Portrait of a Young President as an Artist

Here are two critiques of perspective: The second is of a set of paintings. The first is of their reception.

Former President George W. Bush made his debut into the art world in the same way seven-year-olds learn how to roller skate: in an unfortunately public manner and with a highly questionable degree of success. We learned about Dubya’s new hobby when someone hacked into his private email account and leaked pictures of his fledgling artwork. The internet, being the internet, flipped its collective shit, and his dog paintings (of which there are many) became the internet’s punching bag of the day. Violent anti-Bush sentiment apparently survives well into this decade, as many pounced on the opportunity to attack a once-powerful man in a soft spot.

His politics, though, are irrelevant here. Regardless of how I feel about the artist, how am I supposed to feel about seeing his stolen images displayed entirely for the purpose of shaming him? When I saw the paintings I felt embarrassed for Bush, but I felt embarrassed for myself as well. Seeing his personal handiwork has woken up a little bit of the shame I should have more of within a cultural attitude of blatant, unrepentant voyeurism. Good or bad—a push for transparency on the part of our leaders or a mind-numbing obsession with the lives of B-list celebrities—we have a high level of comfort keeping tabs on others’ personal lives. But, in our defense, that’s not exactly anything new.

Even though it’s typical evening entertainment for us to watch cultural icons be exposed publicly in every possible way, there’s something different about these paintings. They stick out. Maybe it’s the subject matter—most of the pieces depict landscapes and animals, typical subjects for a beginner, but two of them are self-portraits of the artist in his bathroom. (Luckily they’re PG, and if George has painted himself like one of Jack’s French girls then Laura’s the only one who’s seen it.) The most well-known is a waist-up view from behind of Bush standing in the shower, facing a round shaving mirror that shows us a reflection of his face. I was laughing to myself through the leaked images, but that painting is where my laughter stopped; more than the portrait of imbecility or the illustration of naiveté that many want to make it, it shows him as just a regular guy who used to lead the free world. Now he likes to paint dogs sometimes.

George’s paintings aren’t political. He didn’t paint himself riding a bald eagle while clutching Sadaam Hussein’s severed head and singing “God Bless America”. (Can someone do that, please?) These aren’t caricatures of Obama in a clown suit with a dunce cap on. They’re an oddly positioned cat, or a view of his legs in a bathtub. I’m curious, foremost about how he got a cat to pose for him, but mostly about what makes us care so damn much about seeing, critiquing, and laughing at George Bush’s paintings. I also wonder if we’ve now entered an age where stepping into the public eye means forfeiting our rights to privacy and personal space—I certainly hope not. In my own case, there’s some poetry I wrote in fifth grade that should never see the light of day, and I’d like to know whether I should burn it now just in case.

We usually accept that an artist’s work can’t be released to the soulless public without explicit consent. Posting it on the internet or hanging it in a gallery would constitute permission for us normals, but, for the younger Bush, nothing is private, and it very well may be that accepting the Presidency authorizes a nation to go through your artistic sock drawer. However, as a writer, choreographer, artist, and general-wannabe-creative-person, I still want to believe that an artist has a sacred right over how his work gets distributed, even when the art isn’t terribly noteworthy and the artist is one of the most disliked presidents in US history. A word to all those who agree with me: this is what we get for being idealistic little shits. That doesn’t mean we should give it up.

Now for the art critique: The former President has experimented with color admirably, but the flatness and childlike qualities of his work can only be corrected by a mastery of proportion, shading, and perspective that will take much more practice to achieve. The paintings also display an over-uniformity of texture that I recommend the artist explore more deeply. Though I find his sunsets unremarkable, he did a commendable job portraying the specific, dull luster of grapes in a still life I quite like. Those grapes look real good.