On ViewThe REACH
Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors
October 7 – November 15, 2019
There are few, if any, issues more central to contemporary art production than that of art's relation to politics: from current events and government structures as subject matter; to questions of how aesthetic representation can mimic or remedy gaps in political representation; to the ways identity itself is politicized. Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors presented a series of 98 paintings of injured, post-9/11 US veterans—all of which were first introduced in George W. Bush’s 2017 book of the same name—at the Kennedy Center’s new art space, The REACH. Considering that as President, Bush orchestrated the circumstances for these paintings, I wanted to know whether and how he accounts for the politics of his aesthetics. As a civilian, I was literally a piece of his constitutive power as Head of State; and the prescribed outlet for my rage at his misrepresentations and their consequences was essentially voting. Now, to our mutual surprise, we share a vocation, which means that I can evaluate him as a peer.
The trek to see George W. Bush’s paintings at the Kennedy Center is paved in monuments to nationalism. It’s jarring. Passing by the White House and Capitol, the National Mall with its string of museums and monuments, scattered embassies, government agencies, felt like conditioning to experience Official American Art. In a sense, I was: The Kennedy Center is the official US National Cultural Center, and lends this authority to the nearby REACH, new and ungainly because of it, manifesting unblemished architecture and more questionable sponsors. Given the closeness of Bush’s work as an artist to his military policy in the Middle East, it’s worth noting that major contributors to The REACH include Boeing, which gave $20 million, as well as the State of Qatar and both the People and Embassy of the United Arab Emirates. Studio K, the auditorium converted to house the show, is nestled at the center of the building and named for John F. Kennedy.
Even if it were possible to look beyond the trappings of State-granted legitimacy, giving Portraits of Courage a cold read is impossible. Bush’s reputation precedes his art, literally and critically. Interpreting his work in relation to his perceived reputation tends to reinforce whatever perception one already has. If you want to see Bush as a human who has made mistakes, the paintings disclose themselves as painted atonements. If you are confused about the status of the wars and Americans’ relation to them, the sitters project that confusion. If you see Bush himself as wounded by these wars, then the project is viable as art therapy. If you think Bush is a war criminal, then his painting career is of very little relevance to his legacy.
Luckily, we do not have to settle for perceptions and projections: before we even get to look at the paintings, Bush tells us how to think about them. Bush’s writing is self-deprecating—a familiar extension of the persona he inhabited as President—as he charts the process and pleasure of learning how to paint and an obvious admiration for his teachers, the artists Gail Norfleet, Jim Woodson, and Sedrick Huckaby. But for someone who titled his introduction to Portraits of Courage “Painting as a Passion,” Bush quickly hedges against aesthetic interpretations of the work. “I’m not sure how the art in this volume will hold up to critical eyes. After all, I’m a novice,” he writes. “What I am sure of is that each painting was done with a lot of care and respect.” In emphasizing his inexperience, Bush asks not to be judged on the quality of his paintings, but rather on the amount of “care and respect” demonstrated in his efforts, regardless of whether these are visible in the work. This is a slippery criterion: I am asked to take Bush at his word on what constitutes “a lot,” without receiving a framework for considering even what “enough” would look like.
It is clear at every stage in their presentation that Bush does not consider the paintings enough on their own. Each portrait in the book is accompanied by a short text written by Bush, recounting each veteran’s military service and how they were injured, how Bush came to know them, and a few anecdotes about their recovery and character. This context was made available for the exhibition through a custom app featuring audio of Bush reading these accounts. Upon entering the exhibition, viewers were faced with a video of Bush describing the project, effectively restating the book’s introduction. In this relationship of words and images, the texts do the heavy lifting in emphasizing Bush’s personal connections with his sitters, and how the veterans have overcome serious physical, psychological, and emotional trauma.
