The Indians of British Columbia live largely upon the fish which abound in their seas and rivers. If the fish do not come in due season, and the Indians are hungry, a Nootka wizard will make an image of a swimming fish and put it into the water in the direction from which the fish generally appear. — Sir James Frazier, The Golden Bough
Jon McNaughton’s One Nation Under God (“ONUG”) has secured a place for him as the Jacques Louis David of the Glenn Beck–Cleon Skousen divinely inspired constitution scene. McNaughton seems to have created this painting with the very urim and thummim (“spirit goggles” or “seer stones”) with which the prophets of old were able to divine the word and will of God, but McNaughton’s spirit goggles are tightly focused on the dominionist visions of Skousen and Beck. Billed as the most symbolic painting ever created, ONUG is a crowded landscape set somewhere on the Washington mall.
The overall impression created by the painting is that Norman Rockwell has painted a version of Bosch’s The Last Judgment, or that Joe Coleman has become a born again Christian. The scene is set beneath a darkening sky, and our only points of reference are the Capitol Dome in the left-hand background and the Supreme Court in the distance on the right.
Rising from the center of ONUG is the figure of an enormous Christ, triumphant and resurrected, a magnificent light bursting forth from his head. He is bedecked in a golden robe over a white undergarment that is “branded” with the tree of life (composed of dozens of swirling chinatown Nike swooshes). In his right hand, the Son of Man holds the constitution as he stares coldly and decisively at some distant point beyond the viewers’ right shoulder. Surrounding Christ on all sides are a motley multitude of well-known and anonymous figures, who stand as the “symbols” in this painting.
Here I should pause for a brief aside. On McNaughton’s webpage, ONUG is presented with a scrolling java interface that allows the viewer to roll over each figure in the painting and receive the symbolic “meaning” of that figure straight from the artist’s mind. In other words, McNaughton has preempted the work of both the viewer and the critic (for McNaughton’s complete listing of the symbols see here or for a more critical listing, see here). With an authoritarian voice consistent with his worldview, McNaughton has pronounced that a equals a, does not equal b, and that the excluded middle shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. This attempt to control the meanings of words and symbols, to say “yes” and “no,” is the juvenile aping of paternal authority and the degree zero of the authoritarian act.
To resume, the first of the figures we note is a small boy who has approached from Christ’s right to point at the constitution (perhaps he is pointing to the establishment clause?). Before this simultaneously cute and terrifying spectacle, a symbolic concatenation of the saved and the damned huddle in the painting’s foreground. To Christ’s left stoop the liberal elites whose damnation is assured. There is the smug “Mr. Hollywood,” who has laughingly turned his back on Christ. In the corner sits the money-counting Lawyer (the Jew?). Then there are the Activist Supreme Court Justice (portrayed as a sobbing Judas who, probably due to the artist’s own fear of libel suits, is unable to show his face), and the Professor, who clutches Darwin’s Origin of Species to his heart as he pompously ignores the Living God. Also pictured are the Pregnant Woman (who McNaughton tells us is considering an abortion), the Liberal News Reporter looking for a story, the Politician who is too busy talking on a cell phone (negotiating a last minute rewrite of the public option perhaps), and, hidden in shadows, old scratch himself, the Devil.
At Christ’s right hand sit the elect, in every way the sinners’ symbolic opposites. There is the simple Farmer, America’s backbone, who, by a wholesome sort of alchemy, converts government subsidies into life-sustaining food. Also among these living saints are The Mother,the Christian Minister, the School Teacher, the Immigrant (according to McNaughton, to represent freedom of religion!?!), the Family Doctor, the loving, life-renewing, U.S. Marine, and the student, who holds aloft Cleon Skousen’s 5,000 year leap. The ideological debt to Beck and Skousen is finally acknowledged.
This painting is not just McNaughton’s dominionist view of America, it is a channeling of Beck’s and Skousen’s views as well. Behind the painter’s Yankee piety lurks the avarice of the huckster who has finally found his dupe. The best salesman, as we are often reminded, is the one who believes in his own pitch.
Not even Reagan or Harriet Tubman can save us from the mob, and from ourselves.
Continuing, we find a litany of dead and, it would seem, resurrected historical figures, arrayed at a respectful distance, fanning out from behind Christ. Each one as out of place as the next. Included are a number of anonymous and representative soldiers from all our wars. In the background the careful viewer will also find Frederick Douglas and Ulysses Grant, both staring dumbly from behind Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap. Eisenhower is here too, and so is “space-teacher” Christa Macaulliffe. At Christ’s left shoulder George Washington swears not to tell a lie while Abraham Lincoln strikes an Al Jolson pose in front of a modern African American soldier identified by a name patch as “King” (as McNaughton explains it, in tribute to Martin Luther King). Dolly Madison, Patrick Henry, are here too, as well as many, many, so many more. Chief among this motley crowd looms Ronald Reagan, who, adjusted for perspective seems to be taller than anyone in the photo save the Living God.
The message of the painting is made clear if we simply remove the figure of Christ. The painting’s center becomes an empty field and the constitution flutters lifelessly to the ground. Without Christ we can imagine that this strange menagerie of the Great, the dead, the sinful and the bored, would suddenly come to life in a melee of bickering and strife. Not even Reagan or Harriet Tubman can save us from the mob, and from ourselves; only Christ can turn difference into unity.
