This post first appeared on Pop Politics.com
Sidney Blumenthal -- in his latest analysis of the semiotics of Bush administration culture for Salon -- dissects Bush's choice of artwork for the walls of the White House:
The notion that there might be an aesthetic that informs the Bush presidency would seem to be an unfair and artificial imposition on a man who prizes his intuition ("I'm a gut player") and openly derides complication ("I don't do nuance") -- that is, if Bush himself did not insist on the connection. Indeed, he appears on the official White House Web site, conducting a tour of the art and artifacts he has chosen to decorate the Oval Office, assuming the duty of docent himself. He holds forth on the large windows and the rug with rays of the sun emanating from the seal of the president and the provenance of his desk before getting to the artwork.
Although the "tour" Blumenthal is referencing seems to be just these comments to Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun (UK), they justify Blumenthal's contention that Bush is surprisingly involved the construction of the artistic atmosphere.
Blumenthal ultimately sees Bush's choices as evidence of his blindness to the limits of his idealism. Bush chooses paintings that most critics would define as overly sentimental kitsch -- such as the cowboy paintings of Texans W.H.D. Koerner and Julian Onderdonk -- and takes them seriously.
What is most disturbing, though, is that Blumenthal can connect this lack of self-awareness with the administration's distorted justification for torture (which involves, Blumenthal points out, the strange belief of many conservatives in the verisimilitude of the equally kitschy Fox TV series "24"):
The distance between the cowboy paintings Bush proudly displays in the Oval Office and the secret-agent torture porn that his administration officials not so secretly watch with envy reflects a yawning chasm in the sensibility of kitsch. Koerner's Western pictures depict an idealized past, where never is heard a discouraging word. At the Saturday Evening Post, he joined with Norman Rockwell to create the brush strokes of a warming nostalgia.
These enduring images infused Reaganism with its emotional culture. Ronald Reagan, after all, had been raised at the turn of the century in small-town Illinois and became a contract player in Hollywood's dream factory. Communicating kitsch was second nature to him. The perfect representation came in the TV commercial for his reelection campaign in 1984. As an American flag was raised in a small town, the voice-over intoned: "It's morning again in America." The past was present and all was right with the world.
Now, kitsch has been radically remade. No longer evoking nostalgic utopianism, kitsch releases the compulsions of fear. Under Bush, kitsch has been transformed from sentimentality into sadomasochism.
On first impression, this sounds like an extreme interpretation -- until we remember that this is an extreme presidency, one in which the confines of propriety and restraint have been broken again and again.