Meanwhile, the paintings are positioned as visual aids, stand-ins which prove these relationships through gesture and likeness. With few exceptions, they are remarkably similar in their formal approach, usually depicting one veteran head-on, and tightly cropped around the head and shoulders to emphasize faces and expressions. The paintings are hung so we can look the figures in the eye, an act which would exemplify the "care and respect" the artist desires. In order for this gambit to work, Bush depends on an unbroken link between his hand, his eyes, their eyes, and their interiority; a strategy which requires genuine and reciprocated looking. To this end, Bush leans on both the expectations of portraiture as a genre, and stylistically expressionist marks which privilege the wisdom of a painter's idiosyncratic observation. He mentions Joaquín Sorolla and Wayne Thiebaud as influences, which is clear in his use of color; but he also benefits from the aura of psychological probity inherited from portraitists like Alice Neel and van Gogh, whose influence is visible in the colorful saturation of shadows and line-work, and the cakiness of surfaces. Aesthetically, the goal appears to cultivate the sense that these paintings are personally observed validations of Bush’s written assessments.
The fact that the paintings are made from photographs that appear not to have been made or specifically intended for this project undermines that trust, and makes Bush’s pictorial claims feel unearned. The success of the paintings as reiterating a personal relationship is dependent on my belief that Bush is actually attempting to see his subjects—in order to honor them—and that the paintings represent this looking. The reality, however, is that the pictures appear to have been taken by Bush’s personal or event photographers, and the reasons for choosing the particular images is left unclear.1 The portrait of Sergeant Leslie Zimmerman appears to come from a random still taken from a video made during a separate Bush Center event.2 The dynamic exposed by this strategy is characterized not by the collaborative give-and-take implied by portraiture, but by Bush’s insistence on imposing his will over the very people he is trying to make visible.
Bush’s interventions are everywhere in this body of work. The writing relies on his narrative voice, telling us what he finds significant about each individual. Though they are quoted in these essays, the examples Bush uses reiterate the same story: a commitment to service, the hardships of injuries, and eventual recovery. Over and over again, Bush interprets his own works: he mediates their faces, stories, and the meaning of their recovery as he integrates his experience of them into a narrative about overcoming the physical and psychological consequences of war. Contrary to his objectives, this project does not allow a genuine access to the personalities and resilience of the injured veterans as Bush promises because he makes no space for them to communicate directly or on terms outside of his narrative.
And, although the expressionist elements of the paintings reference aesthetic intimacy, Bush’s own framing consistently positions him politically rather than aesthetically; the tribute he pays is not as an artist, but as Commander in Chief; it’s right there in the title. Bush was reportedly inspired to paint after reading Winston Churchill’s Painting as a Pastime (1948). Churchill repeatedly describes the similarities between painting and battle, going so far as to describe the painter as Commander in Chief over his canvas. It is a vision of the painter as supreme authority, having dominion over the interpretation of nature and the application of his “reserves” of materials and imagery to pictorial struggle. No wonder Bush relates!
In this light, the project shifts from being about candid observation of injured veterans and their needs vis-a-vis the language of portraiture to a kind of performance of Presidential acknowledgement: the art’s significance is dependent on an understanding that former President George W. Bush is the figure looking at, interpreting, and ultimately validating his subjects. The project translates Bush’s authority in both seeing and interpreting his troops from a military setting to an aesthetic one. The work presents this to a viewer as a closed cycle where Bush is in control: as the arbiter of honor in humans and wars they fought at his behest; as both the source of narrative and its validator. In the final paragraph of his introduction he writes, “this is more than an art book,” because the book is about veterans. This tautological insistence—the book was already about veterans, because these are paintings of veterans—only makes sense aesthetically if we accept that Bush’s recognition as a former president exceeds his recognition as a mere painter, and that the purpose of this recognition is symbolic. Of course it is “more” than art; it is political theater.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the exhibition layout. Rather than hew to white-box conventions of contemporary painting display, Bush’s show was dim and cavernous. Each painting was spotlit, as if to emphasize each individual’s narrative arc, coming into visibility simultaneously through lighting and paint. One does not have to doubt the sincerity of Bush’s pleasure in painting, or his intention to help post-9/11 American veterans—he dedicates resources and civilian training to veterans through various Bush Center initiatives—to be troubled by the effects of his rhetoric.
