It’s no secret how much I loathe the pretentiousness of the art world. It’s not easy to find equal levels of pompous puffery, arrogance, and pretentious fawning that infest the art world. The latest person being painted over with fawning pretension is George W. Bush. Seph Rodney at Hyperallergic takes on the fawning of the New York Times.
Take the recent New York Times piece, “‘W.’ and the Art of Redemption” by Mimi Swartz, about the portrait-painting practice of former President George W. Bush. The piece, among other things, reports the landing of the book of his paintings, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, on the New York Times best seller list. It’s part reputation rehab, part art review, part commendation, and part audition for the job of Bush’s headstone writer. We might one day see, etched in marble, something like: “Here lays the former president who found his true calling only after serving the highest office in the land.” And verily there will be tears.
The piece veers upward from there, lifted by the imprimatur of key art critics Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl, who use terms like “innocent,” “sincere,” “earnest,” and “honestly observed” to describe Bush’s portraits.
I don’t think Bush’s paintings are awful, they aren’t. I don’t think they are terribly good, either. They’re okay. If you inhabit the art world, or have wandered into it on occasion, you’ll find that “innocent”, “sincere”, and “earnest” are code words for primitive and childish, not worth anything as art, but hey, former president! I haven’t been in the art world for a while, so I’m not sure about “honestly observed”, but I’d wager a guess that it means something along the lines of “he’s doing his best.”
Swartz continues her transformation of the feckless leader into a sensitive and empathetic artist by tracing his tutelage under several art teachers: Gail Norfleet, Roger Winter, Jim Woodson, and Sedrick Huckaby. She makes Bush out to be a student, willingly learning from others, instead of the leader and “decider” he once touted himself to be. We are led to believe that all of this learning, nurturing, and patient working in obscurity, outside of the “swamp” that is Washington, DC, have now turned him a perceptive human being. Swartz tells us that “the proceeds from sales [of the book] will go to a nonprofit organization that helps veterans and their families recover,” and the George W. Bush Presidential Center website confirms this. (The hardcover edition costs $35, while the deluxe, signed and personalized edition costs $350.) But Swartz doesn’t ever acknowledge that it was Bush and his employees who started the Iraq war and put these very same people in harm’s way in the first place.
This is also a fine example of the dishonesty which comes into play when those in the art world decide to play at pointless flattery.
To be clear, this is the same man who, as president, pursued a war that was illegal and declared that coalition partners were “either with us or against us in the fight against terror” — terror only as he and his administration defined it. Even his press secretary, Scott McClellan, later admitted that a sophisticated propaganda campaign sold the war to the public. Bush manipulated and strong-armed the media into supporting his reprehensible war, and this is what we lost in it: 134,000 Iraqi civilians, though Reuters notes that the conflict “may have contributed to the deaths of as many as four times that number”; “$1.7 trillion with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans,” according to Reuters, referencing the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies; and $33 billion in “U.S. medical and disability claims for veterans after a decade of war,” according to the initial Costs of War report in 2011, with that number rising to $134.7 billion just two years later.
The idea that people should forget such an enormous cost because Bush now paints portraits of military personnel is a pernicious one, at best.
What’s insidious about the Times piece is that it puts readers in the position of feeling the need to forgive Bush and recognize his current artistic work as somehow redemptive; otherwise we seem mean-spirited or, perhaps worse, unfairly unable to evaluate another person beyond stereotype. Swartz writes: “Mr. Bush discovered what many who paint discover: that as he worked on their portraits, he came to understand his sitters, and their pain, as well as their love for one another.” But art of this nature is not redemptive — it never is unless you shut your eyes, put your fingers in your ears, and yell nonsense. Art does not restore a soldier’s arms or eyesight, or provide them with physical therapy in order to learn to walk on prostheses. It does not heal their PTSD or bring back innocent Iraqi civilians from the dead.
I don’t believe Bush came to understand those he painted; I certainly don’t think he has the slightest idea of their pain, trauma, or bonds. I’m sure he’s selling that idea, and it’s a pity some people are licking the kool-aid off the floor. To even come close to a deep understanding of your subject, well, more is required than just painting. Going by the portraits at Hyperallergic, Bush didn’t even come to a shallow enough understanding for it to be reflected in the paintings. When an artist has an access of empathy while working, that tends to get into the work, in a visible way.
But we need to expand our imaginative faculties to viewing people in terms other than the ecclesiastical story of fall and redemption. Sometimes when you lose, you truly lose. And we lost that war, lost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars and a dwindling supply of international credibility and respect. George W. Bush may be a good painter and a caring friend to soldiers, but he’s also the man who callously put those soldiers in harmful situations, and has now reduced them to characters within a feel-good narrative that he can tell to friends, family, and the rest of the world.
I agree with that, absolutely. I can, and do, see Bush’s work as a way for him to feel better about himself, and in the end, it all comes back to putting focus on Bush. It’s yet another way of using people, the same people he used before. Well, at least the ones who survived.
The full article is at Hyperallergic.