The Washington Free Beacon gives a glowing review to George W. Bush's hacked-and-leaked self-portraits, declaring, "Greatest Living President is Also Fantastic Painter." Sadly, it appears to be a joke. This is unfortunate, because not many people are capable of reviewing the ex-president's paintings separately from their reviews of his policies. Reading the reviews of his art, you can feel liberals grappling with unresolved Bush rage. The greatest hurdle to overcome is imagining the guy they consider the dumbest president ever to have some kind of interior life.
The New Republic's Michael Schaffer offers a "Freudian analysis" of Bush's self-portraits, both of which show him bathing. "Though superficially an image of an everyday activity, the painting also points to an inner turmoil over one of the biggest calamities of the Bush administration: Hurricane Katrina... That Bush would allude to Katrina in a painting ostensibly depicting an act of self-cleansing most likely speaks to his guilt over his handling of the storm." Get it? Get it? These are jokes.
Unfortunately, the art critic who compared Bush to Hitler in the Huffington Post was not joking. (An artistic comparison, not a historical one, of course.) "There is very little to say about them. They're very pedestrian and clumsy pictures. It's one of those things where its only that it's Bush that makes it interesting," another critic said.
Bush's art helps "inch us toward empathy" toward the man, The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman writes. He's not entirely there yet:
We spent years, after all, trying to fathom what was going on in there: nothing much at all? Terrifying messianism? Criminal incuriosity? All manner of Oedipal hang-ups? Pictures of Bush in the bathroom don't answer that, of course. But like any self-portrait, they inch us towards empathy. They invite us to imagine that being inside Bush's head is something it's possible to imagine.
At Gawker, Taylor Berman called them "awkward and simple." Greg Allen's review was somewhat more positive, comparing Bush's work to Karen Kilimnik and Alice Neel. But he cannot imagine a deep inner life: "There really isn't enough evidence to imagine a deep inner life at all, just an old man alone." His parting shot for aggrieved liberals everywhere: World leaders who take up painting "are solitary, untrained, yet committed efforts to depict the world in front of them in an accurate representational way. As if they now find themselves in the reality-based community and are trying to make their way in it."
The best review of all comes from Jerry Saltz, who, writing for Vulture, admits his Bush hatred upfront. And yet: "I really like the paintings of George W. Bush." Saltz says:
I love these two bather paintings. They are "simple" and "awkward," but in wonderful, unself-conscious, intense ways. They show someone doing the best he can with almost no natural gifts — except the desire to do this. The reclusion and seclusiveness of the pictures evoke the quietude (though not the insight, quality, or genius) of certain Chardin still lifes. These are pictures of someone dissembling without knowing it, unprotected and on display, but split between the promptings of his own inner drives and limited by his abilities. They reflect the pleasures of disinterestedness. A floater. Inert. The images of a man who saw the entire world from the inside but who finds the smallest, most private place in a private home to imagine his universe. Of almost nothingness. Sweet, sublime, oblique oblivion. The visibility of invisibleness.
Please don't stop painting, Mr. President. Bush's art is necessary. Liberals need it to work out the lingering traumas of the 2000s.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.