[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.