Until now, the “George W. Bush is an amateur painter” narrative was innocuous, even charming. After retiring from the presidency, Bush was inspired by the example of Winston Churchill, who turned to making art for distraction after the disgrace of his disastrous role in the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I. So Bush, too, took up the brush, and started putting paint on canvas, working mainly on portraits of world leaders and, later, on images of wounded veterans, whose cause he has championed.
It helped that Bush isn’t a bad artist. He shows a taste for bold colors and heavy impasto, laying on the paint thickly in a way that suggests he has studied the work of Van Gogh and perhaps the Fauvists, too. That he focused his portraits on wounded vets also muted any criticism he was trafficking on his celebrity as an ex-president to boost his new career as an artist. Of course, Bush doesn’t need the money, and he isn’t pretending to be a great artist. In the introduction to “Portraits of Courage,” a catalogue of his portraits, he wrote eloquently and humbly about his concern for the well-being of wounded veterans. Proceeds from the sale of that book are being given to a military and veterans initiative at Bush’s presidential center.
Here, it seemed, was a story to counter the reflexive cynicism of today’s broken political culture.
So it’s unfortunate that the Kennedy Center has now undertaken to display Bush’s work as the first art exhibition mounted in its newly opened expansion space, the Reach. By giving these paintings the endorsement of a professional exhibition, in the nation’s capital, with the imprimatur of a major arts center and by extension the federal government (which supports the center’s budget), the art has been put into a different context, where it does not belong. It also raises important and disturbing questions about the seriousness of the center’s commitment to the visual arts.
The exhibition has been touring the country, mainly by way of smaller museums in Texas, Missouri and Arizona, and was brought to Washington by Ellery Brown, the senior vice president for operations at the Kennedy Center. Brown doesn’t ordinarily get involved in programming, according to a center spokeswoman.
Every venue at the Kennedy Center brings with it an inherent prestige. Amateur artists and performers and community-based arts groups appear at the center regularly, as they should. But the exhibition of Bush’s work is different. It will occupy Studio K, one of the largest spaces in the Reach, for six weeks. The rehearsal space has been converted, at considerable effort, to be a home for art, including temporary partitions and lighting, a video and a timed-entry ticket system. Boeing, the second-largest defense contractor in the world, is listed as the underwriter.
There are dozens of significant artists within a 10-minute drive from the Kennedy Center, and hundreds, if not thousands, nationally, who may never receive this kind of institutional endorsement and generous public display of their work. The moment Bush’s art was put into this setting, the story stopped being primarily about an ex-president’s genial pastime and commitment to veterans, and became an arts story. Now the paintings must be judged relative to the work of other artists, whose art might have been displayed in their stead. And they do not measure up, by any standard.
The fact that these paintings are images of wounded veterans doesn’t mitigate the poor decision-making at the center. If the center wanted to use art to focus attention on the crisis of post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness and substance abuse that afflicts too many of our veterans, it should have turned to their art, giving them a voice with an exhibition that explored the expressive and therapeutic role art can play in their lives.
Critics have largely resisted psychoanalyzing the role art may be playing in Bush’s post-presidential life, and whether these paintings are a way of grappling with guilt and remorse for having launched a war that is increasingly viewed as one of the greatest foreign policy blunders in the history of the republic. But with this exhibition, with the funding from Boeing, with its six-week residency at the Kennedy Center, it begins to look less like a charming hobby and more like the grand vanity projects — bad books of amateur poetry, second career outings in pretend rock bands, abstract paintings on view at galleries that will show anything for a buck — that celebrities too often foist on the public in later life. And why should critics hold off analyzing that?
The exhibition of art isn’t just about filling wall space with paintings. But that seems to be the thinking at the center, at least in regard to this first exhibition. The Bush paintings were already famous, there are a lot of them, and they celebrate veterans. Who can argue with that? Anyone. If you believe that the center should be using its venues seriously, to challenge audiences, raise new questions and teach them things they might not ordinarily encounter in their everyday lives, then this is an unfortunate show. Some exhibitions fail, and you can still admire those who mounted them for having taken chances and risked something. But mediocre exhibitions that cater only to the fame of the work or the artist are worse: They are a lost opportunity. A real artist who made real work wasn’t given this chance.
This kind of thing was more common in Washington two decades ago, when the arts were comfortably parochial. People would murmur happily at exhibitions of press photography simply because they had pictures of real presidents in them. The Corcoran mounted a terrible show of sculptures that were based on famous paintings, real Impressionist paintings that people actually recognized, and wasn’t that cool? Bush may be innocent of any part in the decision to bring his work here, but it feels like it got here under the old dispensation: If art has some connection to politics or celebrity, it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad.
So the story of Bush’s art has gone from “he’s not a bad painter” to “why is the Kennedy Center endorsing this?” And that raises other questions. Who is in charge of exhibitions at the Reach? Will this $250 million expansion be a significant new venue for visual artists? Or will it default to the cynical and outdated view that Washingtonians will flock to anything arts-related if they have seen it on television?
Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. Through Nov. 15 at the Kennedy Center. www.kennedy-center.org.