In the universe of Fox News, the most famous living artist in America isn’t Jeff Koons or Richard Serra or Cindy Sherman, but a fifty-five-year-old painter based in the Atlanta suburbs named Steve Penley. His paintings—bright, brushy renderings of American flags, the Statue of Liberty, Coca-Cola bottles, and Ronald Reagan—have graced the walls of Fox’s New York studios, the offices of Republican politicians like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senator Ted Cruz, and the headquarters of the Coca-Cola Company. According to a fawning 2011 profile of the artist in the National Review, the late Andrew Breitbart had an eight-foot-tall Penley portrait of Lincoln in his living room. Penley’s name may be absent from the pages of art magazines, but it appears in Death on the D-List, a mystery novel by Nancy Grace, in which the presence of “a Steve Penley” in one character’s apartment is invoked to establish her expensive taste. An original Penley costs around $20,000, but the masses can buy reproductions printed on canvas for $650—double it, and he’ll throw in some honest-to-god brushstrokes on top.
Though he calls his style “expressionistic realism,” Penley’s artistic idiom is more or less Pop—he cites “Warhol, Rauschenberg, people like that” as his favorite artists—but stripped of any irony or ambivalence whatsoever, which means it’s really just advertising. What it advertises is America, “the greatest country in the history of civilization,” as Penley told Fox News audiences in an on-air focus group with Frank Luntz—another frequent patron—after one of the 2012 presidential debates. The backdrop: a massive Penley mural of the candidates absorbed into a field of stars and stripes and flanked by portraits of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Lady Liberty. Would it be too conspiratorial to suggest that the lone red star placed near Obama’s face was intended as a subliminal message?
It’s not just Penley’s art that’s ubiquitous on Fox; the man himself frequently turns up as a guest on the morning show Fox & Friends. One recurring gimmick involves Penley making a painting over the course of a single three-hour broadcast, with the finished canvas unveiled with great fanfare at the end of the show. Variations on the same conversation unfold each time, the basic contours of which can be summed up by this exchange, from a Veteran’s Day episode in 2012: asked to identify his “favorite, iconic American image,” Penley says, “I love Reagan—just the idea of Reagan, because he represents that rugged individual optimism. He believes in America and what it stands for.” But, he continues, “I like whatever sells.” “That’s patriotic,” responds co-host Alisyn Camerota.
Penley is hardly the only artist to be lavished with the attention of Fox’s talking heads. Take, for instance, David Pulphus, the Missouri teenager whose painting Untitled #1 was selected by the office of his congressman, William Lacy Clay, to represent their St. Louis district in the 2016 Congressional Art Competition for high school students. The painting, made in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, depicts a cop in the guise of a warthog pointing his gun at a figure—a wolf in a T-shirt and jeans—who holds up a sign that says “Stop Killing” while throngs of protesters march in the background. Looming over the scene is a crucified black boy, still wearing his graduation cap, with the scales of justice dangling from his arms.
The painting had been on display in a corridor of the U.S. Capitol building for several months without incident before Fox’s Eric Bolling caught wind of it: after he began calling for its removal in late December 2016, the painting was the subject of near constant coverage across the network over the next two weeks, denounced repeatedly during segments on America’s Newsroom, Fox & Friends, The O’Reilly Factor, The Five, and The Strategy Room. “The way the artist is depicting Ferguson is absolutely false. There’s a false narrative that was driven by the left and the media and it has led to a lot of police deaths across this country,” said the Washington Examiner’s Lisa Boothe during a guest appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. Looking for airtime of his own, the Republican congressman Duncan Hunter of California pulled the canvas off the wall; not long after, he turned up for an interview on Fox & Friends, where he received a hero’s welcome. “This is the people’s house and I’m the people’s representative,” Hunter said. “We have school kids coming by every day, they should not be seeing policemen portrayed as pigs shooting unarmed people.” That school kids see actual policemen shooting unarmed people—or are themselves the unarmed people being shot—warranted no mention. Hunter was back on the show a few days later: “It’s a sad commentary on the Democratic Party that the one thing they’re willing to stand up for in this country is to portray police officers as pigs.” The hosts nodded in agreement.
