Anti-Socialist Realism

Jon McNaughton's National Emergency, as featured on

When I first saw the same image popping up in my social media feeds yesterday, I wasn’t sure what to think. On the small screen of my phone, it was too “busy” to comprehend at a glance. The background was dark. And, though I could clearly see the president in the right foreground, I couldn’t tell who was represented in the group to his left. So I paused to zoom in.

That’s when I realized that the flag-carrying figures represented the politicians who have absorbed the majority of the American right’s attention in recent years: Barack Obama on the right, carrying the United Nations banner; Bernie Sanders on left; carrying the Chinese flag; Elizabeth Warren, to his right, clutching a European Union flag that few people in the United States can recognize on sight; Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, front and centre, holding a large Mexican flag; and some recent additions to the pantheon of Fox News bêtes noires, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or “AOC”, as everyone now seems to call her, and Ilhan Omar in the background, her face mostly obscured, but her identity made clear by the Muslim headdress she is wearing.

“The 2020 Democratic nominee will come from the ranks of politicians not represented here,” I thought, but immediately second-guessed myself. If it’s true that any publicity is good publicity, as many political strategists aver, then the fact that the artist who painted this work acknowledged the continuing importance of Sanders and Warren was surely a good thing. And, though AOC would not be old enough to run herself, the fact that she had already gained entry into this club after only a few months in Congress suggested that her power as an “influencer” would continue to surge.

Because my daughter took a course on American art last semester and frequently shared the paintings her professor discussed with me, I knew that this work was hearkening back to a tradition of allegorically enhanced political portraiture that had largely disappeared by the late nineteenth century, its practitioners forced to make a living on religious iconography and nostalgic landscapes while the artists who would come to be identified with modern art moved away from the attempt to capture reality in easily recognisable form. And I also realised something that hadn’t really crossed my mind until then, that I’d been seeing paintings like this one a lot in recent years, suggesting that social media had cleared a path for this type of representation, bypassing the gatekeepers of the art world.

To be sure, figural painting never went away completely in the West, even in the world of galleries and critics, and experienced a significant revival starting in the 1980s with Neo-Expressionism. But the way in which this painting rendered human bodies did not have much in common with this work. Indeed, its strongest affinity was with art produced in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mao’s China and, more recently, ironic send-ups of that totalitarian tradition’s propagandistic realism. Although the painter’s style overlapped with so-called Christian kitsch – and its Mormon equivalent – the depiction of actual public figures and the reference to the current debate over Trump’s proposed border wall – the work is even titled National Emergency – set it apart from that typically ahistorical subgenre.

Since the vast majority of my friends, Republicans included, dislike Trump, I first experienced the painting through a framework of mockery. I joined in, too, sharing it on Facebook with a brief note stating that I was “delighted to see a resurgence in Anti-Socialist Realism”. However, I also felt compelled to add that, “those faces in the flag-trampling crowd on the left are ably rendered.” Because I’m not very talented as an artist – and perhaps because my daughter is – I recognise how difficult it is to paint a face so that it’s easy for people to recognise the subject, particularly when many figures a grouped together. Whatever else could be said about National Emergency, it seems important to acknowledge that its creator Jon McNaughton spent many hours working on it, demonstrating his dedication and technical skill. But to what end?

A quick perusal of the responses to his own tweet about the painting and various reposts in conservative subreddits showed just how many people endorsed his vision. The ironic consumption I had witnessed in my own social media circles, with numerous individuals declaring how badly they wanted a copy of the work, was mirrored by the sincere consumption of those who believe that Donald Trump has a historical mission to make America great again. It was also clear that, while many of those people no doubt pass on the “news substitutes” that pass for political information in these extremely polarised times, they make a distinction between that kind of socially mediated communication and the work of someone like McNaughton. In their minds, the time he put it into the painting, that fact that it came into being independently of internet hot takes, imbues it with a gravity commensurate with the seriousness of the dispute it depicts.

My high-school art teacher came to mind. Even back in the 1980s, I could tell that her political beliefs diverged from mine. But I loved the caring atmosphere she created for misfits and outcasts like myself and learned a great deal from her about both art and life. A decade ago, when Facebook made it possible for me to reconnect with former classmates and teachers, I soon realized that she had either become more conservative over the years or had always been that way. Until the 2016 Presidential campaign, though, our differences were largely inconsequential background to the sort of personal interactions the platform was created to prioritise.

