Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fear-mongering, ignorance and the not-so-fine arts

Today Kathleen and I were shopping at the mall in Provo, Utah and came across a store that sold what appeared to be knock-offs of Thomas Kinkade-style paintings, many with Mormon themes. This being Sunday, the store was closed, the cage drawn down.

Dominating the entry area was a large painting of a crowd of men standing in front of the White House. On further inspection, it became clear that the men were the 44 presidents of the United States. There was a forlorn man sitting on a bench with four presidents appearing to comfort the fellow. All of the other presidents are paying the man no attention.

In the foreground is President Obama, who appears particularly disdainful. Under his right foot is -- a copy of the Constitution. Dollar bills litter the ground nearby. There are other papers, including the act that created Social Security, etc. Subtle it is not. "Fine art" it is not. It's title is "The Forgotten Man."

Who, you would ask, are the four presidents who are depicted favorably? They are Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and -- wait for it -- Ronald Reagan. Yes of the 44 American presidents, he is among the four who deserve particular credit for coming to the aid of the common man.

It turns out that this painting has become either famous or infamous in various circles. I'm surprised I'd not heard of it. The depiction is so despicable that I won't mention the artist's name, but he's copyrighted the image so I can't show it here. You can see it, complete with a detailed description of the symbolism (as if you'll need it) on the artist's web site.

The artist is quick to argue that his depiction isn't racist and that he deplores both parties. In other words, he's an equal-opportunity bigot and simpleton. He suggests that his purpose is to incite discussion. I beg to differ -- he's attempting to use his modest artistic talent to color over centuries of history, debate, compromise, sincere effort, progress and failure. In this way he's no different than the talk show hosts, bloggers and talking heads of our era who profess to wanting simply to engage the debate but who are clearly not sincere.

We've all seen lots of ugly art, but I don't recall seeing anything quite so disgusting as "The Forgotten Man." I was so appalled that I went to the men's room, took a piece of paper hand towel and wrote a brief note, which I jammed into a notch in the metal cage protecting the store. While I was in the men's room, a couple had walked up to the store and were standing at the opening looking at the painting.

"I'm surprised," said the woman to the man next to her, apparently her husband.

"Why?" I asked.

"I know these people," she said, apparently referring to the artist and his family. "I'm disappointed."

I showed her my note.

"Good for you," she said. Small comfort.

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