When Jon McNaughton unveiled his new painting “Crossing the Swamp” on July 31, he probably wasn’t expecting to get as much attention as he did, including over 14,000 Twitter comments, 20,000 likes, and news coverage from major outlets like Fox News, USA Today, and ABC News. What the incident reveals is a new awakening in the artistic world.
McNaughton’s painting is conservative art. It depicts the Trump administration in a positive light: The president and his cabinet navigate the swampy waters of Washington DC’s bureaucratic corruption. In classical fashion, it is realistic and is directly modeled on the 1851 painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze.
The awarding-winning poet Bruce Dale Wise wrote a poem describing the painting:
Don Trump with lantern in his hand
is standing in the boat,
with rowers working hard
to keep the nation’s soul afloat
Today, news on fine art is usually reserved for the extra-weird art that tears down boundaries and disrupts traditional aesthetics, like a giant bamboo art installation at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston that you can climb and robot-made art that is judged by public voting. Such art does make for an interesting news story and public spectacle, but it also falls short when judged based on the aesthetic standards people around the world have held for thousands of years.
Instead of disrupting traditional aesthetics, McNaughton’s “Crossing the Swamp” literally crosses a new boundary into uncharted territory: contemporary conservative art. Generally speaking, these two words “conservative” and “art” do not go together—not if you want to be taken seriously or receive any kind of funding, anyway.
As dance artist Shawn Lent wrote earlier this year, while at Art Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, “As I look around in my artist circles, I wonder, are all artists liberal?” Writing in the Clyde Fitch Report, she warned against the growing echo chamber that left-leaning arts is finding itself in and outlined four reasons that conservative arts need more consideration.
The rise of conservative art is also seen in a battle that is being waged in Washington DC over the future of the long-delayed Eisenhower Memorial. One side, led by the likes of classical sculptors Sabin Howard and Michael Curtis, favors classicism that builds on past traditions such as the accurate and ennobling depiction of the human form. The other side favors a gigantic sort of geometric playground designed by contemporary architect Frank Gehry. The new conservative art trend usually favors tradition while the liberal establishment usually favors progressiveness.
The debate over the Eisenhower Memorial is exceptional because it is a debate that simply wouldn’t have happened in the past few decades. It highlights the rise of conservative art.
“In the giddy days of the Progressive era, America’s progressive architects and theorists wished to replace the eternal classical with a presumed zeitgeist, ‘spirit of the times,’” writes Curtis in his newly released book on DC architecture. The giddiness of the post-World War II era, peaking in the 1970s, has turned to artistic languor and is now being uprooted by conservative art, said Curtis.
Moving to the realm of poetry, the conservative art in the shadows was expressed perhaps best when New York Times poetry editor David Orr wrote in his 2012 book: “Almost all poets, including myself, lean left. There are maybe five conservative American poets, not one of whom can safely show his face at a writing conference for fear of being angrily doused with herbal tea.”
Within the poetry establishment, Orr’s words are true enough but beg the question: Are conservative poets being (ironically) oppressed and persecuted? Replace the word “left” with “white” and the word “conservative” with “black” and you get: “Almost all poets, including myself, lean white. There are maybe five black American poets, not one of whom can safely show his face at a writing conference for fear of being angrily doused with herbal tea.” The takeaway here is that no one should be treated this way, and the establishment is oppressive and due for a change. People love an underdog and conservative art is the underdog of today.
As president and editor of the Society of Classical Poets, I have published poetry from different political leanings and, most often, poetry that is about beauty and isn’t political all. However, in terms of sheer reactions from the public, I have seen a huge yearning for conservative poets who cherish tradition and do not agree with the angry left-leaning establishment described by Orr.
When we published a poem, by the acclaimed poet Joseph Charles MacKenzie, on the occasion of President Trump’s inauguration, it spread like wild fire. Like McNaughton’s painting, it received an unusual outpouring of comments and was reported on by major media in the United States and the UK.
Most recently, a poem we published last month on the jailing of conservative journalist Tommy Robinson in the UK received an outpouring of positive comments from across the world. To add to the positive outcome, shortly after the poem was published, Robinson was indeed released!
Whether its art, poetry, dance, or any other art form, the newest and freshest perspective is a rediscovery of the traditional and conservative, and the general public is starting to realize it. Sound strange? It shouldn’t. It was the Renaissance, or literally Rebirth, in Europe that also reached into the past and reshaped the establishment. In conservative art, we look now upon nothing less than a second Rebirth.
Evan Mantyk is president of the Society of Classical Poets and teaches literature and history in upstate New York.