) is not only a red herring, it is a slightly more sophisticated linguistic weapon, used in the way Pastor Robert Jeffress called Mormonism a cult. How do we define our terms? Anything that can be displayed in order to elicit a response? Anything that can be hung on a wall? I am most persuaded by anthropologist Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency which defines art objects as social agents acting in a social nexus. McNaughton’s paintings clearly fit as social agents (maybe even more clearly than the examples Gell marshals), and as such I think must belong to the category. They’re just social agents I really despise.

    As for examples from the left, I would say that it need not be political in nature to make a comparison. Take, for example, any exhibit designed to be controversial. There are often the thinnest “ideas” behind them. I think of the exhibition “Sensation” that premiered at the Royal Academy. If the criteria are portrayal of the ineffable, I have serious questions about the inclusion of many of the works. But if the criteria are differently construed, sure. Another for me is the work of Mister Brain Wash, documented in Banksy’s “Exit through the Gift Shop”, which garnered a million dollars at his opening exhibition in LA–which in my view was basically extorted from suckers looking for the next big thing in the domestication of street art. Compared with McNaughton, the intellectual depth are about equivalent, though the technical abilities of McNaughton far surpass MBW.

    So the questions that you outline in #8 strike me as the most helpful in discussing the place of McNaughton’s art.

    Comment by jupiterschild — April 4, 2012 @ 9:28 am

  19. JC: fair enough. I apologize for not being clear in my notes (they were scattered and disjointed notes). I meant to emphasize that the more important question is “what does McNaughton’s definition of art tell us?” rather than “is it art?”, but that obviously got lost in my laziness to just post my talking points instead of fleshing out what I really meant. The original question was framed that way because that was the theme provided by the radio program, and I didn’t succeed in showing that it was a jumping off point rather than my own view. My bad.

    Comment by Ben Park — April 4, 2012 @ 9:48 am

  20. No need to apologize; kudos for a provocative discussion!

    Comment by jupiterschild — April 5, 2012 @ 10:37 am


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