I came across a copy of George W. Bush’s Portraits of Courage, A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors.
Now, let me start by saying that I was not and am not a fan of Mr. Bush’s presidency. Really. Not. And even less his wars. But as someone who’s spent a long career in marketing and advertising, I’m all too aware that a public personality’s image is created both by his supporters and opponents. Politics is perception and public perceptions are art. No doubt, the publication of this book and the promise stated on the back flap that the net proceeds will be donated to Mr. Bush’s non-profit organization to help, in part, veterans, is an effort to rehabilitate the perception of his disastrous presidential legacy. The book is propaganda.
The interesting thing here is that the paintings made by Mr. Bush are not. They are efforts at self-expression, maybe even catharsis. But isn’t that the definition of art? Mr. Bush’s paintings are art. Maybe not great art, but art nonetheless. Would that Mr. Bush had been a painter first and not a politician.
He’s an amateur—something he readily admits in the book—and that in the highest sense. He loves what he’s doing. He is a dedicated amateur. He has grown and improved as an artist over the past few years. Of course, he is practicing from a position of privilege and wealth and has access to very good teachers. But I’m falling into the public perception of the man and not looking at the images he’s created as things in and of themselves. What do they say?
I like them. Yes, they’re amateurish, but there’s freshness in that. Mr. Bush struggles to get the likeness of his subjects. He’s clumsy at times, but his hard work is evident. He is sincere. These are portraits of veterans he has come to know personally. He intends the paintings as tributes. The portraits honor the people they portray. And these people are worthy of honor, though the honor due them is not just because they experienced war at the behest of their painter. If these paintings were not grouped and labeled as they are, we wouldn’t necessarily know their history. These are not “military” paintings. These are not “heroic” paintings. These are not, as I’ve said, propaganda. These are intimate portraits. What comes across and what gives the paintings their charm is that Mr. Bush genuinely likes the people he paints. He honors them as unique individuals with intrinsic dignity. And that, in the end, is what makes them worthy of honor.