George W. Bush is selling veterans. His book of paintings, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, is not, by his account, an apology or expression of guilt. In an April interview with NPR, Bush reminded reporter David Greene that many of the troops had volunteered. “We’d do it again, Mr. President,” he said they’d told him. When Greene asked how Bush felt about the idea that he had transitioned from “war criminal to the internet’s favorite grandpa,” according to the New Statesman, the ex-president laughed and responded, “Well, that’s nice of them.”
More than a self-serving attempt to rehabilitate Bush’s legacy, Portraits of Courage asserts a bond between patriotism, art, and capitalism. Instead of bringing individual veterans into focus, Bush’s book muddies their stories and faces, blending them into a vision of generic collective troop sacrifice. He delivers the evidence of that sacrifice not in public spaces such as museums and historical sites but as a product for sale. At a moment when the National Education Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities are under renewed attack, Portraits of Courage dismisses the value of art as a public good.
The book begins with a commercial transaction. In his first section, titled “Painting as a Passion,” Bush recounts that he was encouraged by his wife, Laura, to get help with his retirement hobby. So he hired an instructor. She asked Bush what his “objectives” were. He told her, “There’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body” and “your job is to liberate him.” Let’s not dwell on Bush’s comparison of himself to Rembrandt; Portraits of Courage overflows with signs of his healthy ego. More notably, Bush displaces the labor, concentration, and study of art onto someone else. Confronting the artist trapped within is not Bush’s problem. That’s a job for his instructor. Art is an entity in his body that he pays someone to extract.
Portraits of Courage identifies each of Bush’s subjects in the same way: by military rank, name, and dates of service. On one side of each spread is a one-page biography written from Bush’s viewpoint; on the other is a portrait. Bush’s narratives are a mélange of military clichés, details about how he came to know the soldier, and, finally, reassuring words about the soldier’s military experience and mission. US Army Master Sergeant Scott Neil is a typical example. His biography begins, “Scott Neil grew up on cattle ranches in Florida, predisposed to the life of a cowboy” and segues to Neil’s affection for actor John Wayne. Neil’s injuries are briefly outlined, but as in all the biographical sketches, little specificity is offered, and exercise and friendship are framed as the best remedy. Bush then reassures the reader: “Today, Scotty is in a good place. … I think ’ole [sic] Duke would agree with that assessment.” The painted portrait depicts a dashing man who looks like a young Ernest Hemingway. Bush works from photographs, and their flatness persists in his oil portraits, which do little to convey a three-dimensional body. “Scotty” is serious. Bush seems to have three types of white men in his book: serious, cheery, and good old boy. Army Captain Jae Barclay, for example, is cheery. We know this because Bush notes his “sunny disposition,” and in his portrait Barclay has ruddy pink-and-orange cheeks. Nothing is subtle here. What you see is what you see.
Bush claims in his introduction to be “art-agnostic,” but he was in fact art-antagonistic while in office. He writes in Portraits of Courage about studying such artists as Lucian Freud and Wayne Thiebaud, but his style owes more to Thomas Kinkade, whom Bush invited to the White House and openly admires. Kinkade rose to fame in the 1990s, while eschewing museums and selling his art in malls and via home-shopping channels. His paintings follow a seductive recipe: one part Disney, a dash of American 19th-century landscape painting, and a garnish formed from a nondenominational Christian symbol or two. Kinkade was also loath to leave the meaning of his art open to interpretation. His paintings came with explanations of their subjects and style, and his interviews renounced elites, hidden meanings, and impenetrable abstraction. Instead, Kinkade sold honest paintings to be enjoyed in the comforts of home.
Bush uses Kinkade’s visual strategy, mixing and matching styles and ideas from a variety of now-popular visual idioms from the late 19th and 20th centuries. The results are portraits with swirls of color reminiscent of impressionism, expressionism, and pop art. In Bush’s portrait of Army Sergeant Leslie Zimmerman, for example (see below), her red hair becomes ropes of blues and oranges that detach from her face and create their own rhythms. The style is abstract but also realistic. In other words, it is both and neither, specific yet visually nondescript. It makes every soldier look essentially the same, on page after page. Bush visually undermines the possibility of seeing or knowing these soldiers. Despite dedicating a portrait to each of them, in his style Bush suggests that no one veteran is individually knowable or worth specifying, at least not to him.
