Oil Paintings of George W. Bush

The oil paintings of George W. Bush demonstrate there are plenty of reasons to engage in creative activity that has no possibility of being professionalized and won’t receive external validation.

| May/June 2013

George W. Bush is a man of many distinctive qualities, which, depending on how one feels about his tenure as president, may be described either in glowing terms or in terms that wouldn’t be printable in a family publication. (In the interest of full disclosure, I prefer the latter.) But it recently came as a surprise that he could fairly claim a descriptor no one would have guessed: painter. 

The reaction was mixed. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz likes them, more or less, and his wife Roberta Smith, writing in the New York Times, calls him a serious amateur. (She asserts that he’s a better painter than Hitler, which in certain circles must pass for a compliment.) 

Two of the described paintings are nude self-portraits, which makes them sound more terrifying than they are. In one painting, 43 is in the shower, staring into a shaving mirror from the back. In the second, we see through his own gaze his lower legs and feet submerged in bathwater. As Roberta Smith notes, these viewpoints and self-as-subject could alternately suggest introspection or narcissism, but the reality is we can’t be exactly sure of the artist’s motivations or what he is trying to convey. 

Why is the former president painting himself? Why is he even painting? The rest of the criticism centers on the quality of the work and how to classify it. Is it worthy of collecting or displaying in a gallery? Is he, by definition, an outsider artist? How does he stack up against the professionals? 

These are interesting questions. But maybe the answers don’t matter. 

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that George W. Bush is not an artist by anyone’s definition. His work is laughably bad. He should not be mentioned in the same breath with painters who make art for a living.