A man, crestfallen, is sitting on a bench in front of the White House, contemplating his country’s future. At his feet lie the causes of his distress: tattered dollars, representing a weak currency, and scraps of paper, symbolizing an abused Constitution. Behind and around him stand the 43 presidents of the United States, most of whom are outraged. One of them, James Madison, reaches pitifully for the ground, trying to collect the shards of American greatness. Unfortunately, he can’t retrieve our founding document from the dust, for it’s beneath the foot of Barack Obama.
The title of this portrait is “The Forgotten Man,” and its creator is Jon McNaughton, a 42-year-old artist from Spanish Fork, Utah. McNaughton unveiled the piece last Tuesday with a video describing its origin and a website explaining its meaning. “For a long time, I didn’t know if I wanted to paint this picture, because I worried that it might be too controversial,” McNaughton intones in the video. Now, however, he’s courting controversy.
A husband and father of six, McNaughton graduated in 1993 from Brigham Young University, where he studied art and design. Today, he runs the McNaughton Fine Art Company, which offers mostly landscapes and Biblical images for retail. McNaughton models his work after the French Barbizon Impressionists, artists in the mid–19th century who painted scenes from the countryside in subtle shades. That said, there’s nothing subtle about his latest creation.
McNaughton first conceived of the portrait after Obamacare became law in March. “I was just frustrated with what was happening with Obama and the out-of-control spending,” he tells NRO. “As an artist, I thought this was a way to get my message out.”
What is that message? “I wondered, ‘If the presidents of the past could speak to us today, what would they say to us?’” McNaughton explains. Clearly, they would oppose the unprecedented expansion of government. Yet the focus of the painting is the forgotten man — the ordinary American. “If that man doesn’t get off his bench and try to change what’s going on in our country . . . we’re on the verge of bankruptcy. That was the point I wanted to make,” he says.
On McNaughton’s website, you can move your cursor over the faces in the painting and read an idiosyncratic summation of each president’s tenure. Yes, each of them. For instance, George Washington, who’s front and center, “instituted the First Bank of the United States in 1791.” But even Rutherford B. Hayes, who’s in the nosebleed section, gets a blurb for increasing “the government’s supply of gold.”
Working twelve-hour days, McNaughton spent five months researching the portrait, reading everything from Wikipedia to history books. “I tried to focus on the fiscal spending of these different presidents and how it has to do with the devaluing of the dollar,” he notes. “I didn’t go into civil rights or war.”
His educational forays led him to some unconventional conclusions. For example, McNaughton criticizes the Founders for their fiscal profligacy. “Our founding fathers weren’t adept at managing debt either,” he writes on the website. “In 1791, the national debt was a mere $75 million. But that is equivalent to $5.2 trillion in 2008 dollars.” To be fair to the Founders, though, a revolutionary war is kind of expensive.
Despite McNaughton’s good faith, the Left will censure him, and he knows it. He did his first overtly political portrait last October. Entitled “One Nation under God,” it shows Jesus Christ holding the Constitution while surrounded by figures from American history. The painting drove liberals bonkers. Comedian Bill Maher dubbed it “‘Where’s Waldo’ for wing nuts.”
“I did go to the Huffington Post to see what they said,” McNaughton reports. “They reminded me of a junior-high-school locker room. They all want to outdo each other with the grossest comment they can think of.”
Still, McNaughton thinks the opposition to this painting will be different. Whereas for the previous portrait, a viewer can accept Christ’s authority only on faith, in this one, “the facts are the facts. The people who trash the painting say, ‘Oh, it’s just another right-wing Republican.’ But I don’t feel my position is very threatened. I feel that the truth is just behind me.” If people object to the portrayal of Obama stepping on the Constitution, McNaughton reasons, he’ll tell them everything Obama’s done to deserve being characterized that way.
McNaughton knows his political background makes him a target. A former state delegate for the Utah Republican party, he now considers himself an independent. He left the GOP because of George W. Bush, who “ruined the Republican party.” Accordingly, in the portrait, Bush eyes the suffering man from afar — distant in location and in feeling.
But McNaughton also knows he’s got a hit. He’s already sold several prints, and his video has racked up over 170,000 views on YouTube. His video for “One Nation under God” — after spending almost a year online — has garnered more than 3 million views. At the rate “The Forgotten Man” is going, he expects it to surpass its predecessor in popularity.
“They’re quite the conversation pieces. People will have one hanging in their house and people will come in and there’s so much to talk about,” McNaughton says. In “The Forgotten Man,” McNaughton groups the presidents into two categories: those who oppose Obama’s actions, such as Washington and Madison, and those who support them, such as Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. Viewers routinely object to the placement of their favorites in either category. “It’s fun to have people talk about it,” he says.
He hopes to keep them talking. McNaughton just started a third portrait, which he plans to release by the end of the year. This one will be more religious in tone — at least, more religious than “The Forgotten Man” — though he hints that “I’ve got one painting [in mind] that might be affected depending on whether Obama runs for reelection.”
Whether or not Obama runs, McNaughton’s art has ensured that his message won’t be ignored.
– Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.