George W. Bush is a painter now? Not just a painter, but a great one? This was the unbearable topic of conversation during a lunch with my visual arts professor and a few of my classmates.
Why is it that the professional art world is so open to abuse in the name of being “liberal”? Why do so many celebrities (Johnny Depp, James Franco, Lucy Liu, and Kanye West, for example) think that they can step into the visual-arts profession whenever and however they want to? If they claimed to be scientists, teachers, doctors, or journalists, no one would buy it. But apparently art is open to all. Everybody can be an artist—even George W. Bush! Hooray!
What happened to the time when being an artist was not an easy choice? There was a time when you had to go through years of training to be an artist. Why do we disregard this dedication in contemporary visual arts?
Am I being “conservative” by refusing to accept that the retirement paintings of Bush and the paintings of Dana Schutz, SoA ’02, have the same artistic value? It’s not a question of good or bad art. Of course I think there is good and bad art, but that’s personal taste. It’s more about the person’s devotion to the field, their passion and struggle, their success and defeat. It’s hard not to question whether Bush’s new solo exhibition—“The Art of Leadership”—is actually just a way to mask his negatively viewed legacy. His paintings offer a revision of his identity: “Look, I’m a human with a soft artistic spot too!” He may have retired as a politician, but it seems as though he’s still playing the game of politics through art.
I’m at the end of my first year of a master of fine arts degree in visual arts. Why am I spending so much money and time for this degree? Why care to “expand the depth and complexity” of my practice or improve my ability to “think critically in the context of contemporary art theory,” as Columbia Visual Arts department sells the program? Why, when my own professor says that Bush’s paintings are as good as, or maybe even better than, the struggling, devoted, unknown artists out in the world?
When I shared my frustration during lunch, my professor said, “This is the beauty of contemporary art.” Maybe I’m just prejudiced about Bush’s art. Even if I am, why shouldn’t I be? I wonder how my professor would feel if someone nominated Bush for a new full-time faculty position at Columbia. If Bush’s paintings are “good” like my professor says so, shouldn’t he be as open to welcoming Bush as one of his colleagues? Or is he then to relent and say,“No. He’s not qualified.”?
I got so worked up by the conversation that I shouted, “Maybe you should invite Kim Kardashian too!” He responded, “Why not? I already reached out to James Franco to do a project with us, but unfortunately, he didn’t respond.” I’m sure Franco is a great actor, director, screenwriter, producer, teacher, author, and poet. But that doesn’t automatically mean he’s a great visual artist too. Renowned New York art critic Jerry Saltz thinks “Franco is only making bad art. Or things that look like art but are still bad.”
Besides, Franco doesn’t even care to work with Columbia, whereas many other artists who come to do projects here are grateful for the opportunity. Maybe inviting Franco would bring attention to the visual arts department. Maybe it will help in fundraising for the school. But what are we saying about our values if we make that decision?
For decades, artists have been thought of as open-minded, radical, free spirits. Now, this idea of an artist is being imposed on my generation of artists, whether or not we want to take it.
Many celebrities who have declared themselves visual artists are already being accepted in the mainstream art world (Kanye West is doing a performance piece at Art Basel Miami Beach). But is it because the art world is radically liberal and open, or is it actually because the art world is adapting to neoliberal capitalism by co-opting visual art from untrained wealthy entertainers at fairs where the rich can consume “high art?”
But why should Columbia take part in that paradigm? As a self-regulating community of teachers and scholars, the University should strive to embrace the many who are talented but under-represented artists. As Andrea Fraser demands, shouldn’t we as art professionals (including artists, critics, curators, and institutions) be aware of “what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to”?
The struggle of being an artist exists in the head, in the studio, and in solitude. The burden of questioning, self-doubt, passion, fear, pride, and uncertainty is part of what being an artist is all about. But I’m not so sure that Bush feels the same way.
Even under the “all-accepting” philosophy of contemporary art, some doors should be closed.
The author is a masters student in the visual arts department of the School of the Arts.
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