The votes are in, and it’s official: Denizens of the Internet love that George W. Bush paints, particularly since the paintings he paints appear to be rather good paintings. Internet-people—trending young, hip, and liberal—love sincerely that Bush paints, and, though they understand that in the context of the rest of their feelings their love is ironic, the love itself is unironic. Seriously, if Bush had painted in 2000, he might have won that election. On Tuesday, two new paintings, one of a black cat and one of two golden retrievers, leaked on Gawker. The usual suspects chimed in. “We will keep looking at George W. Bush's paintings—admiring their clumsy beauty, studying them for hidden meaning—for as long as the bipartisan hacker Guccifer continues to leak them,” wrote New York. “Rejoice!” instructed The Daily Beast. “We’re intrigued,” added The Huffington Post. MSNBC host Chris Hayes, whose appeal rests in no small part on a sense of communion with his like-minded viewers, seemed to speak for us all when he tweeted, “I continue to root for George W Bush to become one of the greatest American painters of his time.”
It’s not just fascination, in other words. The response people have (and I include myself) to the news that Bush is painting is to be happy about this. The question, of course, is: Why?
The obvious answer (other than the simple fact that Bush has provided the Internet three more cat pictures) is that we are looking to redeem him, and therefore ourselves, who after all voted him into office once or twice, even if we ourselves did not do the voting. “OMG! Pigs fly,” wrote New York art critic Jerry Saltz when the first Bush opi leaked earlier this year. “I like something about George W. Bush. A lot.” The Atlantic Wire’s Connor Simpson supposed yesterday, in jest-but-not, that the two dogs in one of these recent paintings “represent the duality of Bush's modern day identity: the happy-go-lucky, eager to please retiree putting on a straight face for the cameras, and the sad, shameful former president who knows how poorly he performed in office. That burden is massive, and would be a hard one to shake.” Saltz finds in inarguably the two most compelling Bush paintings we have seen so far—one a seeming self-portrait, from the back, in the shower, his face visible in a shaving mirror; the other a head’s-eye view of someone (presumably him) staring at his legs and toes in a bath—“fantasies of aloofness, aloneness, exile, and hiding.” Also “private baptism; trying to get clean; infantile ecstasies; purification rituals?”
There could be something to all of this: Bush’s paintings show a withdrawing side that is paralleled by his lack of substantial post-presidential public activity; they revel in clean, nice things like bathing and animals; they cast the president in an unequivocally sympathetic role (particularly since he is not trying to cash in, wealth- or fame-wise, and is in fact the victim of a hacker).
Still, I have given this some thought, and I think it’s simpler than all that. The paintings are proof that Bush is an artist—that he invests his energies and imagination in creating works that are meant to be aesthetically pleasing and serve no utilitarian purpose. And being an artist is proof that Bush is an honest-to-God person, not the nightmarish, vague presence we all remember. It’s not even that Bush has a soul, just as it’s not even that the paintings are all that good. (And, I mean, are they, really?) It’s that he is of the same species as we are. He possesses an inner life—the very thing whose apparent absence seemed to connect all of his worst outer traits, from his intellectual incuriousness to his bullying nature (the nicknames!) to his economic cruelty to his foreign militarism. The paintings are a reminder that—as Philip Roth wrote of the White House during the Clinton years—a human being lived there. Someone who provided unprecedented funding for combating AIDS in Africa and evinced tolerance at a personal level. A son, a husband, a father.
We like uplifting third acts. Turn on daytime television if you don’t believe me. It was totally unshocking that when I Googled “bad bush paintings,” the first response that came up actually adjudging the paintings bad was … French. To err is presidential; to forgive, American.