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We learn so 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 New York Times piece, “‘W.’ and the Art of Redemption” by Mimi Swartz, 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, on the New York Times best seller list. It’s part reputation rehab, part art review, part commendation, and part audition for the job of Bush’s headstone writer. We might one day see, etched in marble, something like: “Here lays the former president who found his true calling only after serving the highest office in the land.” And verily there will be tears.
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,” “earnest,” and “honestly observed” to describe Bush’s portraits.
Swartz continues her transformation of the feckless leader 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, outside of the “swamp” that is Washington, DC, have now 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,” and the George W. Bush Presidential Center website confirms this. (The hardcover edition costs $35, while the deluxe, signed and personalized edition costs $350.) 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. Even his press secretary, Scott McClellan, later admitted that a sophisticated propaganda campaign sold the war to the public. 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.
What’s insidious about the Times piece is that it puts readers in the position of feeling the need to forgive Bush and recognize his current artistic work as somehow redemptive; otherwise we seem mean-spirited or, perhaps worse, unfairly unable to evaluate another person beyond stereotype. Swartz writes: “Mr. Bush discovered what many who paint discover: that as he worked on their portraits, he came to understand his sitters, and their pain, as well as their love for one another.” But art of this nature is not redemptive — it never is unless you shut your eyes, put your fingers in your ears, and yell nonsense. Art does not restore a soldier’s arms or eyesight, or provide them with physical therapy in order to learn to walk on prostheses. It does not heal their PTSD or bring back innocent Iraqi civilians from the dead.
Swartz either believes too much in the transformative power of art or wants to embrace the fantasy of the fool who becomes the wise and affectionate sage, the philistine who becomes the aesthete, just several years too late. But we need to expand our imaginative faculties to viewing people in terms other than the ecclesiastical story of fall and redemption. Sometimes when you lose, you truly lose. And we lost that war, lost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars and a dwindling supply of international credibility and respect. George W. Bush may be a good painter and a caring friend to soldiers, but he’s also the man who callously put those soldiers in harmful situations, and has now reduced them to characters within a feel-good narrative that he can tell to friends, family, and the rest of the world.