Dear Mr. Bush,
I was heartened to learn of your recent exhibition of paintings at your own Presidential Library in Dallas. Some may have considered this a crude display of the vanity of power, but I happen to think such crudeness has its own aesthetic merit and honesty. It is crucial that world leaders such as yourself advocate and promote the fine arts, even if, during your presidency, you oversaw their continued economic abandonment (in favour of increased military spending), and even though many of your colleagues in the Republican party have been at the forefront of castigating, belittling and attempting to censor artists and art perceived to run afoul of Christian moral values.
Nonetheless, my students and I were intrigued by your portraits of world leaders and have been debating your artistic influences, intentions and implications since their unveiling. While we universally find your work to be technically unsophisticated (intentionally so, some argue), we find it conceptually and historically enigmatic.
Some believe that your work is best understood through the lens provided by philosopher Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil. She argued that those who perpetuate some of the most heinous crimes against humanity (such as Adolph Eichmann, who implemented and facilitated Hitler’s “final solution” program) are not the sadistic monsters we might imagine, but “normal,” dull people who live out the same dramas, passions and confusions of the rest of us.
According to these students, your childish paintings are merely the hackneyed expressions of a soul blithely untouched by the moral weight of the hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians murdered or maimed under your orders, nor the hundreds of thousands of migrants incarcerated, killed or abused at your nation’s borders during your tenure as president, nor still the untold millions who will suffer the effects of catastrophic climate change thanks to the way you and your administration systematically undermined all international efforts to prevent this calamity at the behest of your intimate friends in the energy sector.
Other students have advanced a more sympathetic argument: this collection of portraits of world leaders, including notably your father, former president George Herbert Walker Bush, represents an expression of your unconscious as it grapples with what Sigmund Freud called the “superego,” that accumulated synthesis of other people’s expectations and judgments that each of us carries around within our mind. This superego shapes, disciplines and constrains our drives and actions. For these students, your portraits represent a hapless, insincere, inadequate apology for your crimes against humanity.
In your cunning exhibition, the audience in the gallery is put in your position, surrounded on all sides by the crudely drawn faces of the world’s most powerful and brutal men. The audience (now your co-creators) come to understand that your position was like that of George Orwell when, as a colonial administrator in Burma, he was forced to perform the unsavoury act of shooting a rogue elephant in order to fulfill the role assigned to him by the Empire, not on the direct order of his superiors, but by the unspoken expectations of his peers and subalterns. But like a crooked child caught red-handed with a stolen chocolate bar, your apology here is entirely perfunctory, a crude sketch of repentance, lacking shadow and depth, an image copied from photographs. You have no intention of changing your ways. You would do it all again.
For less generous students, influenced by Jacques Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud, the centrality of your father’s portrait, and its relationship to that of so many other powerful men, reveals your fruitless quest for paternal authority, for the phallic power of signification. According to this theory, your heinous actions as president were oedipal attempts to seize the motherland from the father’s imago, whose legacy haunted your presidency and your life.
Having traded your bunker-buster missiles for your brush, your paintings continue this ultimately pyrrhic labour, energized not by some deep creative genius in your soul (as you poetically put it, the “Rembrandt trapped in this body” — for God’s sake, free the poor man, nothing could be worse) but rather by the frantic attempt to cover over the fundamental “lack” or absence at work deep in your psyche.
Just as your famous 2003 “mission accomplished” spectacle aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln falsely announced an end to hostilities in Iraq at the very moment your men raped and slaughtered its people, so too do these paintings announce an impossible closure. Your necrophilic inhabitation of the persona of the artist is calculated to convince us (perhaps even to convince you) that, while once you were fragmented, today you are whole. But we both know the truth is otherwise.
Like you, I am skeptical of such psychoanalytic approaches. Unlike you, I am a Marxist, which leads me to an analysis of your work that sees it as an incomplete, bourgeois attempt to represent the unfathomable totality of capitalist exploitation. Having once pursued your artistic practice as Leader of the Free World, you would, no doubt, have been expected to have an intimate relationship with this tantalizing totality.
During that period, you yourself spoke many times, in the most reverent (if simplified) terms, about the virtues of the capitalist marketplace, the boon of globalization and the inherent good of free trade. We both know how cynical you were, and how all such rhetoric merely served to expand the interests of the American capitalist elite, of whom you and your family are prized members. Even so, your enthusiasm at the time betrayed a sense of almost childlike wonder at the cosmic power of capital and the worldwide expansion of the general equivalent, materialized today as the magically free-floating American dollar, of which you were, for a time, the nominal master. Hence your clever use of petroleum-based paints to recall the cultural and political influence of oil, which here literally composes the spectacle of power.
I suggested to my students that your paintings, while on the surface portraits, were really futile attempts to regrasp what you felt you once almost grasped: the ineffable capitalist sublime. Like all bourgeois, you can only perceive and narrate the market in the form of biography, visually in the form of portraiture. Hence your portraits of global leaders, in spite of their coy, knowing and confident smiles, represent a survey of hollowed men who, like yourself, have gazed deep into the market and have had the market gaze back into them.
Whatever the case, as you can see your work has generated a great deal of debate and conversation, and it is for that reason that I want to extend a heartfelt invitation for you to visit my class at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada to speak about your art. Please let me know a date that is convenient for you. I think we would have a very fruitful and convivial discussion.
As you surely know, by visiting us at NSCAD you will be joining a long list of famous artists, including Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, Martha Rosler, Krzysztof Wodiczko and Gerhardt Richter, who have benefitted from and contributed to the school’s commitment to vigorous experimentation, theoretical rigour, technical skill and political activism. I think you will find that the visit will challenge and stimulate you both aesthetically and conceptually.
In the spirit of free and open debate, I can personally guarantee that you will have as much protection as our little art school can muster during your visit, though I feel I must warn you that, upon leaving campus, many will attempt to arrest you so that you might stand trial for your crimes against humanity. While I will be your host, conscience dictates that I must support such efforts to bring you to justice.
Given that your personal net worth exceeds the entire budget of NSCAD, I respectfully ask that you consider financing your own visit, though I will be pleased to personally buy you lunch on the day of your presentation.
I urge you to respond in all haste. I fear your grievous crimes will catch up to you and you will be tried before we have a chance to benefit from your presence.
Max Haiven, PhD
Images from the George W. Bush Center on Flickr.