MSNBC's Art Critics Fume: Bush Should Be Painting Portraits of 'Abu Ghraib' Torture!

More than five years after the end of his term, George W. Bush still finds himself the target of attacks from the liberals at MSNBC. On Wednesday’s All In with Chris Hayes, the network found a new way to smear the former president – by criticizing his paintings. Fill-in host Ari Melber actually brought on an art critic, Jerry Saltz from New York magazine, to dissect some of President Bush’s paintings, now displayed in an exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. But Melber offered his own commentary as well. Remarking on the fact that Bush has painted several self-portraits and portraits of world leaders, Melber griped about what the ex-president has not painted:

“These are not pictures of people at Abu Ghraib or Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice. He's positioning himself, as you said, either at the most personal or at the diplomatic level with foreign leaders. We're not seeing any sort of focus on other worst parts of his legacy.”


Apparently it’s not enough for MSNBC to focus on the negative aspects of Bush’s presidency. Melber wishes Bush would do it, too. Saltz, who admitted that he “never liked” Bush as president, agreed with the host:
 

Imagine him painting his view of the 2000 election. His view of flying over Katrina. His view of Colin Powell talking about yellow cake aluminum -- or excuse me, uranium. To me, this tells me that Bush is in a way covering his tracks yet again.
 

This is what it’s come to – Bush can’t even paint what he wants without having his motives questioned by someone on MSNBC. Saltz continued, striking an accusatory tone:
 

Painting is a way to know yourself and know the world. That was the bizarre hope I had for this strange president. But what he's done is he's taken the exact opposite path. Instead of knowing himself more, he knows that he cannot know himself. So he's kind of shutting off the real truth.
 

Melber and Saltz also took Bush to task for supposedly basing his portraits of world leaders on the first photographs of them he could find on Google. Saltz lambasted the former president: “It's just taking the easy way out, acting like this is a portrait of a fellow world leader, when really, it's just this kid trying to make good, probably just trying to make it seem like he was a likable doofus, easygoing guy. But I think it shows anything but that.”

One wonders if the critics will ever give it a rest and let President Bush enjoy his retirement.

Below is a transcript of the conversation:

 

ARI MELBER: Joining us now, my honor to have here, Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York magazine. How are you doing?

JERRY SALTZ, New York Magazine: Hi Ari. Good to be here.

MELBER: We're having fun with this. The president's obviously having fun with it. It's a great hobby. But art can speak so much more. I want to put up on the screen his self-portrait. We had the bathing ones already. This is the newer self-portrait. Walk us through it.

SALTZ: Well, in the bathing pictures, I thought it was just astonishing to have a man that had seen the whole world and when he got a chance to show what he saw, he depicted himself naked, alone, enclosed. It was deeply strange, but had I seen these paintings at a yard sale, I would have bought one for $15, $20. I like this kind of, almost, this very amateurish, bizarre art.

MELBER: Let's pause on the nudity. There's a famous Simpsons episode where Marge has to paint Monte Burns, and because he's a villain in the story, the way she ultimately decides to make him human is to depict him naked or nearly naked. Are you speaking to that kind of desire of him to humanize himself, because when he first painted this he may not have planned to show it to anyone?

SALTZ: Well, I just think it was very freakish and showed a bizarre lack of imagination, of a man just cloistering himself off from the whole world. Now with these portraits, it gets stranger still. Instead of painting his real world, he goes to the Internet, gets pictures. The self-portrait of the president, very telling. The least focused, the most fuzzy, the most unfinished of all the paintings. I think that's sort of telling. It tells me that that's how he sees himself. Good or bad – I never liked him as president. I did like some of the paintings, but these are showing weaker and weaker and sillier, more – vision.

MELBER: Well, and you say a lack of imagination. Well, they actually looked into this because of all the paintings he made of the world leaders, and it turns out when you go into Google and pull up these different leaders, they are all the top hits, okay? Merkel, Putin, Karzai, Ehud Olmert from Israel, all of the photos that he based the paintings off of were literally the first selection on Google.

SALTZ: Well, I mean there’s nothing wrong with painting from photographs. People have been doing it for century. However, it again shows this bizarre thing about this person, first picture up, first picture chosen, nothing personal in the pictures. It's just taking the easy way out, acting like this is a portrait of a fellow world leader, when really, it's just this kid trying to make good, probably just trying to make it seem like he was a likable doofus, easygoing guy. But I think it shows anything but that. Again, I liked the early work, but this honestly shows -- just imagine, had Bush painted the people that were really around him. This work speaks volumes with what he did not paint.



MELBER: So let me dive in on that. You mention that. That is sort of the negative space of this entire historical painting here. These are not pictures of people at Abu Ghraib or Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice. He's positioning himself, as you said, either at the most personal or at the diplomatic level with foreign leaders. We're not seeing any sort of focus on other worst parts of his legacy.

SALTZ: What he's not painting is speaking volumes, exactly. This is what we would call negative content. And it leaves a kind of evidentiary trail to him. Imagine him painting his view of the 2000 election. His view of flying over Katrina. His view of Colin Powell talking about yellow cake aluminum -- or excuse me, uranium. To me, this tells me that Bush is in a way covering his tracks yet again. Painting is a way to know yourself and know the world. That was the bizarre hope I had for this strange president. But what he's done is he's taken the exact opposite path. Instead of knowing himself more, he knows that he cannot know himself. So he's kind of shutting off the real truth. A picture of Rove, Rumsfeld, Cheney – that would be intense. And he knows it. He knows it would show too much of how bad it got.

MELBER: Right. And in a sense, that aspect, coming from a successful politician like himself, is not that surprising, because he's always had an ability to craft a narrative, regardless of the facts or the record. You see that in the libraries these presidents often build for themselves. You see it in the biographies they write after the presidency. Art being something that may be more abstract, but to your point in what you’ve been writing, really hits some of those same themes. Jerry Saltz from New York magazine, thank you. This was an interesting one.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.