Just because we’re being menaced and disgusted currently by a new grotesque psychopath conjured by the Republican Party to destabilize global civilization and fail at basic impulse control, let’s not forget the previous one: President George W. Bush.
Among the myriad reasons American political culture constantly seems to be plagued by such monstrous politicians is the fact that no matter what any terrible past, say, President might have done, he will pay no judicial price and, moreover, likely be rehabilitated into a lovable, possibly eccentric statesman. That is why, in the midst of the current interminable, oppressive campaign, I want to take a moment to consider the recently announced, forthcoming book of Bush’s paintings with the unsubtle title: Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to American Warriors.
Let’s never see George W. Bush as a lovable statesman!
It is rare for a genuine villain to turn publicly to art making in retirement. (I know what you’re thinking, but Hitler was a painter before he was, you know, Hitler; he did not retire.) Furthermore, it takes a remarkable kind of villain to have lived a life so depraved and hideous that essentially benign paintings remain infected by their association with him. At a certain point, art usually breaks free of its creator and communicates with its audience or, more precisely, its culture on its own terms. What we might know about the artist’s biography or intentions gets folded into and generally overshadowed by the many available meanings and possible interpretations of the work. I find Bush’s paintings a special case because his noxious shadow has so much presence and tenacity that the artwork cannot escape. These paintings clearly seem meant to humanize Bush and rehabilitate his image, but his image is as lost a cause as his humanity. Let’s never see George W. Bush as a lovable statesman!
The world first learned that the former President had taken up the paintbrush in early 2013 when several Bush family members’ email accounts were hacked by Guccifer. This is when, most memorably, the two bathing self-portraits came to light. The following year, we saw Bush’s series of portraits of international leaders when they were exhibited at—where else?—the Bush Presidential Library. (Tangentially: My ungenerous take on the institution of the presidential library is here.) That exhibition was called “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy.” Considering the global cataclysm of his “leadership” and “diplomacy,” you’d expect these to be images of things like riots or mushroom clouds, rather than the off-putting portraits of Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, etc. they are.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center’s website explains that the new book—there will also be an exhibition of the paintings at the Center next March—includes portraits of 66 veterans “whom [Bush] has come to know personally,” as well as the “inspiring story” behind each one; Bush will also write these stories. Haven’t these veterans been through enough?
Portraits of Courage is presented as a sort of fund-raiser. In an echo of Trump’s “charity” work, Bush will donate his profits from the book to the Center, which is to say, to his own nonprofit organization. The Center’s Military Service Initiative, the specific beneficiary, “is focused on helping post-9/11 veterans and their families make a successful transition to civilian life and on addressing issues of veteran wellness including post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.” That sounds like a great cause to support, and I’m pleased to hear that Bush is taking it seriously. Now. All of a sudden… Of course, there’s no mention of Bush’s, and his administration’s, active role in creating and worsening these veterans’ struggles. As a refresher, here is a list of “50 Reasons You Despised George W. Bush’s Presidency,” including the stolen election, September 11, Iraq, torture, Katrina, the economic crash of 2008, and on and on and on.
It’s sad to reject any art so finally.
I am harping so relentlessly on Bush’s monstrousness because many mentions of Portraits of Courage treat the idea of a former President painting as a charming novelty or a straight news item about the publishing industry. Hyperallergic, notably, does a good job of not suffering any foolishness. The most complex take is by New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, who has written twice about Bush’s paintings. In 2013, he called the former president a “good painter!” and in 2014 declared the “painterly promise unfulfilled.” He declared the paintings “the first thing about the man that didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies,” (that’s crazy; he’s just wrong!) and went so far as to say that, if he didn’t know the identity of the artist, he might buy some of the early paintings if he stumbled upon them at a flea market. Saltz approaches Bush’s paintings like paintings, and, although I’m arguing against doing that, it’s probably for the best that this kind of analysis exists somewhere, and Saltz knows what he’s doing.
Still, once a critic begins taking these paintings seriously as art, it’s the first step toward reevaluating Bush’s legacy, acknowledging his humanity and inner life, which quickly begins to feel like maybe someone will remember him warmly at some point, even if just for this. Which, no. This is not a position I’m accustomed to taking. I believe in nuance (which Bush famously doesn’t) and humanism, so taking such a hard line feels odd and more than a little sad.
Basically, I’m saying that, on top of every other terrible thing he’s done, George W. Bush has ruined art. I cannot think of another example of an artist so objectionable that merely talking about the artwork is dangerously too generous and smacks of participating in propaganda.
There exists one scenario, alas wildly fantastical, that would cause me to rethink this argument and approach Bush’s paintings differently. Let us whisper of a dream: If, under the care of a prison psychologist at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Bush produced these canvases as part of a course of art therapy, I’d be happy to engage with them, spend time looking at them, critique them. Instead, these paintings are part of a marketing campaign urging us to never hold Bush accountable for anything, and I want no part of that.