Perhaps no president since Richard Nixon has had such an unexpected post-administrative life as George W. Bush. Walking away in 2008 from a hideous economic collapse, a highly controlled corporate and bank bailout, and a handful of indefensible wars, Bush could have led a quiet life. Instead, he became one of the most famous living artists in the world. Indeed, at 74, the president has a new painting exhibition in his Dallas library titled “Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants.”
Bush could have led a quiet life. Instead, he became one of the most famous living artists in the world.
Although he didn’t start painting until 2012, Bush clearly has a certain ability, a fact highlighted by critics. He also has access to the greatest artistic training money can buy and works with well-known artists such as Sedrick Huckaby. When his works unwittingly debuted via the infamous Guccifer’s email hack in 2013, the art world collectively scratched its chin with typical feint and bewilderment.
But Bush’s legacy has been somewhat lost in meditation on formalism and the history of pedantic art. Although there have been negative reactions, Bush’s painting is his best career rehabilitation tool. And it works: His approval rating has doubled in less than a decade.
While some on the right have accused Bush of offering amnesty through policy during his administration, it is difficult to call him the friend of immigrants. The Bush administration has greatly increased labor raids and attacked those who employed immigrants, the very people who try to help those who move to the United States for a better way of life, illegally or not. . Bush doubled the number of border patrol officers during his tenure and militarized the country’s southern border by deploying the National Guard there. He created Axis of Evil terminology in a State of the Union speech that made all citizens of three entire countries – Iran, North Korea and Iraq – criminally suspect.
W’s sympathy has always been his greatest asset. For the record, he has won over a surprising number of typical left-wing voters, eccentric artists, bonkers and Gothic children from his adopted home in Dallas. Dating profiles are proudly littered with profile photos featuring chance encounters with the president.
Even Oliver Stone with his forked tongue and piercing eyes couldn’t bring himself to criticize Bush too loudly in “W.” from 2008, a rather sympathetic read from a sheepish guy who just wanted to impress his father. If “W.” was one of the first steps towards public rehabilitation of his Bush, painting was the second.
Where does this inspiration to create art come from? Incredibly, Bush cites Winston Churchill as his inspiration as a leader-turned-painter. Paintings of actual veterans in his “Portraits of Courage” series suggest that Bush sees little wrong with his presidency. His new interest in immigrants as a subject covers an equally complex part of his political decisions, but also non-judgmental. One can only help but think that the choice to feature immigrants is a bit politically awkward.
The Bush administration laid the foundation for future administrations on everything from surveillance and biometric data to physical barriers and border walls. Bush can denounce former President Donald Trump, but he has created thousands of new places of detention used by the Trump and Obama administrations.
Bush’s speeches after September 11 presented a very black and white vision of paranoia that was exacerbated at the national level. He would label both immigrants and terrorists “living in the shadows”, dangerously blurring the line between the two. Speaking to the Financial Crime Enforcement Network in November 2001, he said the following: “You are with us or you are with the terrorists. And if you are with the terrorists, you will suffer the consequences. We are fighting an enemy who lurks … in the caves of Afghanistan and in the shadow of our own society. He is an enemy that can only survive in the dark. “In a 2004 speech on immigrants, he said:” The workers who are only looking to make a living find themselves in the shadow of American life. ” The harsh rhetoric of that time and the amalgamation of immigrants and terrorists hiding among us are not found in his works. The distance from this rhetoric now seems shocking.
Visitors to the Bush Center art exhibit, “Out of Many, One” on the Southern Methodist University campus, are asked to “walk down Freedom Hall” before passing through a TSA-style metal detector. In gun friendly Texas, no guns are allowed here. I have to throw away a forgotten mass box. Once security is over, with its (perhaps unintentional) echoes of the post-9/11 era, however, the attempt to redefine and display various historical events is astounding.
Many artists deal with illusion. And Bush is a master of illusion. His electoral victory was in itself an unprecedented and lengthy farce on the part of the Supreme Court. He sent thousands of people to war over dangerous weapons that it seems did not exist. He did not subsequently win the war in Iraq, but posed in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Even as the paint dried for this exhibit, bodies continued to pile up in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush, of course, would like us to forget all of that and focus on the positives – like, say, our “nation of immigrants”. But what does immigration really mean to Bush? Many of the people portrayed in his exhibit, but not all, are high achievers. Quite a few are people who create shareholder value, like Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani Yogurt, who plans to take the company public this year. We are told that YouTube and the burgers were created by immigrants.
This is a very specific definition of immigration – as a defense of capitalism. (Mention is made of the plight of the refugees, but they are not the center of the art.) Perhaps the most revealing is a portrayal of Henry Kissinger, that calamitous figure who pushed for the illegal bombing of Cambodia. and is linked to the murders of hundreds of thousands in Indonesia. Kissinger was indeed an immigrant, from the former Weimar Republic, and he was even highly regarded in his time. But today his name is often used in conjunction with war crimes.
Bush could take a more sophisticated approach to being an artist and give us a more nuanced look at his own history – the complexities and the regrets. The Bush era certainly provided enough memorable and often dark historical events. Isa Genzken’s brilliant but frightening response to September 11 comes to mind. The president isn’t at risk of losing funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, so why not take the kind of risks that distinguish true artists? His tenure is not lacking in inspiration, from Abu Ghraib to Hurricane Katrina. The art world is likely to take any of these topics more seriously than these upbeat interpretations of smiling political tokens and comfortable millionaires.
Where can Bush go from here in terms of subject matter for his next series of paintings? His subjects so far – veterans, immigration – tell us he’s unlikely to shy away from almost anything, even if it feels politically awkward. If only we could believe our eyes.