Taking another cue from Kinkade, Bush also “explains” each portrait. There is a rinse-and-repeat quality to the presentation of each soldier’s life. The viewer is never expected nor given the opportunity to look to the portrait itself for questions or answers, for emotion, for pathos. All paths lead back to one story: war is hard, but these brave veterans have come away happy and stronger; they love America and they do not blame the former president for their injuries, broken families, or nightmares. Got it? Good.
This sameness, in fact, might temporarily lull audiences into forgetting who serves in our military. Sergeant Zimmerman is one of just three women, only two of whom are soldiers, portrayed in the book, a shockingly small number given the impact of these wars on enlisted women (110 women died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and 627 were wounded; 50 died in Operation Enduring Freedom and 383 were wounded). Perhaps even more disturbing is that one of these three portraits depicts Bush himself dancing with Army First Lieutenant Melissa Stockwell, a scene certainly not repeated with any of the male veterans. There are also relatively few images of veterans of color: Bush includes, for example, only two African American servicemen in the book of 98 portraits, when, in 2015, 17 percent of the US military identified as black. This discrepancy is notable given how crucial the armed services have been in fights for national civil rights and how particularly in this historical moment, service is a crucial and contested pathway to citizenship for many immigrants and their families. Moreover, the form of difference most pertinent to veterans is minimized. Since the beginnings of Operation Enduring Freedom (2001) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003), the Defense Casualty Analysis System reports, more than 52,000 servicemen and servicewomen have been wounded.1
Indeed, the ostensive point of the book is to honor the wounded. Yet, where are veterans’ physical and psychic wounds in this book? Prosthetics are visible in only nine images, and in six of those, the soldiers are strategically dancing or playing golf, deviating from the tight frame of the typical facial portrait. These exceptions confirm the rule. Bush is committed to painting the same image over and over. Veterans are primarily white men who are repaired, who love America, and for whom the past is the past.
It would be easy to call Bush a bad artist. Yet to dismiss him is to miss the larger project he advances. Art-making for Bush is the act of merely showing you what you should already know and what you should already know to feel. Making art for him is passive—releasing something “trapped”—and so, too, is looking at it. Bush’s portraits promise to mean something, but what they mean is what we expect: always the same image, in different bright colors, over and over and over. Bush erases exactly the people we need to single out from history; the people we need to remember better. Art could help us do just that. Art should show us the unique in the mundane, make the unseen seeable, and the familiar brand-new.
Bush decided to exhibit his portraits of veterans only in Portraits of Courage and his presidential library. All the author’s net proceeds are going to his presidential center and his military-service initiatives. Bush could have had his pick of museums to show the work and used those spaces for public dialogue about war and the changing nature of military service. Imagine the portraits traveling around the country, creating opportunities for cultural organizations to pull together audiences that perhaps do not always see each other as allies. Consider the tremendous public success of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms war-bonds tour, or, more recently, the traveling exhibitions of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Bush instead offered audiences a purchasable object, scaled down for personal consumption. The popularity of the book—glowing reviews, a spot on the New York Times best-seller list, and five stars from 90 percent of Amazon reviewers—only confirms how reconciled to this kind of personal, noncommunal art experience we have all become.
Portraits of Courage makes it easier to imagine the NEA and NEH just going away. Why fund art when you can buy it for yourself on Amazon? Despite the inevitable role of money and an elite private market in the art world, these institutions remind us that there is another way. Art can be made available to many publics, in its original forms, to be revered or dismissed, viewed the “right” way or the “wrong” way. Bush’s Portraits of Courage insulates art and the public from the freedom to love and hate or be baffled by objects, to commune with art and each other, and to think courageously about each and every veteran who has served this country.
- Defense Casualty Analysis System, “Conflict Casualties” (accessed May 27, 2017). This estimate is certainly on the low side and does not take into account many men and women who were discharged as a result of injuries sustained while serving. ↩