Perhaps no president since Richard Nixon has had a post-administration life as unexpected as George W. Bush. Walking away in 2008 from a hideous near-collapse of the economy, a highly scrutinized bailout of corporations and banks, and just a handful of indefensible wars, Bush could have led a quiet life. Instead, he became one of the most famous living artists in the world. Indeed, at age 74, the president has a new painting exhibition at his library in Dallas titled, "Out of Many, One: Portraits of America's Immigrants."
Bush could have led a quiet life. Instead, he became one of the most famous living artists in the world.
Despite only starting to paint in 2012, Bush clearly has some ability, a fact remarked upon by critics. He also has access to the greatest art instruction money can buy and works with known artists such as Sedrick Huckaby. When his works unwittingly debuted via email hack by the notorious Guccifer in 2013, the art world scratched its collective chin with typical pretense and bemusement.
But lost somewhat in the meditation on formalism and pedantic art history was Bush’s legacy. Although there has been some backlash, Bush’s painting is his best career rehabilitation tool. And it’s working: His approval rating doubled in less than a decade.
While some on the right accused Bush of offering amnesty via policy during his administration, it is hard to call him a friend to immigrants. The Bush administration sharply increased workforce raids and attacked those who employed immigrants, the very people who try to help those who move to the United States for a better way of life, illegally or not. Bush doubled the number of border patrol agents during his time in office and militarized the nation's southern border by deploying the National Guard there. He created the Axis of Evil terminology in a State of the Union address that made all of the citizens of three entire countries — Iran, North Korea, and Iraq — criminally suspicious.
W's likability has always been his greatest asset. Anecdotally, he has won over a surprising number of the typical left-leaning voters, quirky artists, weirdos and goth kids of his adopted home of Dallas. Dating profiles are proudly littered with profile pics featuring chance run-ins with the president.
Even the fork-tongued and sharp-eyed Oliver Stone couldn't bring himself to bash Bush too hard in 2008's "W.," a rather sympathetic read of a sheepish guy who just wanted to impress his father. If “W.” was one of the first steps toward his Bush’s public rehabilitation, painting was the second.
Where does this inspiration to create art come from? Incredibly, Bush cites Winston Churchill as his leader-turned-painter inspiration. Paintings of actual veterans from his "Portraits of Courage" series suggest that Bush sees little wrong with his presidency. His newfound focus on immigrants as subject matter harkens to an equally complex part of his policy decisions, but also without judgment. One cannot but help think the choice to feature immigrants is a bit on the nose politically.
The Bush administration laid the groundwork for future administrations on everything from surveillance to biometric data to physical barriers and border walls. Bush may denounce former President Donald Trump, but he created thousands of new detention accommodations used by both the Trump and Obama administrations.
Bush's post-9/11 speeches presented a very black-and-white view of the paranoia that was exacerbated at the national level. He would refer to both immigrants and terrorists as "living in the shadows," dangerously blurring the distinction between the two. In remarks to the Financial Crime Enforcement Network in November 2001, he said the following: "You are with us or you are with the terrorists. And if you're with the terrorists, you will face the consequences. We fight an enemy who hides in caves in Afghanistan, and in the shadows within our own society. It's an enemy who can only survive in darkness." In a 2004 speech on immigrants, he said, "Workers who seek only to earn a living end up in the shadows of American life." The tough talk of this era and the conflating of immigrants and terrorists as hiding among us is not found in his artwork. The distance from this rhetoric now feels jarring.
Visitors to the Bush Center's art exhibition, "Out of Many, One" on the campus of Southern Methodist University, are asked to "walk down Freedom Hall" before stepping through a TSA-styled metal detector. In weapons-friendly Texas, no weapons are allowed here. I am made to throw away a forgotten can of mace. Once past security, with its (perhaps unintentional) echoes of the post-9/11 era, however, the attempt to redefine and smudge over various historical events is staggering.
Many artists deal in illusion. And Bush is a master of illusion. His election win was itself an unprecedented and lengthy charade through the Supreme Court. He sent thousands to war over dangerous weapons that, it turns out, were not there. He subsequently did not win the Iraq War yet posed in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner. Even as the paint was drying for this exhibition, the bodies continued to pile up in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush, of course, would like us to forget all that and focus on the positives — like, say, our "nation of immigrants." But what does immigration really mean to Bush? Many, but not all, of the people depicted in his exhibit are high achievers. Quite a few are people who create value for shareholders, like Chobani Yogurt's Hamdi Ulukaya, who is considering taking the company public this year. We are told that YouTube and hamburgers were created by immigrants.
This is a very specific definition of immigration — as a defense of capitalism. (There is mention of the plight of refugees, but they are not the focus of the art.) Perhaps most telling is a portrait of Henry Kissinger, that calamitous figure who pushed for the illegal bombing of Cambodia and is linked to President Suharto's killings of hundreds of thousands in Indonesia. Kissinger was indeed an immigrant, from the former Weimar Republic, and he was even well liked in his time. But today, his name is often used in conjunction with war crimes.
Bush could take a more sophisticated approach to being an artist and give us a more nuanced look at his own history — the complexities and regrets. The Bush era certainly provided enough memorable and often dark historical events. Isa Genzken's brilliant but chilling response to 9/11 comes to mind. The president is not in danger of losing any funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, so why not take the kinds of risks that distinguish true artists? His time in office does not lack for inspiration, from Abu Ghraib to Hurricane Katrina. The art world is likely to take any of that subject matter more seriously than these rosy interpretations of smiling political tokens and comfortable millionaires.
Where can Bush go from here in terms of subject matter for his next series of paintings? His topics thus far — veterans, immigration — tell us that he is unlikely to shy away from nearly anything, even if it feels politically clumsy. If only we could believe our eyes.