The Huffington Post once asked if artists can Save The World and deliver it from its troubles. The question came with its own answer: Those who make art can inspire and even give people hope for better days; but no, they can’t save the world. And if that’s true and painters, for example, can’t rescue anyone, somebody ought to tell that to George W. Bush. His newly published book - “Portraits of Courage: A Commander In Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors” – gives the impression of some kind of atonement for sending troops into the bloodbaths known as Iraq and Afghanistan.

A New York Times review of the collection ran under the headline “The Art of Redemption.” Bush is even said to be donating profits from sales to veterans and their families. And it looks like the sum will be tidy. The book has made the Times bestseller list.

Do the ends justify the means?

You can almost see Bush’s self-reproach in the way he portrayed his subjects. In contrast to other political leaders like Churchill and Eisenhower who painted quiet landscapes for their enjoyment and relaxation, Bush’s images – intense and staring - have a fierce air made with thickly applied pigment that come across as highly emotional. The style is that of the Expressionists like Van Gogh and is quite good.

Other critics say so, too. Jerry Saltz of New York magazine thinks there’s “something innocent, sincere, earnest, almost childlike.” And Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, hails the paintings as “honestly observed and persuasively alive.”

The costs of war

If Bush is seeking forgiveness with these portraits, you have to wonder if such a thing is possible given the catastrophic injuries, either mental or physical, that his avoidable war inflicted.

And that’s not counting all the military lives lost, not to mention those reported half million civilian lives. Then there’s the preposterous $1.7 trillion in cost, plus some $500 billion for the benefits the surviving veterans he pictures. How do you paint your way out of all that wreckage? In effect, the former president’s “tribute to America’s warriors” celebrates soldiers badly impaired from a bad war we lost.

So there’s this dismaying cloud that hangs heavy over the “tribute.” Is that what makes them heroes, their sacrifice for Bush’s bad judgment?

Three cheers for a commander-in-chief

Maybe the better question to ask is, what does all this make Bush? Schjeldahl says the quality of his painting is “astonishingly high,” especially given what he wrote for his portrait collection: “I had been an art-agnostic all my life —took up painting from a standing stop, four years ago, at the age of sixty-six.” Such a boast prompts this final question: Is Bush beating the drum for the war-torn soldiers or for his art making.