Portrait of the People as a young (white) man.

I once asked on this blog “what would Conservative art look like?” Well, here perhaps is an example. Jon McNaughton produced a painting in 2010 entitled “The Forgotten Man”, which has been in the news lately. Here is a video where he talks about his piece:

You can see a full version of the painting, and read his explanation of it, at McNaughton’s website.

I’ve never understood how people can paint anything more sophisticated than a blotch. It’s almost as amazing and mystifying to me as the ability to play music. So I have to give the guy credit for his skill in that area.

Now then…

Although its overall message is not subtle, there are nonetheless some subtleties to it. Of particular interest to me was the expression of George W. Bush in the scene. He is depicted on the side of the “liberal” presidents–who I think are pretty clearly cast as the “bad” presidents in the eyes of the painter. But G.W.B. is glancing–almost guiltily, I think–over at the presidents whom the painter depicts as “good”. This is in keeping with the attitude many a Republican has lately–post-2007–developed towards him: a good man, tragically tempted away to the side of evil liberalism, and thus, totally not representative of the Republican party. They are, they insist, not responsible for his actions.

Kennedy, of course, is much nearer to “the forgotten man”, and although he is not as concerned as Washington, Madison, Jefferson and–who else?–Reagan, he is nonetheless raising a finger as if to say to Obama “that’s a bit much, isn’t it?”. This is rather unsurprising, in view of the Republicans’ general attitude towards JFK these days.

(I may be wrong, but I believe the further to the right a president is in this scene, the more liberal of a President he is supposed to have been. An interesting irony.)

Really, what McNaughton has done here is provide us with a pretty good graphic depiction of the conservative take on each and every president. One of the things that also stands out to me is that McNaughton seems terribly suspicious of the Federal Reserve, as his website makes sure to mention the actions of various presidents with regard to that institution.

And finally, there is the matter of “the forgotten man” himself. McNaughton has been criticized for making this figure–who is meant, according to McNaughton, to represent all the people–to be a fairly young, white male.

To an extent, this was just a can’t-win situation for McNaughton. From an artist’s perspective, it was essential that there be only one figure here, and ultimately, no matter what characteristics he gave that figure, someone or other would be offended. However, given his party’s reputation, this seems a poor choice. He would have been better served, in my opinion, to make it the personification of Columbia–though the problem is that this would mean changing the title.

As a depiction of the actual reality of the country today, it is quite bad, I think. As a work of art, and of propaganda, it is not terrible, but not great either. But as a look into the Conservative view of history, it is rather interesting. A neat depiction of a false worldview.

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