An old college friend once rented a townhouse in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, from a retired spook who, in his later years, had taken up the avocation of painting. All he painted were phone booths, in a realist style that played primarily with light, and the house’s walls were covered in the vaguely creepy results. God knows what recesses of his psyche compelled him to put public telephones to canvas, but it was no doubt an interest cultivated by a certain rotten gentility, an insipid appreciation of painting as an aristocratic diversion for purifying the mind in its waning years (he was a Groton man) — respite and absolution after a lifetime of unpleasant business.
Similarly, it was recently announced that the 43rd president of the United States, the reluctant blue blood George W. Bush, would have a retrospective of his “paintings” at his Robert A. M. Stern-designed Presidential Library in Texas, titled The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy. Though this is just the kind of soft story that reverberates in the media under the various guises of knowing snark, journalistic curiosity, or a sycophant’s reverence, the man’s atrocious paintings are not harmless distractions. Certain schools of criticism, or certain unschooled critics, might have you think otherwise, but sometimes an art object can only be assessed through its creator, especially if this person was once the most powerful man on the planet. Bush can paint a thousand puppies, or render himself in a bathtub brimming with his own crocodile tears, but that will never change the status of such works as the artifacts of a repulsive criminal, and a stain upon all honest art.
Presidents have painted before, but that doesn’t make this denunciation any less earned. Bush’s diplomacy was bloody, criminal, and disastrous; his “personal diplomacy” is of the same murderous hand.