George W. Bush sourced his paintings from Google. So what?!


George W. Bush’s portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is part of the exhibit “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Diplomacy.” (Benny Snyder/AP)

A faux scandal emerged in the art world this week over the provenance of George W. Bush’s latest paintings. The portraits of world leaders were clearly painted from photographs, a fairly common practice among even established portraitists. But they weren’t painted from just any photos, it turns out. The photos appear to have come from … a Google image search.

Are you experiencing horror right now? Shock? Derision? Because somehow, for some reason, the “revelation” that a former president uses the world’s largest search engine has been greeted by nothing less in certain corners of the Internet. Writes Greg Allen, the filmmaker and arts writer who dug all this up:

Bush based his paintings on the literally first-to-surface, easiest-to-find photos of his subjects … He apparently did not tap the enormous archive of photos, taken by the professionals who followed him every day for eight years, which are contained in his giant library. Instead, it seems, he Googled the world leaders he made such impactful relationships with himself, and took the first straight-on headshot he saw.

A couple of things here. First off, Google results are not static rankings that display the exact same results for different people at different times. The algorithms change constantly, which means that whatever the top image result was when Allen Googled “Angela Merkel” was likely not the top result whenever Bush did the same. Google also personalizes individual results, and result order, based on the searcher’s history.

These are small quibbles, because the big results — official portraits, book covers — will probably all come up no matter what. But it’s unfair, and demonstrably untrue, to say Bush painted the very first photo that surfaced. There’s no way to know what that photo was.

And even if Bush did paint Google’s top images, it’s unclear how that’s substantially different from, say, clicking to the second page of Google results, or searching an archive instead of the Web. It certainly doesn’t connote unoriginality or worse, plagiarism, as some critics have implied. If anything, it was just efficient — Google’s entire business model is prefaced on the idea that it surfaces the best, most relevant results to every query. So if you’re setting out to paint iconic photos of various world leaders, does outsourcing the exact choice of photo to Google represent laziness … or a basic recognition that the search engine recognizes iconic content better than you? In fact, doesn’t Google itself make certain images iconic, based on their placement in search?

Do we really think Dubya pondered any of these things?

When all is said and searched, we’re probably reading more into Bush’s process than said process honestly deserves. Let’s just enjoy “The Art of Leadership” for what it most literally is: an awkward, amusing exhibit that has spawned many Google image searches … and many, many jokes.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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