The Art of George W. Bush and the Importance of Play


Former President George W. Bush is a man of many distinctive qualities, which, depending on how one feels about his tenure as president, may be described either in glowing terms or in terms that wouldn’t be printable in a family publication. (In the interest of full disclosure, I prefer the latter.) But it came as a surprise last week that he could fairly claim a descriptor no one would have guessed: painter.

The reaction was mixed. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz likes them, more or less, and his wife Roberta Smith, writing in the New York Times, calls him a serious amateur. (She asserts that he’s a better painter than Hitler, which in certain circles must pass for a compliment.)

Two of the described paintings are nude self-portraits, which makes them sound more terrifying than they are. In the painting pictured above, 43 is in the shower, staring into a shaving mirror from the back. In the second, we see through his own gaze his lower legs and feet submerged in bathwater. As Roberta Smith notes, these viewpoints and self-as-subject could alternately suggest introspection or narcissism, but the reality is we can’t be exactly sure of the artist’s motivations or what he is trying to convey.

Why is the former president painting himself? Why is he even painting? The rest of the criticism centers on the quality of the work and how to classify it. Is it worthy of collecting or displaying in a gallery? Is he, by definition, an outsider artist? How does he stack up against the professionals?

These are interesting questions. But maybe the answers don’t matter.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that George W. Bush is not an artist by anyone’s definition. His work is laughably bad. He should not be mentioned in the same breath with painters who make art for a living.

These are not reasons for 43 to abandon painting. They’re not reasons for anyone to stop painting — or fail to start.

There are plenty of reasons to engage in creative activity that has no possibility of being professionalized and won’t receive external validation. We paint because it’s therapeutic. We paint because it gives us new perspectives on the world around us. We paint because the act of creating is just as important as the creation. We paint because, god forbid, it’s fun, which is its own justification.

We all remember a time when we understood that intuitively. We were probably six or seven. We were encouraged to draw, to paint, to sing, to build things out of other things, and it never occurred to us that being good at any of it was relevant.

But as we grew older, we found that all of our creative pursuits were tethered to achievement and it was a waste of time, if not an embarrassment, to spend energy on creative projects that couldn’t be displayed or judged worthwhile or result in professional gain. This is a shame.

What it means in practice is that we tend to spend free time consuming culture instead of making it. Instead of writing a story or attempting to paint something or learning a piece of music, we watch TV or go to a movie.

There’s nothing wrong with consuming culture, of course. But what are we losing if that time is never spent making things, and making them for their own sake?

I recently had a conversation with a friend about taking what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call a “creative vacation.” I tend to travel when I’m burned out or need a change of scenery, but I also view that time as an opportunity for creative regeneration: grabbing some art supplies and writing paper and heading to my own personal Walden. My friend concurred. His exact words were, “I’d like to just find a cabin in the woods somewhere and Jackson Pollock the shit out of a canvas.” My friend was less interested in creative work than creative play, but who’s to say that play isn’t as important as work? I’d wager that play has some advantages:

It’s easier to experiment when you don’t think your creative project will be judged. It’s allowed to be bad. It can be really, really bad, in fact. (I’d argue that George W. Bush’s paintings are not even in the really, really bad category, but I could show you some of my own work that is, and I don’t think I’d have ever made those things if they were going to be judged professionally.) Sometimes it’s important in a professional context to do bad work in order to improve, but making things that are flawed and accepting that they are going to be flawed — because let’s face it, we are not exactly Rembrandt — has value as well. We don’t have to be good at everything. We don’t even have to try to be good at everything, despite the fact that our delicate egos often make it feel like a moral imperative.

There’s a certain joy in being really, really bad at something and doing it anyway. We were probably bad painters at the age of six, but who doesn’t remember the fun of smearing paint on a piece of paper in order to render what our teachers would have described as alternately “a sort of flower” or “a map of Germany”? There’s no reason why painting flowers of questionable quality shouldn’t be just as enjoyable now. (And for what it’s worth, it probably uses more brain cells than watching all of season six on Netflix.)

Maybe that’s all the former president was thinking as he rendered his bathroom tiles in oil paint. Maybe he had no aspirations of being admired as an artist or validated by the art market. Maybe he just wanted to Jackson Pollock the shit out of a canvas. As well he should have.

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