The entire history of the United States, of competing interests, compromise, reform and reaction, greed and restraint, war and peace, is reduced to the will of God. America as God’s domain conquers the old notion that the American Experiment, at its best, stands for a faith that reason will, slowly but surely, triumph over chauvinism and self-interest. But this is not Skousen’s view, and that is not what these men represent. Reduced to celebrity status, this horde of known and anonymous great men are stripped of complexity and individuality, reduced to a comforting mob of gestures and facts. Stripped of their greatness, their sole commonality is that, no matter what they thought they were doing, they were conduits for divine purpose, the slaves of Christ. If we wish to be great, we should do as they did an become as they are: we must bow our heads in prayer, and then do nothing. How can base and worldly concerns like universal health care possibly improve the perfect?
It is easy take isၳue with almost everything in the painting. Why, for instance, is it called “One Nation Under God,” when a more logical title would seem to be “One God over a Nation?” And then there are the painting’s formal issues. Why are these symbolic figures, sinner and saint alike, looking in so many different directions? What are they looking at? And they are just piled on, with no real uniting structure at all. How can Lincoln and Washington stand there blithely unaware that the Word Made Flesh stands just to their right? And is that golden light emanating from Christ’s head, or the heavens, or both? The perspective is unclear. Why does the activist supreme court justice have six fingers? Why do so many of the resurrected appear bored and disinterested? Is that a symptom of the resurrection process?
Many have attacked the meaning and symbolic incoherence of ONUG, challenging both his choice of subjects and the meanings that he attaches to them. Why Teddy and not Franklin Roosevelt? Why Dolly Madison at all? Why is an immigrant numbered among those apparently saved? Aren’t many of the resurrected deists? And why no mention of slavery in explaining Lincoln’s importance?
Some of these questions can be answered by resorting to psychology, cynicism, or ideological motive, but none of them solve the larger problem, which is the strange weight of all these symbols. Every symbol is problematic, and the juxtaposition between each symbol and every other symbol in the painting only serves to multiply the problems. What is the meaning of all these symbols?
ONUG is so heavily laden with such a wide variety of symbols that any attempt to find meaning in the juxtaposition of the symbols themselves or to find an internal cohesion fails before it has even begun.
Normally, symbolic paintings are ordered to create an organic whole that transcends the symbolic. To achieve this, artists must use symbols sparingly. Look at Leonardo’s Last Supper or Dürer’s Nemesis to see this principle at work. When there are too many symbols or the symbols do not have clear meanings, the result, as in Dürer’s Melancolia, is fracture and confusion of meaning. At first glance, this seems to be the problem with ONUG. But ONUG is so heavily laden with such a wide variety of symbols that any attempt to find meaning in the juxtaposition of the symbols themselves or to find an internal cohesion fails before it has even begun.
The point of the painting seems not to be so much in the meaning of the symbols, but in their collection and display. The longer we look, the less McNaughton’s painting seems to belong to the modern tradition of painting, and the more it begins to resemble the sort of art found in the Great Gallery at Horseshoe Canyon or Lascaux cave. These older forms of painting work not only on the symbolic and representational planes. They promote divine favor by representing abundance and increase: in short they employ sympathetic or imitative magic.
ONUG finds another parallel in the representational and symbolic practices of others who have been dazzled by American greatness:
When the war ended several years later, the Americans departed [Vanuatu] as suddenly as they had arrived. Military bases were abandoned, and the steady flow of cargo which had altered the islanders’ lives completely dried up. The men and women of Tanna Island had grown to enjoy the radios, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola, canned meat, and candy, so they set into motion a plan to bring back the cargo. They had surreptitiously learned the secrets of summoning the cargo by observing the practices of the American airmen, sailors and soldiers.
The islanders set to work clearing their own kind of landing strips, and they erected their own control towers strung with rope and bamboo aerials. They carved wooden radio headsets with bamboo antennae, and even the occasional wooden air-traffic controller. Day after day, men from the village sat in their towers wearing their replica headsets as others stood on the runways and waved the landing signals to attract cargo-bringing airplanes from the empty sky. More towers were constructed, these with tin cans strung on wires to imitate radio stations so John Frum could communicate with his people. Piers were also erected in an effort to attract ships laden with cargo, and the Red Cross emblem seen on wartime ambulances was taken as the symbol of the resurging religion. Today villages surrounding Yasur Volcano are dotted with little red crosses surrounded by picket fences, silently testifying to the islander’s faith.
So great was the American wealth that had appeared out of the sky, that it could only have come from the gods. Using the principles of sympathetic or imitative magic, the obvious notion that like begets like, the Vanuatuans attempted to conjure up cargo by aping the actions of American servicemen.
And this too is what McNaughton, Beck and Skousen are up to. Overwhelmed by the strife and discord of the present, they have turned to aping the past. If the country seems fractured and discordant the answer lies in finding the secrets of the ancients. And through the kabbalistic power of 9 principles and 12 values we can do just that. The sacred language of the American past must be pilfered to find just the right men and just the right words. The words, chanted and repeated until devoid of meaning, and spoken by one whose heart is pure, can then be used called forth the New Jerusalem, which has always been our birthright.
McNaughton’s painting does with images what Beck and Skousen do with words. Blending apotropaic and imitative magic, McNaughton has not created a painting so much as a charm or a spell intended to restore the old America of goodness, virtue and abundance. His symbols, and the control he exercises over them is not an attempt to create meaning, but to strip it away. Once the excess meanings and connotations of these ghosts have been excised, the absent god-men can be properly conjured up, and America will be restored, One Nation Under God, with no King but Jesus.
John Frum will come.
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