George W. Bush is arguably the most influential and controversial performance artist in the history of Western art. Born as the son of George HW Bush senior, he learned early on how politics works. After studying at Yale and Harvard, he chose politics as his medium for art. In the 80s, like many other artists of the time, he was influenced by the French postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard. He was particularly interested in the following passage in the book “Simulacra and Simulation”:
“Go and simulate a theft in a large department store: how do you convince the security guards that it is a simulated theft? There is no “objective” difference: the same gestures and the same signs exist as for a real theft; in fact the signs incline neither to one side nor the other. As far as the established order is concerned, they are always of the order of the real.”
Bush applied the same question to art, and concluded that there is no tangible difference between being a real artist and a simulated one, that is, someone who is deemed an artist by the virtue of what he does and someone who does what he does in order to be deemed an artist, as well as an object that is deemed art by the virtue of its substance and an object that is called art in order to give it substance. This inspired him to create art about simulation which could be called art by the virtue of its substance. For this substance to be objectively apparent to the art world, he figured it must take place in a world outside of it. The obvious choice for Bush was politics, that is, to become a simulated politician as political art.
In November of 1994, he became simulated Governor of Texas by actually being elected Governor of Texas. Thereafter, his artistic career has flourished. By simulating a deep understanding of evangelical Christians, he gained in popularity unlike any other artists in history. The shockwave caused by his seminal work “Presidential Election 2000” was felt throughout the world. By becoming simulated President of the United States, he has achieved the ultimate goal of many artists: To change the world through art.
In 2001, joining the chorus of other political artists, he presented a series of performances in response to the terror of 9-11 entitled “War Against Terrorism”. Much like Duchamp’s “Fountain”, it has since been referred to by numerous artists and critics. It has popularized the expression “evil-doers”. In January 2002, he used the State of the Union Address as the medium for one of the pieces from this series. Some critics have equated the significance of it to that of Robert Smithson’s use of earth and Dan Graham’s use of magazine pages as mediums.
Since 9-11, he has been experimenting with religious metaphors in political art. In the 80s, he became fascinated with evangelical Christianity, and began appropriating Born-Again Christianity as a conceptual kitsch in many of his works. The terror of 9-11 has further inspired him to make it the primary theme of his work, as we can see in his highly controversial piece, “Faith-Based Initiative.” It vividly reminds us of the danger of religious fanaticism.
In 2002, he introduced his first major Net.art project egov.gov. Unfortunately it did not receive much attention due to the great controversies generated by his other works from around the same period. Other net-based projects of his are best described as supplements to his performance art, and digital art in general is not considered his forte.
By far the best-known piece of his work in recent years is “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” which began as a social and historical critique of the ideology of his own father. It has since expanded its concerns to foreign diplomacy, sadomasochistic sexuality, and the psychology of lying. The principal medium of this piece was human life. He used it in such a massive scale that, next to it, Damien Hirst’s use of dead animals in formaldehyde appeared like kids play. In terms of originality, this piece is significant for several reasons. 1) It was the most expensive art ever made in history, realized entirely with public funding. 2) It was designed with no ending in mind. 3) It was viewed by the entire world in real time.
Like Hirst, people love to hate Bush. Many critics refused to accept him as an artist. In fact, part of what makes him a fascinating artist is the fact that he never claims to be one. In this sense, his simulation is impeccable. It demonstrates that when art mimics life perfectly, it ceases to be art. And, this unbeing of art is his art, which makes recognition of his art impossible. This in turn makes his art undeniably “new” as an oft-quoted remark by Jacques Derrida concurs:
“One never sees a new art, one thinks one sees it; but a ‘new art,’ as people say a little loosely, may be recognized by the fact that it is not recognized.”
This remark has been liberally used to justify every unrecognized artist and art movement, but Bush’s unrecognizability is clearly far above the rest. To stay as “new” as possible, he never allows his art to be recognizable. No other artists are as committed to this ideology as he is. By the virtue of being always new, his work is also necessarily original. Virtually every work of his has some aspects that have never been done before, especially in the use of mediums as mentioned above.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to art is that he proved art can change the world. His art will probably inspire future political artists, and will give them confidence that their art is not a lost cause. Like the way Duchamp secretly worked on “Etant donnés” for 20 years and revealed it posthumously, Bush will probably reveal his artistic intention only after his death. It will be a spectacular moment in history of art, but who knows? He might choose to keep it unrecognized and “new” forever.