The curators, critics, and artists who have dreamed of the day when claims for the immanently political character of art would be more than exhibition catalog fodder need only tune in to Fox to find that it has already arrived. According to the Fox News theory of art, an artwork’s primary purpose isn’t to awe, inspire, or delight, let alone challenge your understanding of the world, but to serve as an expression of partisan allegiances; that you might also get a kick out of looking at it is more of a perk. On Fox News, the suggestion that a statue of a Confederate general who fought and died for the cause of chattel slavery doesn’t belong in public makes you a censorious triggered lib trampling on the Constitution, but an elected official who tears down a teenager’s painting acts in the name of human dignity. Like a topsy-turvy version of Pierre Bourdieu, the Fox News theory of art imagines that a preference for, say, Penley’s Reagan Cowboy versus Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is what divides the lovers of liberty who bleed red, white, and blue from the rootless cosmopolitans in the pocket of George Soros, smuggling in Sharia law through taxpayer-funded galleries and museums.
If this sounds a little hyperbolic, consider, for a moment, the primetime monologue delivered by Sean Hannity when Piss Christ—infamous for its role in the 1980s culture wars—was exhibited in a 2012 survey of Serrano’s work at a New York gallery. In a gesture of classic Fox good faith, Hannity compared the photograph by the Catholic Serrano to the deliberately inflammatory, cartoonishly racist film Innocence of Muslims, whose circulation on YouTube that summer prompted a wave of anti-American protests across the Middle East:
The double standard in this administration is quite astounding. President Obama continues to express outrage, issue apologies to extremists over a so-called movie trailer that they had nothing to do with but here at home, silence is deafening when it comes to a disgusting anti-Christian work . . . Why is it that it’s only in the case of radical Islamists that these apologies, that taxpayer money—why are we kissing up to and sucking up to people that hate us? Because I don’t see the administration saying anything, saying it’s disgusting, this crucifix in urine—I doubt they’re going to say a word.
Or this one, from the Fox radio host Todd Starnes—who was fired last October after sincerely claiming on the air that Democrats worship the pagan god Moloch—delivered in response to a sculpture of Christ impaled on a dartboard that was displayed at Rutgers University’s art library in April 2016, part of an exhibition of jokey Surrealist homages by local artist Joseph Ursulo: “This is nothing new, what happened at Rutgers University, a school supported by our tax dollars, by the way,” Starnes said, practically foaming at the mouth. “You’ve got Islamic radicals waging jihad with the sword, and people like this waging jihad with the paintbrush.”
If Steve Penley is Fox News’ favorite artist, its truest artistic expression is found in the work of the Utah painter and meme factory Jon McNaughton, whose canvases might best be described as distillations of the network’s noxious essence into iconic form. I suspect that if you fed every episode of Hannity to an AI algorithm and taught it to paint, you’d get something like McNaughton’s 2012 work One Nation Under Socialism, a portrait of Obama holding up a flaming copy of the Constitution and pointing his finger at it solemnly like a twisted Virgin Hodegetria. The admiration is mutual: Hannity in fact owns this painting. As he explained on his radio show, he’d never felt compelled to buy art before, but he was overcome by McNaughton’s vision: “It moves me more than any art that I’ve ever seen.”
Only three kinds of art exist for Fox News: patriotic, stupid, and obscene.
We might imagine that Hannity was touched by this picture because it parrots back his own speech, but that’s not exactly why he wanted it. The real reason gets closer to the heart of what Fox News thinks, deep down, art is really for: “I came up with an idea. After I buy the painting, I’m going to contact the Brooklyn Museum of Art. I’m going to offer this McNaughton painting on loan. They like controversial art,” Hannity says. “I’m going to find all these places that [exhibited] Andre [sic] Serrano, a crucifix submerged in urine, and all this other controversial art with the American flag. . . . Liberals defend all this, ‘this is free speech.’ And I’m going to offer to loan my painting by Jon McNaughton to all these museums. And I’m betting they’re not gonna take it.” For Hannity, a painting is interesting to the extent that it can be used as a cudgel.
The Stupid Art Paradox
Accordingly, there are only three kinds of art that exist for Fox News: patriotic, stupid, and obscene. Alongside Penley and McNaughton in the first category are artists like Joe Everson, who is invited to demonstrate his signature shtick—painting the Statue of Liberty or the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima upside down while singing the national anthem, I kid you not—live on Fox roughly once a year, and Scott LoBaido, whose most recent masterpiece is a twenty-foot-tall monument to Donald Trump on a Staten Island lawn: a depiction of the president mugging in a “POTUS 45” T-shirt, revealing a set of improbably jacked biceps. LoBaido is also on hand to offer commentary as needed about the art world’s hypocritical close-mindedness toward conservative values. (As Hannity let slip in his plans for One Nation Under Socialism, right-wing art is even more valuable to the cause if there’s a plausible claim for discrimination by the secret cabal of leftist cultural arbiters.) On the opposite end of the spectrum are artists like Pulphus and Serrano, subjected to abuse for their perceived disrespect to white America, the Trump family, Israel, blue lives, our troops, Jesus Christ, or the flag.
