President Bush painting (photo by Grant Miller, all images courtesy President George W. Bush)

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.

George W. Bush, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors

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.

George Bush, “Sergeant Daniel Casara, U.S. Army, 1994 – 2008” (undated), oil on gesso board, 14 x 18 in

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.

George Bush, “Sergeant First Class Michael R. Rodriguez U.S. Army, 1992 – 2013” (undated), oil on stretched canvas, 24 x 36 in

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.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

6 replies on “George W. Bush’s Paintings Cannot Redeem Him”

  1. I did not read this article, too many words for me. But his paintings, very nice indeed. Courageous use of color and layout.

  2. Seph, I am very grateful you took the time to write this reaction. There is a temptation to see George W. Bush in a kinder light now that we have agent orange tweeting lies from the white house toilet. It reminds me of the succession of Roman emperors. Truth be told, even Julius Caesar – who was no saint – sounds a little better after you learn about Nero’s negligence, blunders, and only the good die young parties in his golden palace.

    There seems to be some amnesia that George W. Bush lied to congress, lied to parliament in England, and lied to the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq posing an imminent danger to world security.

    There seems to be some amnesia that war profiteering contracts were awarded neurotically and unethically to halberton, who pocketed a big sum that went unaccounted for, and then subcontracted out projects to shambolic and cheap vendors. The end result was soldiers getting electrocuted while trying to take showers in Iraq, traumatic head injuries from defective helmets, and poorly designed uniforms whose camouflage was totally ineffective and made these young men easier to detect on the battlefield. For a leader that talked endlessly about supporting our troops, he didn’t do our boys any favors in deed.

    There seems to be some amnesia that George Bush and Dick Cheney packed the SECC with a bunch of young men, and then told them to watch porn all day instead of doing their job to regulate the banks. Small wonder we had a financial meltdown.

    There seems to be some amnesia that George Bush and Dick Cheney sought to weaken the office of civil rights enforcement at the Department of Justice by appointing a bunch of career conservative lawyers who will keep those jobs until they day they day and undermine and sabotage that office’s work by arguing that every case of discrimination falls into some kind of vague gray area unworthy of prosecution.

    I assume that Mimi Swartz has a conscience. And I know she had good intentions, which have paved the road to hell. We can’t allow the roll-out of this book to become an opportunity to gloss over what Scarw right quantifies as incalculable damage from this time.

    it’s pathetic see all-right trolls spewing hatred towards you Seph. But as you know, speaking truth creates some blow-back.

    Thanks for taking the time to say what needs to be said

  3. Say what you will but he’s still more human than Trump.I’d at least trust him to feed my dog or not assault my gf. This really says more about how much I despise Trump and is not praise of Bush.

  4. Besides which, the paintings stink. The would-be expressive modernist brushwork cannot hide the fact that he knows nothing about drawing, form or composition. They parallel his incompetence as president.

  5. W is responsible for the deaths of all those whose portraits he paints and each one resembles him. Is this his subliminal concience or a grotesque variation of Dorian Grey?

  6. Like most ‘news’ from the heavily òverrated country, the US, also thìs is completely ùninteresting info. In our age of Post-Truth this is my humble futile opinion. BUT . . it’s àlways very fùnny to see a TOP CRIMINAL, who tries to do something, which he also isn’t capable of. One consolation for this TOP CRIMINAL would be: Its always possible to continue his wasteful use of paint and other artist accessories, the moment he will be sentenced to life imprisonment.

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