Despite media reports, George W. Bush didn't paint as well as Hitler

It's almost worth waiting with bated breath to see who will be the first media professional to publicly apologize and admit that former President George W. Bush -- in light of recently leaked and illegally hacked photos of his artwork -- is far more interesting and human than he has been given credit for in the press. And yet, all that seems to be emerging and resurfacing in the echo chamber of the news are exaggerated reviews of the former president's artwork, both positive and negative.

Let me be crystal clear up top. The hacking of the email account or accounts that has led to this public airing of Bush family laundry is absolutely disgusting, particularly given the fact that some of the stolen information pertains to former President George H.W. Bush's hospitalization. No matter what one thinks about the former presidents' politics, and about their family members' politics, this invasion of their privacy is awful. The pictures should never have been hacked, and they shouldn't appear online.

Adolph Hitler. 'The Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich,' 1914.

Adolph Hitler. 'The Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich,' 1914.

The ethical question of whether the media should report on and publish the images after they've already appeared online is a more complicated question, which others have addressed. (I've chosen not to even link to the images, although they can be found with a simple search.)

But reviews of the hacked George W. Bush paintings are very ill-informed, and that is worth addressing. Writing in the New York Times, Roberta Smith observes:

W. paints! Who would have thought it? Thanks to a hacker known as Guccifer who wormed into the computer of the 43rd president’s sister, the world has learned that George W. Bush is an amateur -– I would say serious amateur -– painter. He may be some people’s least favorite president since Hoover, but as an artist he is, well, a heck of a lot better than any number of world leaders whose names spring to mind, foremost Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler.

That it was important to point out that President Bush is "some people's least favorite president since Hoover" (and not even "most people's") amid a story about a gross violation of his privacy may come off as callous to some people. But it's also not true that the former president painted as well as Hitler. Anyone who has read Frederic Spotts' Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics knows that Hitler was actually a gifted painter. He was no Old Master -- despite his reverence for their work -- but he showed a good deal of talent, and certainly more than is exhibited in the work purported to be by President Bush.

As Smith notes, two of the images of President Bush show him bathing, which, she says, "raise all sorts of interesting questions about what’s on the former president’s mind these days, and what, if any, art he has been looking at." Note the "if any" -- suggesting that the former president is a philistine even as his work has emerged -- and the analysis (more like pin the political pretext on the art):

The two paintings could be said to depict the introverted self-absorption for which Mr. Bush is known. Perhaps, he is trying to cleanse himself in a more metaphorical way, seeking a kind of redemption from his less fortuitous decisions as president.

Writing for Vulture, Jerry Saltz adds more along the same lines:

OMG! Pigs fly. I like something about George W. Bush. A lot. After spending more than a decade having almost physiological-chemical reactions anytime I saw him, getting the heebie-jeebies whenever he spoke — after being sure from the start that he was a Gremlin on the wing of America — I really like the paintings of George W. Bush. ... They show someone doing the best he can with almost no natural gifts — except the desire to do this.

Elsewhere, publications like the Washington Free Beacon refer just as absurdly to the former president as a "fantastic painter."

"The paintings demonstrate a command of line and color that is rarely seen in the modern-day 'art' world," observes the article by Beacon staff. "Former President George W. Bush appears to be influenced by such painters as Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet. The portraits also clearly capture the personality of their subject."

First of all, it'd be pretty hard to track down any painter today who hasn't been influenced by Manet and Degas (both of whom don't appear to have had much influence on the works in question), and also, one can imagine that the former president himself wouldn't refer to himself as a "fantastic painter."

Others refer to the "frat boy" element, or note that former President Bush was painting in his weight room. As I've often found with artists, sometimes the motivation behind paintings tends to conform to the simplicity test, or an aesthetic version of Occam's razor. The photograph in question representing the weight room shows the former president painting in front of some windows that have great light, which is a much simpler explanation than any Freudian readings on art and weight pumping, and artists have long depicted themselves in art not because they're narcissistic, but because the self is always there, and is easier and cheaper to negotiate than a model.

Hrag Vartanian, on the other hand, has the insight to raise the work of Frida Kahlo and to compare it to President Bush's work, although he dismisses the latter's as "dull."

As someone who is himself a mediocre painter, I think the former president's works are just fine. It doesn't sell papers (er clicks) to say anything but the hyperbolic -- that he's the best painter ever, or that his paintings are dismal -- but the truth is that they are neither. And I can say also from experience that when one invests so much of oneself in one's artwork, it's a terrible violation to have those works -- particularly works in progress -- shared publicly without one's permission and ability to prepare for that publication.

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    Menachem Wecker

    An art critic and painter, Menachem Wecker holds a master’s degree in art history from George Washington University and writes for "Houston Chronicle," as well as various religious publications. He is coauthor, with Brandon Withrow, of Winebrenner Theological Seminary, of the forthcoming book, "Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education" (Cascade Books), and is the former education reporter at "U.S. News and World Report."

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