Bush's Paintings and the Art of Projecting Guilt

Jill Lawrence

What’s George W. Bush more annoyed about, getting hacked or getting psychoanalyzed? Hard to know, but I’m betting on the latter.

This is a family that famously hates to be put on the couch. Neither George H.W. Bush nor his son is given to much public introspection about their thoughts, their motivations or their own relationship. How much do we know of how George the elder’s life was shaped by his near death in World War II at age 18, or the death of his toddler daughter Robin later on? What do we know of the relationship between the presidential father and son? Look at what washed over us when George W. said he consulted with a “higher father” than his own about invading Iraq. A tidal wave of Oedipal analysis based on two words!

Now there are a few more clues, three paintings by the artist “43,” available for public viewing and picking apart. They are not the first evidence of Bush’s hobby. Last week he released a shockingly good portrait of his dog, Barney, after Barney’s death. The latest haul, compliments of a hopefully-soon-to-be-arrested hacker called Guccifer, includes a photograph of Bush working on a painting of a church, and partial portraits of himself in the shower and the bathtub.

Bush sent the two self-portraits to his sister in emails forced into public view by the hacker, and they likely are not the only types of art he’s been producing in the past few years. Let’s remember that before we get caught up in his alleged symbolic obsession with the themes of cleansing and redemption.

Wait, never mind, too late for that. The art critics – and the liberals projecting onto Bush the guilt they think he ought to feel -- have already pounced.

  • “A Freudian will have to tell us why the water is running in both pictures. Private baptism; trying to get clean; infantile ecstasies; purification rituals?” writes Jerry Saltz at Vulture.com.
  • “Even in the quiet inner sanctum of the bathroom, where a man is just a man, George W. Bush cannot escape his past,” Clare Malone writes in The American Prospect.
  • “Bush, slightly hunched, is standing out of the water, staring off into the corner of the shower, as if contemplating past sins that can never be washed away, no matter how much soap you use and how hard you scrub,” writes Dan Amira at New York Magazine.
  • “If you ask me there is something of a simple allegory to the moments chosen here: the discredited former leader trying to wash himself clean of the long failure that was his life,” writes Miles Klee at blackbookmag.com.
  • “Perhaps, he is trying to cleanse himself in a more metaphorical way, seeking a kind of redemption from his less fortuitous decisions as president,” Roberta Smith writes in The New York Times. Of course, she also refers to “the introverted self-absorption for which Bush is known” – begging the question, by whom?

The spectacular hacking obviously involved far more egregious breaches than the emergence of Bush’s G-rated paintings, topped by a security nightmare for the family. They’ll also have a bit of fence-mending to do with some of the people mentioned in their emails.

But it’s the paintings that have caught the imagination of the public and of the critics, some of whom profess to like the former president’s work even as they patronize it. It’s because a sensitive Bush, an artistic Bush, a man who paints himself nude and vulnerable, is not the Bush we thought we knew. Although, of course, he did marry a librarian who loves to read. So maybe we should have suspected an artistic temperament all along?

And there I am, off and running in the latest irresistible political parlor game. But it ends right here. I’m kicking Bush off the couch and advising him to skip reading his reviews. People who review art for publications in big cities -- let's see, Bush voters? I think not.