I read a damn good article about a week ago titled The Illustrated President from Harper’s Magazine. The subject is the following painting:
Cliff’s Notes: Our eminent president is moved by the above painting of a fearless missionary determined to uphold American values in the Godless West. He takes the painting’s heroic name, A Charge to Keep, for his autobiography. A little research tells us that the painting was an illustration for a short story depicting a horse thief running away from his persecutors, blessed with the caption “Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer He Would Not Have Been Caught.” Scott Horton ends his bitter analysis of President Bush with:
So Bush’s inspiring, proselytizing Methodist is in fact a horse thief fleeing from a lynch mob. It seems a fitting marker for the Bush presidency. Bush has consistently exhibited what psychologists call the “Tolstoy syndrome.” That is, he is completely convinced he knows what things are, so he shuts down all avenues of inquiry about them and disregards the information that is offered to him. This is the hallmark of a tragically bad executive. But in this case, it couldn’t be more precious. The president of the United States has identified closely with a man he sees as a mythic, heroic figure. In fact that man is a wily criminal one step out in front of justice. It perfectly reflects Bush the man . . . and Bush the president.
It’s a delightfully safe fad to poke fun at Bush. However, after I laughed, I thought about the painting a little more seriously and began to wonder if I really should be laughing at myself for all of my similarities to the President.
I think art has two parts: one of the artist creating the product and one of the viewer experiencing it. A hamster in front of Mona Lisa will not experience the painting as one of the most celebrated paintings in history – it will probably be just a big piece of wood, maybe even something to chew on or even pee on. Thus, Mona Lisa is not art to the hamster. I would have a “better appreciation” of the piece than the hamster, but honestly probably not by much. While part of the value of the piece comes from the artist, the experience changes so much with the viewer that two different viewers may get two very different and legitimate responses after viewing the same piece of art. Thus, they have part of the right to saying what that art “is” – at least for themselves. While the artist did create the product, I do not think he or she has complete domination over what the art *is* or *is not.* Suppose a scientist creates the Death Ray in pursuit of scientific knowledge – I doubt the scientist has the complete right in saying that the Death Ray is not a weapon if the rest of the world sees it as a weapon and uses it as a weapon.
What about baseball? To some it is a slow, painful-to-watch game involving a bat, a ball, and some running. To some it is the best game invented on earth that involves a bat, a ball, and some running. To some it is a symbol of America and all that is great about it. To some it is a symbol of corporate America and all that is evil about it. I don’t think any of these parties would really care anymore what the original creator of baseball made it to be, such that if they were going back in time to visit the creator only to realize he made it as a way to get some exercise for his drinking buddies and there happened to have been a broken stick sitting around the pub, they would probably tell the creator he was wrong. It is surprising how embittered and personal these arguments can get for more “serious” things, especially when it comes to modern art or the Bible. Many people, Christians or not, would probably agree that Jesus himself might have been very surprised at the state of Christianity in the present times and what different people think it “means.”
So maybe Bush was right in his own way, minus the research he really should have taken on the painting. Tolstoy syndrome or not, Bush let this painting mean something to him and forged a system of beliefs surrounding it, regardless of the artist’s original intentions, which I do not think should be the final word of what the painting *is* or *is not.* Now, whether those beliefs were used for good or for bad I do not know enough to comment, but I do not think it is really different from anything I do in my own life.
P.S. image source: wikipedia