The most familiar and uncomfortable part of Bush’s artwork is its rhetorical strategy. I grew up learning to disentangle geopolitical facts from Bush-era hyperbole, which sought to erase nuance, questionable motives, and even criminality by rephrasing them through nationalist values: couch civilian surveillance as P.A.T.R.I.O.T.ism; fight international consensus condemning unilateral invasions by transmuting “French” into “Freedom.” So it is not a surprise that Bush is intentional in attempting to translate his political authority into aesthetic authority by executive fiat, or that the goal of his aesthetics is to validate his symbolic authority as Commander in Chief.
While the accounts Bush provides of these veterans are moving, the focus on each soldier’s trauma and eventual recovery casts the wars and the injuries caused as events to be overcome by individuals, obscuring the systematic and impersonal causes of injury (and its treatment). This narrative invalidates experiences of physical and post-traumatic stress that are chronic. It veils the stories of those who are not well, not getting better, not going out of their way to meet Bush at events hosted by his foundation, who are confused or critical about the wars they participated in, or who were civilians wounded by wars they weren’t even fighting. More broadly, it reduces the wars to something that we can get over and feel better about, by making their massive (and continued) harms seem manageable.
Selective visibility was a strategy prioritized during Bush’s tenure as Commander in Chief in order to maintain public approval for his wars. These paintings are haunted by the images and information we know were suppressed: the ban on pictures of U.S. soldiers’ coffins returning home in order to conceal American casualties. The strict limitations on war photographers and embedded journalists which censored images that did not depict Americans favorably and ignored the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed and cultural heritage destroyed in Iraq. And, of course, the still-censored documentation of US military personnel engaging in torture in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, and elsewhere; terror against terror, in our names.
I have been disheartened by the quickness with which prominent critics (including Jerry Saltz, Peter Schjeldahl, Jonathan Alter, Phillip Kennicott, and Mimi Swartz) have been content to assess Bush as “not a bad painter” and to use the paintings as evidence of his humanity, as though art is just the accumulation of not-bad gestures whose mere presence is enough to glimpse the soul, and proof of humanity is mutually exclusive with a capacity for cruelty. The temptation is clear: it would be such a relief to see Bush as just a man, to use the glimmer of self-awareness implied by brushwork as license to excuse his behavior as President. Would Bush’s repentance be enough to let us off the hook of our complicity in actions he perpetrated in the name of our freedom and safety? That Bush’s artwork is mediocre shows how easy it is to entertain this wish, but even if he were Caravaggio (famously a murderer, himself), it would not negate inventing a war and justifying torture under the guise of spreading democracy. In looking at the paintings for traces of Bush’s interiority, critics have missed the point. Bush is not trying to advocate for himself as a human artist but as a public figure, and he is less concerned with exposing his humanity than he is in maintaining his authority.
If the only stakes in assessing Bush’s paintings are whether they humanize him and whether this affects his legacy as President, then his rhetorical strategy has paid off, because he has succeeded in convincing us that his art is based on personal observation and not an extension of his political ideology. More, his reliance on signifiers of the personal in his painting—gesture, touch, expressiveness—recasts his political authority as soft, intimate, concerned with individuals and honor; rather than how it manifested as a doctrine of American military imperialism, unbeholden to Congressional approval or international law. For anyone who wonders whether art criticism still matters, the answer should be: of course. Far from trying to determine the qualities of an artist’s soul, criticism should give us the tools to parse aesthetic rhetoric and its implications—what others want us to believe and on what terms—in art, as in the world beyond it, so we can decide what to do with it. Why worry about Bush’s soul?
- George W. Bush, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. Exh. cat. New York: Crown Publishers, 2017. p 191.
- Melissa Warak, Warriors and Volunteers: A Review of George W. Bush, Portraits of Courage, Art Journal, July 2, 2018.