“Portrait of George W. Bush in the style of Jackson Pollock’s ‘Number 5’, 1948”, 2006, is a painting of the current president of the U.S.A executed in the manner of an Jackson Pollock action painting. This refers back to the paintings of Socialist Realist images of Lenin that Art & Language (A&L;) executed in the style of Pollock in the early 1980s. Those images brought two opposed ideologies into collision within the same image, synthesizing a dialectic. So does this one.
The Cold War was still being played out in the early 1980s. Socialist Realism was the state art of the USSR and Abstract Expressionism was the high-water mark of American art. Lenin and Pollock were iconography of the mutually reinforcing and self-deceiving public faces of state capitalism and market capitalism. Putting the two in conflict criticised these self-and-other-images. But the map of the world seems to look very different now. Lenin has been disinterred and Pollock is admired for his surplus value not his inner necessity.
Bush is now the other of Pollock. Pollock, the epitome of rugged American democratic individualism and freedom. Bush, the epitome of privileged incompetence and reactionary illiberalism. A grinning idiot rather than a stern-faced revolutionary. This is not a picture of two drunks, it is a picture of two different historical periods. It is an historical dialectic. It is not that history has ended and that the world is politically unipolar. It is just that the best critical resources for America come from its own history, not from religious or nationalistic reactionaries.
There is a “map” of the painting, so this isn’t a visual puzzle where the trick is to find the image hidden in the drips. The portrait of Bush doesn’t seem like a straight travesty of A&L;’s earlier work, like the hybrid or historically bogus images that made up part of “Homes From Homes”. A&L; don’t refer to their own earlier work in the title, instead they refer to the Pollock directly as the earlier series did. This sets the opposition between Pollock and (media representations of) Bush rather than between Bush and earlier A&L; work. The latter would not have the same power.
It is true and illuminating that Bush is the illiberty to Pollock’s freedom, but there is potentially more to the substitution of Bush for Lenin. Bush serves the same place in much mainstream leftist thought that Lenin once did. He is the icon, the person who determines how you are meant to think. But he is an icon for everything that is wrong in the world, and the person who determines how you must not think. Moral virtue simply consists in opposing everything that Bush is regarded as standing for during working hours. If that opposition is to erstwhile leftist values, so be it. Bush is a come-down from the world-changing words and actions of Lenin. He has the opposition he deserves in the form of an opportunistic, incoherent and part-time left-on-your-behalf that keeps the forms of opposition having long since discarded the social content that originally led to those forms. This is the “we” of “we are all Hezbollah now”.
Political Art is big again, but it is generally an art of mindless petulance and vapid recycling of established iconographic and technical resources. It is untransformative market-friendly gestures of resistance to whatever is actually being done at the time. It is hippy wigs at Woolworths. A&L;’s Bush serves not as a parody of this so much as an example of how to do it right, how to produce an art that is aware and raises awareness, that gives the viewer something to think about that they have not thought about a hundred times before. It may just be a reacion to too-much, on the order of A&L;’s song “Prisoner’s Model”. But even if that’s all it is, this is how you do it.