Misunderestimated: George Dubya’s Weird Paintings by Cara Ober

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Art Gossip for Sunday, February 10


I just discovered that our 43rd president is learning to paint after reading Jerry Saltz’s enthusiastic review  at New York Magazine’s Culture Vulture, titled (really?!) George W. Bush Is A Good Painter! This happened after the Bush family’s emails were hacked and their findings revealed to the public. On principal, I am against giving these mediocre paintings one minute of my time, but curiosity got the better of me. It was like driving past a car wreck: I had to look. And now I’m thinking about the whole silly mess and trying to figure out WHY any of it matters to me.

Way before he was elected president the first time (elected may be too strong a word… ahem), Anne Richard’s famous quote summarized Bush II nicely for me: “Poor George. He can’t help it – he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Whether in politics or anything else, the man has always seemed late to the draw, slightly befuddled yet smug, and granted exponential attention from supporters and detractors for modest efforts. Apparently, now in retirement, Bush is interested in spending his time the way he spent it as president – playing golf, exercising, playing video games, and now, learning to paint.


Why should any of us care about this?? Especially those of us who have seriously pursued a career in the arts?

We probably shouldn’t, and won’t in a day, but one idea that appeals to me is this: he’s come over to OUR side. He finally appreciates us. He’s trying to be an artist or, at least, he’s devoting time and energy, attempting to learn to do what artists do. This hints at humility, vulnerability, and hope. Even though it’s too little too late after a career of funding cuts and disparaging policies towards the arts, there is hope that George W. Bush will finally realize the merits of artistic practices like painting, as well as its challenges. Or, like lots of the dumbass shit he’s pulled in the past, he’s just winging it and doesn’t care at all.

According to Saltz, Bush’s paintings are simple and awkward, like most beginner paintings, but he is fascinated by the symbolism of the water in both works and wonders aloud if these paintings are “Private baptism; trying to get clean; infantile ecstasies; purification rituals?” He suggests that the Whitney purchase Bush’s water portraits, or give him a small show, and compares them to Grandma Moses, Thomas Kinkade, and Chardin. Really, Jerry??!?

Art F City addressed the issue as well, claiming the figure paintings are bad and unfinished, but states, “For all our reservations about his modeling of the human figure, we can’t get past how charming his dog portraits are.” This painting of Barney Bush, with W’s ‘art tag,’ the number 43,  is their favorite and does appear to be more skillfully painted.


Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian calls Saltz’s favorite, Bush’s toes in the bathtub, “dull,” but compares it to Frida Kahlo’s famous 1938 paintingWhat I Saw in the Water or What the Water Gave Me, “but without all the symbolism or richness.” And Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian says the paintings are  “technically shoddy,” because they employ “impossible reflection in the shower mirror, for starters, or the perspective on the bathtub, which must be the longest and narrowest in existence,” but are successful in portraying a new, vulnerable side of a man viewed by most of the world as a cartoon.

Dan Amira, also of New York Magazine, agrees that the paintings are not particularly strong, but writes a whole column anyway about the shower painting, which, he claims, explores a man’s search for meaning. “More impressive than the painting’s aesthetic quality is the soul-searching introspection evident in the scene,” he writes. “Bush, slightly hunched, is standing out of the water, staring off into the corner of the shower, as if contemplating past sins that can never be washed away, no matter how much soap you use and how hard you scrub. His disembodied face appears in the shaving mirror, looking back at Bush through an impossible angle, like a haunting apparition. You can’t hide from yourself, the face is saying. You can’t hide from God.”

With national art critics giving serious ink to the half-assed paintings of George W. Bush, the art world is transformed, yet again, into a ridiculous caricature of itself. Maybe it’s just the nature of news today, where the top stories are celebrity baby names and new hair colors, but it seems lame to give these works any attention beyond a cursory look.

Art critics and administrators complain that auction records and big money are diminishing the importance and quality of the art world, but it’s us  – the press, the critics, the readers – doing it to ourselves by focusing on sensationalistic crap like this.

Case in point: Remember the Narc from Art School Confidential? He’d never painted a day in his life, but his ‘unselfconscious’ aka really really bad paintings were a hit with classmates and professors while talented, skilled members of class were disdained for ‘trying too hard’? This George W. Bush painting escapade is exactly like that – in our attempt be open minded and  ready for the ‘next great thing,’ the art world is so flakey and disingenuous, it’s hard to take any of it seriously. This type of media attention is not only silly, it’s detrimental to artists who invest seriously in their practice. It smacks of self-loathing and it offends me.

Or maybe we just can’t help ourselves from engaging with a world full of train-wreck art? We artists and arts writers are constantly jumping through badly drawn, asymmetrically elliptical hoops, and then laughing at our silliness when we tell the story later on. I definitely wasted a lot of time reading what art critics had to say about George W. Bush’s middle-school level portraits, but there is a reason that adolescent (or seemingly adolescent) artwork is compelling.

Hrag Vartanian expressed this the best in his conclusion on Hyperallergic: “Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that the man who brought us a vision of compassionate conservatism would turn to art to express the angst of a crappy Presidency that got us into two wars, used homophobia, racism, and sexism as an electoral tool, crashed our economy, and made the world hate America…. This is not the George W. Bush of Fox News or Sunday morning talk shows. This is Bush, the old man, with lots of time on his hands. Once the most powerful man in the world, Bush is now alone, exploring his immediate surroundings in these spurts of introspection. If only he had done this all along, maybe he would’ve been a better leader.”

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