My family and I were enjoying our President's Day together with a quick stroll through Provo Towne Center, when a small corner gallery beckoned me in with a humongous painting right in the doorway, with Jesus Christ in the center and a crowd surrounding Him. It reminded me of a painting an old roommate of mine had in the bedroom (my roommate was in the military and had spent time in Afghanistan):
I think I liked this painting when my roommate hung it up. It's sort of interesting to think of war and spirituality. I don't have any personal connection to the concept, because I have never been in the military and don't have many close relatives who did. But I do know from the scriptures and even modern history, sometimes there is a righteous purpose in war and I do believe the light of Christ and the Holy Ghost can be with a soldier, even on the battlefield. (As it turns out, I learned that the title of this painting is "Peace Is Coming." So maybe this painting is more about the second coming of Christ and the end of wars and contentions anyway.)
Anyway, I was right to be reminded of this painting when I entered the gallery in the mall, because the painting at the entrance and "Peace Is Coming" were done by the same artist. But the one I first saw in the mall was quite different:
Again, it's Christ surrounded by people representing moments in history. But this one is much more controversial and upset me a little.
This one is called "One Nation Under God." It depicts Christ holding up the Constitution as written by our nation's Founding Fathers, backed up by a host of American heroes. In the foreground, one side shows people who are in awe of the Constitution and venerate it, while the other side is a group who are ashamed of how they have violated or abused the Constitution. The ashamed group sits by papers on the ground representing Supreme Court decisions like Roe v. Wade.
This is quite a statement, to say that Supreme Court judges and politicians have violated the Constitution. Or to say that the pregnant woman, who I assumed represents women who want abortions because she's "at the left hand of God" in the painting, is violating the Constitution. (It turns out, if you go to the official description of the painting, that the woman "is saying to herself, 'I want to keep my baby.' She represents hope." Oh, okay. But why is she on the same side of the painting as the Constitution-haters? I think it's easy for anyone to misinterpret that, like I did.)
And, check this out:
Look who's at the "left hand of God"! A reporter! Like me! Thanks a lot, Jon McNaughton. (Maybe he just means TV reporters specifically ... haha, just kidding broadcast journalism students.)
So while this controversial painting irked me, I browsed through the gallery some more and saw one that was just appalling, "The Forgotten Man":
Really, Jon McNaughton? Really? I couldn't believe this. President Obama literally stepping on the Constitution? While most of his predecessors frown disapprovingly (and James Madison's heart breaks)? C'mon, man.
President Obama has done things I disagree with. But I wouldn't say he's trampling on the Constitution (at least not any more than President Bush or President Reagan did - you can find rhetoric that goes either direction on accusing presidents of going against their oath of office, left or right).
And, the "forgotten man" sitting on the park bench? If he's supposed to represent someone who's down-and-out on his luck, wouldn't the "nanny state" agenda of a liberal president like Obama be just what he's looking for?
Mostly what I couldn't get over was the fact that all of this was in a painting. An editorial cartoon, sure. But a painting? A framed painting on a wall has a way of immortalizing ideas, humanity and life, and somehow makes everything "official." But in no way should the ideas conveyed in either of these paintings be considered official. Unless you consider being simplistic, vilifying and closed-minded to be official.
Could you imagine visiting someone for dinner who has either of these huge paintings in their living room? I'm sorry, but even if we managed to keep the political conversation at a minimum, I would just be distracted the whole visit by this painting and what it's trying to say to me. Especially if it's trying to tell me I hate the Constitution because I'm a member of the press.
After I came home and visited Jon McNaughton's website, I calmed down a little after reading his explanations. I learned about the pregnant woman in "One Nation, Under God" and that she wasn't an abortion-wanting Constitution hater (although I think it makes sense why I was led to believe that), like I said earlier. And I learned that he grouped the presidents in "The Forgotten Man" based on who increased the federal debt the most, and he was able to leave out any Republican or Democratic bias by putting George W. Bush on the debt-increasing side and John F. Kennedy on the fiscal conservative side. And "the forgotten man" is anyone who has to endure the exponentially-increasing national debt, not necessarily a poor man in need of government benefits (like these guys).
(One explanation, for "One Nation Under God," actually renewed the fire in my belly. On the side of Constitution worshipers, there is someone labeled an "Immigrant": "Why does he have his hand up like that? There are many good people in America, they are not all Christian. I wanted him to have a look of shock when he realizes where the source of America's greatness comes from as he sees Christ holding the Constitution. We live in a country where we are free to worship as we please." Sounds inclusive at the beginning and end, but did you catch that condescending and xenophobic part in the middle?)
As far as the actual artistic skills go, Jon McNaughton is great. And he has a lot of paintings based on scripture and Christ's life, and I admire those.
But combining religion and politics is a touchy fine line. And expressing that combination through artistic expression is liable to provoke many a rant.
If you want to go to his website and check this stuff out for yourself, go here:
McNaughton Fine Art
On the three paintings that I mentioned, you can get an explanation of all the figures and symbols by holding your mouse over each one, which is kind of cool:
Peace Is Coming
One Nation, Under God
The Forgotten Man
Or read an explanation for each one:
Peace Is Coming
One Nation, Under God
The Forgotten Man
McNaughton also has a link on his website to this Slate.com article, calling him "the official artist of the Tea Party." He must be pretty proud of that.
Tea Party Agitprop
(I should mention that all of these images were screen clippings taken from Jon McNaughton's website. I do not intend to break copyright laws by posting them here, just to utilize them for commentary and educational purposes.)