George W. Bush’s solo art show “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy” has just opened at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Texas. Moving on from paintings of dogs and bath time, the exhibit features 30 oil-on-board paintings of world leaders. It appears as if they are all lazy reproductions of some of the first Google image search results.
Below are the 43rd president’s paintings alongside the Google images that inspired them.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (Source: Wikipedia)
Critic, artist and appropriation expert Greg Allen pointed this out:
…Bush painted his portraits, not just from photographs–a common enough practice as well as a long-established conceptual strategy, though I think only the former pertains here–but from the top search result on Google Images. Many photos were taken from the subject’s Wikipedia entry. Bush based his paintings on the literally first-to-surface, easiest-to-find photos of his subjects.
However, some critics did not seem to get the memo, like Roberta Smith, who writes in The New York Times, “The images seem legible and familiar, as if, as some have suggested, they were the first to pop up on Google.” Not “as if.” Literally.
Israeli politician Ehud Olmert (Source: “Wanted: For War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity”/ The Prime Minister’s Office)
Smith goes on to analyze the “unsettling talent” and the paintings’ aesthetic, conceptual and political implications based on imagined artistic choices George W. Bush didn’t really make. To the critic, Ehud Olmert of Israel “appears to be reading from a speech — an appealing work that can bring to mind a self-portrait by another, visionary amateur painter, the composer Arnold Schoenberg” when he really just has his mouth open in the first Google image result for “Ehud Olmert.” To the critic, Putin is “suitably stony faced and ruthless,” Angela Merkel is “looking open and optimistic (and girlishly nonthreatening)” and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai is “uncharacteristically concerned.” Actually, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai is flipped, probably by Bush using a basic technique of transferring photo to a canvas. Because human faces aren’t really symmetrical, he looks a little bit off.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (Source photo: Second row of Google image search results, via TopNews / EmbassyofAfghanistan.org)
Sometimes, Bush’s source images are the first Google image search results. At least one of them is copyrighted by the Associated Press.
Former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga (Source: Centrsdardedze.lv)
Former Ghanaian President John Kufuor (Source: TodayGH.com / Steve Ababio, watermarked)
Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (Source: Bellanaija.com / © World Economic Forum by Matthew Jordaan)
Former French President Jacques Chirac (Source: BBC / The AP, cover of his autobiography)
“I would just like to point out they are basically very simple-minded as paintings,” WNYC Radio’s Deborah Solomon said to Huffington Post about Bush’s “completely legitimate method” of tracing existing images to make his art. “I think a lot of us wish he had become a painter as opposed to a president. We all could have been saved a lot of trouble.” It’s easy to snark. It’s easy to Google. It’s easy to trace too. Unlike Shepard Fairey, Bush didn’t even throw an all caps slogan over his painterly slop. So where does this stand, legally speaking?
Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel (Source: Wikipedia, captioned “Merkel with her hands in the characteristic Merkel-Raute position” Armin Linnartz, Screengrab by Greg Allen)
And two other things to consider: Google image search results vary by user and some of the source images first pop up on articles critical of the world leaders. Are there clues in the articles? Will the George W. Bush user-specific Google algorithm reveal something to us about him (or about me or critic Greg Allen, since we were the ones Googling)? Will George W. Bush get sued by the AP, like Shepard Fairey?
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Source: Rescue.org, “Nobel Laureates” / Center for Global Development)
Greg Allen tells ANIMAL:
I think Bush is fine to go it alone, permission-wise, for his paintings. Copyright infringement is the one thing he’s NOT guilty of. Comparing his case to Fairey, I think the AP was wrong and lame to go after a clear case of fair use, but ultimately it was the cover-up, not the crime, that caught up to Fairey. In Bush’s case, he’s clearly transforming his source images; every difference between a photo and its painting is Bush’s own contribution. And even if GWB used someone’s copyrighted image, I’m sure he’d skate, or if they sued, they’d eventually settle and turn him into a copyfight hero, which, no thanks.
TL;DR — George W. Bush is a lazy painter who based his work of seemingly obvious Google Image results. Don’t think too hard about it. It will hurt. And yes, he can get away with this too. As Greg Allen tells us:
Bush is free to sell the hell out of some Personal Diplomacy giclee prints, or to put his paintings on totebags, t-shirts, Christmas ornaments, mugs, or a deck of cards. I mean, if George Zimmerman can earn a living from painting, why can’t George Bush?