That Bigger Canvas
George W. Bush’s body of work, “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy”, opened Saturday at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University. The exhibit includes paintings of world leaders as well as Bush in the bath.
There are vistas here to explore, disrobe, and disassemble. The title of the show, using the word “Art”, actually, “Art” obligated by a preposition to “Leadership”, is stunning artifice. And then there’s “Diplomacy”, NEVER valued by the man with the feigned good-ole-boy patois who spoke to his base of wealthy donors with prep school and Yale elitism. The creepy hypocrisy of that title is enough to fry synapses. Plus, it’s impossible to look at the portrayals without being assaulted by Bush’s OTHER body of work, that bigger canvas of bodies—dead bodies, Afghan, Iraqi, children, troops, and then the tortured at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, Kandaha, Gardez, Khost, Orgun, Ghazni, and Jalalabad.
Let’s be clear. You can appreciate art without admiring the artist. Cue Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York magazine. He considered Bush “a Gremlin on the wing of America” when Bush was occupying the White House—you know, that eight-year tenure when God told Bush to blow up brown people—but Saltz pronounced George W.’s paintings “good” while constructively suggesting the former president not just work from a photograph but also employ his imagination. Now there’s something the 9/11 Commission found lacking. Remember, the events of September 11 were attributed to a failure of imagination.
Anyway, I’ve seen oodles of art like Bush’s. Comes with being a mommy. “Sure, honey, it’s okay to ask a few of our neighbors if they’d like to purchase those for a quarter a piece. You’ve done the lemonade stand.” I think this particular son was six or seven when he went door-to-door in Nashville, scrounging for change.
Truth is, art’s subjective and in the eye of the beholder. One wo-man’s perception of talent is another wo-man’s perception of trash, but you can evaluate ability, judge it un-wall-worthy, comment that it’s as amateurish as paint by number, color by number, be astonished that it merits a show, and yet acknowledge that you like the smear-er of the medium, appreciate something about his or her personality. Or, or, or…
Maybe you simply make an association. An example: John Wayne Gacy, the “Killer Clown”.
Gacy was a mass murder, like George W. Bush. Clowned around, like Bush. Painted. Yeah, like Bush. Painted clowns. Gacy’s self-portrait is Goodbye Pogo, a clown. His clown costume was a mask, concealing a monster. Bush, nude in the shower or clothed, is a monster. The pals he painted, those who participated in destroying a culture and unleashing DNA-altering weapons in the Middle East, wear their own masks—power suited up for invade and incinerate.
I Google’d Gacy’s artwork and recoiled. Just as I recoiled when I saw Bush’s crude executions. John W. Gacy was convicted for committing 33 murders. George W. Bush remains at large, unaccountable. He should be painting that genre called prison art.
Addendum: Just in from an e-pal—according to Oliver Milman, a reporter at theguardian.com, Bush searched Google for photos of his subjects, mostly using Wikipedia.
Missy Comley Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.