I have a great fondness for serious art criticism. But I don’t think you get it by reading newspapers or magazines. What’s more, I tend to think that criticism takes time. You need to live with a piece of art for a long time. Otherwise, it is too easy to let your emotions distract you with flashy touches on a dull core.
I bring this up because I’m tired of hearing about George W. Bush’s paintings. There is a terrible tendency to look at this work and conclude that Bush is looking back on his presidency and telling us something. He isn’t. He is not a reflective man. He wasn’t at Yale, he wasn’t in the White House, and he isn’t in his new “weight room” studio. Just look at what he’s done now: a church, a dog, and two creepy self-portraits. The church and the dog are understandable: that’s who he is. The self-portraits I suspect represent the fact that he bought too much yellow and white paint and was looking for a way to get rid of it.
But I could deal with all the people stupidly hoping that Bush might reflect on his catastrophic legacy. I hope the same thing. What is far worst are the critics who have praised his work. The most prominent of these is Jerry Saltz, although there have been others. This is what he says of the painting at the top of this article:
Again with the psychologizing. And this from a big time art critic. Note that nothing is said about the technique. Could there be a reason for that?
I’m not an art critic. I think I have a decent eye, I’m open minded, and I have a good idea of what I know and don’t know. And what I can tell is that Bush’s art is not just amateur, it is bad amateur. This isn’t to say that he isn’t doing great for having painted for such a short period of time. And it isn’t to say that he won’t turn into a fine painter. But right now, his work really shouldn’t be shown outside the family. And art critics certainly shouldn’t be applauding such weak work.
Look: there are a lot of really great artists who have trouble getting any traction for their work. These are people who are far better than Bush will ever be. They would love it if someone like Jerry Saltz paid half the attention to their work that he has to Bush’s. And they need the attention. Bush does not. Bush will soon have his own one-man show, I’m sure. Why? Because he’s rich and well connected. No one will care that he paints very much like the beginning artist he is. And that’s fine. Let the rich fools have him.
But there is another even more important issue. Art critics trivialize what they do when they hold up subpar art as though it is good. It makes it look like the critics are just making things up. And sadly, that’s probably the case.