Monday, February 15, 2010

One Nation Under God

Jon McNaughton’s painting "One Nation Under God" shows Jesus together with many political figures of American history. Jesus is in the center of the painting, and he is also illuminated by the sun that forms a halo around his head. Wearing brightly colored robes, he clearly is the center of attention. In his right hand, Jesus holds the U.S. Constitution, which a little boy seems to be reading. Behind Jesus, many important American historical characters, especially politicians, are gathered, among them celebrities like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy. In the front left corner of the image, a number of normal citizens are shown, facing Jesus and the U.S. Constitution. To Jesus’ left, business people, news reporters, and lawyers gather, looking away from Jesus. At the edge of the same group of people, there is a hooded figure that looks like an evil demon. Close to the lawyer, there are pieces of paper on the floor. In the background of the painting, there are the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol Building. Rising up in the early-morning sky is the American flag.

Jon McNaughton, an American artist from Utah, completed his painting "One Nation Under God" in 2009. He got the inspiration for the painting “right in the middle of the 2008 elections”, as McNaughton says himself in an interview found on his website. This means that the painting was created during a period of great political change. It can be expected that this change is reflected in the image, which renders it political, or might even make it an outspoken political statement by the artist himself.

In fact, McNaughton’s painting is very symbolic, as he reveals in the interview, so as to “cause people to study it and ponder its message”. While many artists publish statements about their works of art, they usually do not provide as much detail as McNaughton does for "One Nation Under God". Every person and every important object in the image has a roll-over description on the homepage. This reduces the possibilities for interpretation, making the painting even more of a statement.

Even without the artist’s comments, however, the basic ideas of the painting are clear. The prominent position of Jesus, proudly presenting the U.S. Constitution, shows that the document is inspired, or at least sanctioned, by God. Thus, the Capitol Building and the Supreme Court in the background are sanctioned, too. They, along with the crowd gathering behind Jesus, influenced the United States in a positive way. This becomes apparent because Jesus is standing in front of them, as the leader of the crowd. Jesus and all the people behind him look at the people in the bottom right corner of the painting. Some people in the front of the crowd, such as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln, seem to give the people in the right corner accusing stares and gesture towards Jesus, as if they wanted to say that they should change and follow his lead. This interpretation is similar to what the artist himself says about his artwork.

That the people to Jesus’ left are indeed bad in one way or another is also symbolized by the hooded figure standing with them that is supposed to represent Satan, according to McNaughton. While the people behind Jesus all aided the United States in one way or another, those to Jesus’ left are on the wrong way and stop the country’s progress. They are, however, not in the process of turning to Jesus, but continue to look away from him. An interesting detail provided by the artist is the time shown by the lawyer’s clock. It is 11:59, which means that there is “little time remaining” to repent, do the right thing and turn toward Jesus.

Here one could find a parallel to the New Testament. When Jesus talks to his disciples about the coming of the kingdom of God, he also says that there will be those who will try to “lead many astray” (Mt 24:11), represented by the hooded figure in the painting. Moreover, since the bad people are to Jesus’ left, the painting might also have been inspired by Mt 25:33 where it says that the Son of Man, come to judge the people, will “put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” In fact, the artist himself says in the interview that the “strong Americans” are to Jesus’ right, whereas those who “have weakened the country” are to his left. Having those biblical scenes in mind and knowing that the painting is very symbolical, it is possible to arrive at its intended meaning even without the information the author provided.

The image is very political in that it shows specific individuals as good, namely those to Jesus’ right and those standing behind him, while portraying those to Jesus’ left as bad. Therefore, the painting generalizes over several groups of people. The politician is presented as minding his own business, talking in his cell phone. The lawyer counts his money although Jesus is in the center of the image, illuminated by the sun, which means that all the lawyer cares about is his money. Not even the reporter seems to care about Jesus. On the other hand, the hard-working farmer and doctor on the left side of the painting are completely preoccupied with Jesus. This allows for the interpretation that the artist wants to express his dissatisfaction with certain groups of people in the United States because he believes that they only care about themselves, but not about the well-being of the country.

To sum up, Jon McNaughton’s "One Nation Under God" is a painting that, although it includes Jesus as its central figure, is not about Jesus in the first place. Rather, it is a display of the state the artists perceives the United States to be in right now. Moreover, it is a political statement by McNaughton, expressing which groups of people he thinks aid America’s progress and which don’t. The fact that the homepage provides the viewer with very detailed comments on the elements of the painting supports this interpretation.

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