The Left Reviews the Bush Art Exhibition
It’s hard to tell when painting morphed into interpretive literature.
But for some time, an illuminating narrative focused on the artist’s mood, personality, and political beliefs rather than on the subject painted or the technical skills employed have been the primary literary themes of “art critics.”
Certainly by the time Mark Rothko painted his black on black canvases in 1964, interpretation of the artist’s work could be anything the critic wished it to be.
That is why art reviewer Blake Gopnik, writing for the Washington Post, could choose to see Rothko’s canvases as a statement about Afro-Americans’ skin, interpreting the pieces in ways Rothko probably never dreamed of. Gopnik wrote, “I realized that, even when we're looking at abstraction, we have an almost moral imperative to go beyond our cliches about what blackness means.”
Going beyond the traditional interpretation of Rothko’s works as indicative of the artist’s severe bouts of depression, and seizing the political moral imperative, Gopnik had a revelation. He realized Rothko’s black on black works were really about the imperative not to judge anything, including skin color in black and white terms.
“As I stood watching Rothko's works […] suddenly it seemed wrong to reduce the complex color of their [Afro-Americans’] skin -- or, for that matter, of any color out there in the world -- to a single formulaic reading.”
In other words, the casual observer should not believe the lying eyes that saw identical black canvases. He or she needed an interpreter: The artist really had statements about racism in mind.
In a similar manner, the recent exhibition of the paintings of George W. Bush, which he obviously intended as realistic portraits of world leaders he has known, has been completely politicized.
Rather than being discussed for their artistic merits or lack thereof, the portraits are seen as a political statement about the Bush presidency and as a sure indicator of the ineradicable political sins of the former president of the United States.
According to the Guardian’s critic Jason Farago, rightly understood, the paintings are not portraits of Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, or anyone else, including Bush himself. In actuality, they are an indication of Bush’s wretched character. They are horrible because Bush is horrible. Therefore, the paintings, even if they were to possess the technical expertise of a Rembrandt, have no merit at all.
Farago sees in the paintings the George Bush he despises, and so characterizes the canvases as “cautious, vacant, even servile.”
But that’s just a start for the farrago. He continues:
“Bush’s paintings first came to light in the winter of 2013, when a hacker released images from his personal email account that included two self-portraits that were shockingly, disturbingly respectable. One was of the president, nude and from behind, standing to the right of a shower. He stood outside the stream of water; the blood of 136,012 dead Iraqis will not come off.”
Farago sees Bush as Lady Macbeth just out of the bath and unable to wash away the blood on her hands. He also writes that Bush’s portraits don’t say anything about his retirement or foreign policy. But the canvases do speak to tell us Bush is full of himself:
[…]Their (the portraits’) vacancy, their stubborn refusal to offer anything beyond the most basic signal of a famous person’s identity, is precisely what Bush will have wanted […] It is futile to gaze at these paintings and discover anything of importance about Bush’s foreign policy, or even much about Bush’s post-retirement life. Or if they do, they say only this: both the painting and the policy reflect a man untroubled by outside judgment, certain beyond any doubt of his rectitude and self-worth.”
But Mr. Farago saves his best political insights for last:
“One imagines that the excitement over Bush’s paintings forms part of a desperate national hunger for expiation from the unforgivable crime of his presidency, as if translating Bush into a sweet retiree at his easel will erase the illegal war, the obscene economic policy, the environmental spoliation, the executive power grab, the drowning of New Orleans. It is not to be. Bush’s little paintings will be forgotten […] The Bush presidency, by contrast, endures all around us – and as we feel our way through the collapsing plutocracy he has bequeathed to us, we will need more than these wan portraits to ease the pain.”
Farago concludes all Americans are as guilty as Bush/Macbeth. The blood will never be washed off American hands, either.
It’s fairly certain from Farago’s excoriation of Bush that the critic would accept no expiation whatever either for the art or the artist. Bush could agree to self-flagellation in public, but such an act of public penitence would never assuage Farago’s righteous indignation.
In the long run, it wouldn’t matter if George Bush were a Rembrandt, whom the novice artist good-humoredly admits he would like to inwardly channel. For leftists like Farago, Bush’s art is guilty as hell because Bush, in their eyes, will remain eternally guilty as hell -- and so will the rest of us U.S. citizens, as Bush’s sins are shared collectively.
The exhibition, then, is not about the art, but about the perceived sinful legacy Bush left the world.
In contrast, leftist “artists” like Yoko Ono fare much better than the former President Bush. That is because Ono espouses everything the Left ardently believes in. That is why her London exhibition garnered admiration and praise regardless of the fact one of the chief attractions was three identical piles of dirt.
The artist’s political persona was what counted, not the actual “art.” Ono believes in and says the politically-correct leftist things for the right crowd. Because she is anti-war and believes in universal peace and love, her dirt pile art is automatically wonderful. Because she believes in smiles of peace and joy, she is the Leftist antidote to the likes of Andrew Wyeth, of whom a New York Times art critic wrote: “Wyeth was an anti-modern painter. He did paintings that never changed, in a style that never changed. His image is one of stasis in a world that changed dramatically around him, and for my money that is a conservative position. It is in many ways a futile exercise, but he did it with great energy and conviction.”
Elizabeth Broun, the director of the Smithsonian America Art Museum tartly replied, “ Undoubtedly the criticism of his [Wyeth’s] work has a lot to do with the politics of the art world and the demand by critics and many artists themselves that only contemporary abstraction be recognized as a viable language for the postwar era. The cadre of critics who promoted that made a point of discrediting everything else and deliberately devaluing other artists’ work.”
But that same cadre has been all smiles and rave reviews for Ono, whose exhibitions of smiles from around the world garnered praise from a reviewer writing for the Daily Mail:
“Visitors from all over the world can drop in to a specially-designed photo booth installed outside the Serpentine Gallery and record their smiles […] Ono's project at the Serpentine will tap into the transformative potential of the smile, which can change an individual's view, but also radiate out into the world. Ono associates this transmission of positive energy with healing and peace. People from cities and countries around the world will be able to freely upload and send their smiles by mobile phone and computer to the world and its people. Each time we add our smiles […] we are creating our future, together. Give us your smile! I love you! ”
There you have the deep message of Ono’s exhibit: No more war. All the world needs is love and smiles. Ono’s beliefs are politically correct, and therefore her dirt piles and radiating smiles are great art.
On the other hand, it is virtually certain that no artist espousing conservative ideals or holding to non-modern depictions; no one who is politically aligned with the right, amateur or professional, will ever be evaluated by the Left in anything other than politically-correct terms.
In the Case of the Bush art exhibition, the issue for the Left isn’t the excellence or non-excellence of his paintings.
The issue is the man and his politics.
Fay Voshell is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. Her articles have also appeared in National Review and RealClearReligion. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org