The ascendancy of Donald Trump changed all that. Although I try to “like” her posts from time to time or leave a friendly comment, the percentage of polemical MAGA-type content in her feed is making it increasingly difficult for me to interact with them in a positive way. The sole exceptions, really, are photographs of the grandson she is raising and posts she shares advocating for the preservation of arts education. Depressing as this situation is, it makes me feel a little better that, despite her repetition of Fox News talking points as if they were incontrovertible facts, she hasn’t abandoned her belief that the work teachers do matters in ways that can’t be readily quantified.

Her example makes me hesitant to sustain an ironic posture towards the work of artists like Jon McNaughton. So do the comments of a great many Americans who earnestly believe that paintings like National Emergency represent important contributions to political life. Deriding them for being out of step with current trends in the art world, when anyone who actually pays attention to the gallery-museum-biennial circuit knows that there isn’t any clear way forward being articulated, seems insincere, if not outright dangerous.

The tale of Adolph Hitler’s transformation from frustrated artist into deranged dictator has been told so many times that it has largely lost the power to make us reflect. But maybe it’s time to revisit it from a new angle. When my daughter was in first grade, just learning how to read, the very first thing she wanted to look up on Wikipedia was Hitler’s biography, particularly the years he spent struggling after his mother’s death, when he scratched out a living as a street artist. Somehow she had become convinced, perhaps because of the education she had received at the Jewish Community Centre’s preschool, that the key to understanding his descent into madness lay in the fact that his art was looked down upon for being too aesthetically conservative. Then she asked to look up Olivia Newton-John. 

Whereas Hitler was unable to find the audience for his art that he was hoping for, Jon McNaughton has become very successful because he bypassed the traditional art world. The main difference between them, clearly – aside from the fact that McNaughton is more technically proficient at rendering the human form – is that social media platforms make it possible for artists to find their public without the proverbial middleman. McNaughton’s business model focuses not on extracting maximum value from his original canvases, but on selling reproductions of his work from his website, in a variety of formats. These customers may not experience the aura of a unique work of art, but are compensated by the feeling that they are supporting a worthy project, almost like contributors to a Kickstarter campaign.

Historically, such efforts at self-promotion were regarded as hopelessly vulgar, leading to the artists who indulged in them being treated as outcasts. Yet at a time when just about every celebrity of note has to mind her or his “socials” in order to stay in the public eye, this approach seems perfectly logical. Most of the people who mock McNaughton and other conservative artists these days are not doing it because they have crossed an invisible boundary into artistic impropriety, but because they are using the direct-mail approach to promote a conservative agenda.

The more I look at National Emergency, the more I see a work that must be taken seriously precisely because of the way McNaughton positions himself in relation to the traditional art world. The ideological convictions he transforms into allegorical representation may be infuriating to liberals and progressives. But treating them as a source of humour does everyone a grave disservice.

As Dejan Nikolic, a Serbian acquaintance of mine, remarked upon seeing the painting, “I believe it is impossible to unambiguously deconstruct this image in camp mode.” Noting that both Trump’s bowed-head prayer and Pelosi’s raised fist are “in EARNEST,” he went on to state that he is continuously amazed “how art somehow always escapes your intentions and is never entirely YOUR WORK”. Given the fact that Nikolic grew up in the shadow of socialist realism, this strikes me as a much more productive way of approaching the painting than an attitude of ironic consumption.

The likelihood of changing hardened political beliefs is slim. If it’s going to happen, though, it is almost certainly not going to be through mockery. Although I am drawn to humour that makes fun of the President and his supporters, I want to do a better job of resisting its pull. When I look at a painting like National Emergency, I do not want to see art that is hopelessly propagandistic and backward, but art that holds great appeal for thousands and thousands of people desperate to preserve what matters most to them in a rapidly changing world. It won’t be easy. But the alternative is to reinforce divisions that have already made it impossible for people who care about each other personally to communicate anything other than confusion and contempt.


Screenshot courtesy of KUTV. All rights reserved.