I was skeptical at first when I heard of former President George W. Bush’s newfound love of the arts. Immediately, my inner-cynic took over and I derided his attempt at fine art through the whimsical paintings of his pets and his own nude body. When his new book, Portraits of Courage, was announced, I was intrigued not only as a professional artist, but as a veteran of the Iraq war who had served under the polarizing 43rd President of the United States. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but what I found was a collection of work both genuinely touching in sentiment and yet somehow delightfully unaware of itself.
Art is an interesting field in that it is measured almost exclusively by concept. To grade someone’s art purely on a technical level is ignoring what is actually the most important aspect of the work. Meaning and intent define art. Brush strokes can be improved, color can be used better, and framing is rarely perfect, but it is the context that ultimately determines whether a piece is objectively good or bad; or even as far as the monetary value of the work.
A great example of this is someone like Rothko, one of my favorite artists, who paints little more than massive swatches of color on large canvases. To explain a Rothko piece is a futile exercise, for it is only in person that the value of the concept is appreciated. Rothko paintings elicit an emotional impact almost immediately as you stand before them, some relaxing and some more intense. To see a Rothko piece in person is to feel it to your very core.
On a technical level, Mr. Bush’s paintings are perfectly adequate. In fact, I rather admire some of his bold color choices and intentional use of impasto. On a purely aesthetic level, his work reminds me a lot of Matisse and other expressionists. The tightly cropped portraits, I believe, are an attempt to illustrate an emotional honesty of the subjects—which are 98 wounded warriors of the Post 9/11 conflicts. Accompanying each piece is a story and a biography, designed to draw attention to and illustrate the trials and tribulations of Post Traumatic Stress and physical turmoil of each man and woman.
It is here, however, that the concept breaks down.
There is a glaring and maddeningly obvious sense of irony surrounding this body of work, as illustrated by the very man that sent these subjects into the pain he is trying to illuminate through his paintings. I would almost call it even a subconscious, passive admission of guilt on the part of the 43rd President to feel an intense need to help these veterans get their stories out, whether he realizes it or not.
It is this looming reality of narrative that makes appreciating this book difficult. The concept survives at face value, but dig past the surface and it becomes challenging to ignore the context in which this book exists.
I do not believe there is any ill-intent on the part of the former President. Far from it. I believe, to this day and to my core, that George W. Bush is a genuine man of good intention. A cynic would admonish this book as an attempt at redemption for sins past, but I actually don’t think this is the case. I think he firmly believes in the cause of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and I think Mr. Bush genuinely just wants to help veterans because he loves them. It is simply unfortunate that this book is devoid of much of any self-awareness that would make what otherwise is a nice tribute into something more uniquely transcendent.
However, the veterans here have stories that should be heard. If you have a chance, it is worth checking out if only for the recognition to these brave men and women that have endured the worst days of their lives.