The recent public exhibition of portraits painted by George W Bush, retired President of the United States, has managed to throw a lot of people into a tizzy.
Critiques of his work ranged from relatively benign (it’s “simple-minded”), to strangely overwrought (“dangerous”), but every commentator seemed to assume that his paintings were art. As if it was perfectly self-evident that Bush was making art and not, well, merely painting stuff. Which got me thinking: can elephants be artists?
By this, I mean not only Republican elephants, but actual elephants. Asian elephants, to be exact.
For several years now, a group of elephants in Thailand has been making, exhibiting, and selling their paintings in order to support themselves and others of their own kind. The elephants developed their skills under the tutelage of artists Komar & Melamid, who thought that one way to save the starving, displaced elephants from certain death was to place them in a rehabilitation program and give them paint and lessons.
To everyone’s great astonishment, the elephants not only learned how to paint, they began to spontaneously create works that resembled the “expansive gestural work of such Abstract Expressionist artists as Jackson Pollock”. Later, their paintings began showing regional as well as individual distinctions.
It was the fact that elephants painted at all that surprised people, and that disbelief is not unlike the initial astonishment at George Bush’s unlikely hobby. So is he making art, or is he just painting stuff?
First, let’s put the “realism” issue aside. Whether Bush is tracing photographs as templates, painting alla prima, or using finger paints in the bathtub isn’t worth speculating about, because materials-as-message has clearly never occurred to him. He’s just trying to make paintings of world leaders that resemble them enough to qualify as portraits, using supplies easily purchased at appropriately Christian chains stores such as Hobby Lobby.
That he more or less succeeds in making Putin look like Putin doesn’t qualify his paintings as art. The trick to drawing a plate of fruit that looks like a plate of fruit was a skill that little kids used to learn in school, along with sums and the alphabet.
Don’t believe me? Believe the elephants, since one of them was said to have been taught how to paint “realistic” self-portraits. For connoisseurs of elephant art, the elephant’s self-portraits are akin to a circus trick, because the ability to represent mimetically is a set of learned conventions – nothing more, and nothing less.
On the artistic plane, in other words, George Bush paints like the trained elephant. Or the trained elephant paints like George Bush. Their images exert the same, weird power to fascinate, and their oeuvres have been described on identical terms: “innocent, sincere, earnest, almost childlike”.
Snarking aside, we know that Bush has an above-average brain, and the more scientists learn about elephants, it’s become incontrovertible that they’re sentient beings. But the fact that elephants paint suggests a level of consciousness that goes beyond intelligence, venturing into a troubling realm of empathy and yearning that seems, for lack of a better way of putting it, disturbingly human.
Still, the elephants don’t claim to be making art, and I daresay neither does Bush. The primary reason Bush’s hobby seems odd is because he’s a member of a political group that routinely mocks contemporary artists as useless social parasites. Morbid curiosity notwithstanding, no critic would care what he did in his free time, were it not for the fact that his work is being institutionally sanctioned as art by virtue of being exhibited at the George W Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
The exhibition’s title, The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy, is itself a masterpiece of plausible deniability. The paintings aren’t art, it demurs; the art was the kabuki theater of the Bush administration itself. It’s not nice to critique the paintings, because it’s Bush the Man and not Bush the President who’s making them. He’s an amateur who’s just trying express how he feels. On a personal level. So go easy on him. Be considerate. Diplomatic, even.
This is why so many critics are annoyed by this show, because to say anything substantial about it is like firing arrows at a cloud of flies. Unscathed, the target just keeps shifting, raising bad memories of Teflon presidencies combined with the fresh anguish of knowing that intelligent people have been looking at these portraits and declaring, hey, “they’re pretty good”! Rubbing salt in the wound, one enthralled viewer turns out to be an art critic for a major magazine.
Public institutional display submits the work to cultural debate. Alas, the elephants of Thailand neither aspire to being exhibited, nor do they understand the function of art. Are they painting for joy? Maybe. But if their work enjoys rising commercial value, it’s mostly because the elephants are doomed due to economic imperialism driving humans to destroy their habitat.
There is something infinitely poignant about the fact that the elephants are painting to save their own lives, even as the species as a whole is facing imminent extinction. They paint – and humans see they’re sentient beings who don’t exist to entertain us. They paint – and they contribute to a critical dialogue regarding their survival. Maybe ours, too. In more ways than one, failed policies lead to dead elephants.
Whereas no matter how you frame it, Bush boils down to a retired guy painting stuff. If he sells any paintings, I hope he sends that money to the elephants.