The stuff in the middle—most institutionally recognized contemporary art—is viewed with predictable contempt by Fox, its self-evident idiocy matched only by that of the coastal morons who stand around admiring it, a demonstration of the brain-warping effects of a liberal arts education and New York City tap water. But the tone with which “stupid” art is approached is crude mockery, not righteous indignation. In 2015, Bill O’Reilly sent his smarmiest correspondent, Jesse Watters, to Art Basel Miami Beach to conduct man-on-the-street interviews with fairgoers, where he asked pointed questions like “how much is that going for?” and “if liberals are so creative, why can’t Obama create jobs?” The responses were intercut with clips from cartoons and slapstick comedies, so there could be no danger of the audience missing the point: a freak with blue hair ascribing profound meaning to a $3.5 million painting of stripes is funny, like watching someone slip on a banana peel.
Yet, stupid art poses an interesting conundrum for Fox News by dint of its outrageous expense: How to reconcile an utter disdain for liberal tastes with a reverence for capitalist exchange? From time to time, this cognitive dissonance plays out live on the air. We might call it the Tracey Emin Problem, after Greg Gutfeld’s 2014 monologue on The Five about the sale of Emin’s 1998 installation My Bed. A reconstruction of the artist’s bedroom following a period of post-breakup depression, replete with stained and rumpled sheets, an overflowing ashtray, empty vodka bottles, tampons, and condoms, My Bed sold at auction for £2.54 million, equivalent to around $4.25 million at the time. “The buyer remains anonymous, as one should after purchasing a soiled mattress for the price of a Malibu beach house. It raises some questions. Is this art?” he asks, with a smug, shit-eating rictus. “Sadly I realize we’re in the wrong profession. So today I decided to become an artist,” Gutfeld announces to his fellow hosts, before hoisting up a plastic garbage bag of clothes from underneath the desk. “Here’s my first creation. I call it Greg’s Dirty Bag of Relentless Horror. It’s actually my laundry. But it could also be a symbol of man’s callous disregard for our planet, and our own inhumanity toward our fellow man. Starting bid begins at a thousand bucks.” He turns to his co-host Andrea Tantaros, who later sued Fox for sexual harassment (the case was ultimately thrown out), and asks “is this worth four million?” But a funny thing happens: Gutfeld catches himself just as the words leave his mouth. He cuts Tantaros off before she can run with the ball, instead throwing his hands up to offer Emin his grudging respect. It’s pretty impressive, after all, to convince someone to pay millions of dollars for some literal trash. Emin may be a talentless hack, Gutfeld suggests, but she’s also an entrepreneurial genius. A work like My Bed is thus the problem child of the Fox News theory of art, embodying the intellectual and ideological emptiness of the left-leaning cultural elite and, simultaneously, that most hallowed of free-market principles: a widget is worth whatever someone is willing to pay.
In this sense, the closest analogue to the Fox News theory of art might be the “Three Ts” cultural policy of János Kádár’s Hungary, where all artworks were divided into the categories “Support” (Támogatás), “Tolerate” (Tűrés), or “Prohibit” (Tiltás), based on their degree of compatibility with party ideology. I’m only half kidding. Fox News doesn’t officially dictate policy in the United States, but given the absurd feedback loop that currently exists between its studios and the White House, the similarities might give us pause. After all, both Pulphus’s and Ursulo’s works were pulled from view after Fox began stoking the flames of populist outrage. But a more chilling example might be former Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough’s decision to voluntarily remove David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly from a 2010 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, acquiescing to the threats of Republican legislators—amplified by round the clock coverage on Fox—who objected to a few seconds of footage depicting ants crawling over a statuette of Christ. (The official excuse was that “museum officials’ insufficient explanation of the work led to its hasty withdrawal,” according to a board member involved in the decision.) What made Hungary’s “Three Ts” policy so effective was that it encouraged self-censorship: there were privileges associated with slavishly following party doctrine and punishment for being openly defiant, but the real trick was the nebulous middle ground of “tolerated,” what the writer Miklós Haraszti called “the velvet prison.” Afraid of losing its relative comforts by treading into prohibited territory, artists slowly backed away toward the center; after a while, they’d look down to discover that they were simply toeing the line.