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George W. Bush’s Paintings Cannot Redeem Him



We learn much from reading public testimonials, especially ones that seek to rehabilitate someone’s character. We don’t learn very much about the people being rhapsodized, but a good deal about the values our culture holds in high estimation. Take the recent piece, “‘W.’ and the Art of Redemption” written by Mimi Swartz. It's 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. It’s part reputation rehab, part art review and part commendation.


The piece begins with a cursory reference to his defining debacle: “America’s post-Sept. 11 wars — otherwise known as Mr. Bush’s disastrous venture in the Middle East.” Swartz then turns to the arc of character development, attempting to convince us that the president was a victim of his circumstances. Bush was socialized as a “rich kid” in the Texas Midlands, where he would have apparently been subject to nothing short of physical punishment for displaying any art historical knowledge. “But Mr. Bush himself worked overtime to make sure no one could mistake him for a pointy-headed intellectual. He painted himself into a corner.” 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,” and “honestly observed” to describe Bush’s portraits.


Swartz continues her transformation of President 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 has 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. 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.


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. 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.