Interpretation and Intellectual Inquiry: A Charge To Keep

I took a little break from evaluating a close reading assignment in order to look into the online chatter about George W. Bush’s interpretation of a painting called “A Charge to Keep.”  Bush hung it on his wall because he identifies with the guy out in front, whom he sees as leading a tough climb over rough terrain.


There is value in analyzing a president’s opinions on almost every subject, and I don’t mean to say that Bush’s interpretation of the painting is unassailable. But I’m bothered by how the sledgehammer of “the right answer” is being wielded, in an attack that parodies the discipline of critical interpretation.

Here’s how Jonathan Jones frames the issue:

According to The Bush Tragedy by Jacob Weisberg, published next month, when governor of Texas, Bush told staff the painting was called A Charge To Keep, a quote from his favourite Methodist hymn by Charles Wesley. He urged them to absorb the moral lesson of this “beautiful painting of a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. This is us,” he said.

I haven’t read Weisberg’s book myself, but according to an article on Slate, Weisberg learned that the picture was originally published in 1916, in order to illustrate a Saturday Evening Post story about a horse thief running from the law. Even more amusing, the Post later republished the image to illustrate a different story about bandits.

Jones asked four experts to evaluate Bush’s interpretation of the painting, and predictably the resulting article skewered Bush for getting the interpretation wrong.  Here’s one reaction:

[Bush] interprets [the painting] as the story of missionaries spreading the word of truth and freedom, an impulse that informed the invasion of Iraq, when in fact it is a depiction of thieves on the run from the law. It’s a good example of repression: when we want to avoid an unpleasant truth, it has a habit of returning.

Jones’s article notes that the picture “originally portrayed a bad man” and later was republished to “illustrate a story about Methodism.”  Yet the quotes he chose to put in the story do not show that his sources were aware of the possibility that Bush encountered this painting in a context that might actually support his reading of the image.  Instead, it seems the experts (none of which are identified as art historians) accept (as a “fact”) that the correct interpretation is that the guy on the horse is “a bad man.”  Their quotes permit Jones to set up a contrast between the right answer, and what Jones calls Bush’s “fantastical interpretation.”

The anecdote is irresistible to Bush critics, since it jibes with both an elitist argument that a Texas heritage is uncouth, and an intellectualist argument that Bush is a moron.  Predictably, critics see the incident as support for the charge that Bush clings recklessly to his own personal vision of the truth.

In his Slate article, Timothy Noah grudgingly admits that

Koerner published the illustration a third and final time in a magazine called the Country Gentleman. On this go-round, it was indeed used to illustrate a short story that related to Wesley’s hymn.

So, while Noah acknowledges the possibility that Bush may in fact have encountered the painting in a context that made a Methodist Christian interpretation perfectly reasonable, he still wraps up his treatment of the issue with “To summarize, the president of the United States is both deaf and blind.”

In order to use this incident to support his opinion about Bush, Noah must do the very thing he faults Bush for doing. He dismisses a line of inquiry that challenges a predetermined conclusion.

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a comedy; the playwright supplied it with a greedy and suspicious outsider to serve as the comic villain. In modern productions, Shylock — whose villainy comes chiefly from his identity as a Jew — is a far more tragic figure, especially when the triumphant Venetian society forces him to renounce his religion. It’s a tribute to Shakespeare’s art that he endowed the Shylock with enough humanity that a 21st century reader, living in a community that is generally more tolerant to Jews, can find heroism and nobility in Shylock’s plight. (Indeed, modern audiences often respond to Shylock as a tragic hero, rather than a comic villain.)

The book Curious George in the Big City is not a great work, but when I read it for about the twentieth time, one Tuesday evening, the cover suddenly took on new meaning for me.

Twin Towers visible in cover of “Curious George and the Big City”

It was 9/11/2001, and my two-year-old son recognized the twin towers from the day’s TV coverage.

The cover wasn’t even drawn by H.A. Rey — it’s just an echo of the style.  If there is any meaning at all in this artwork, it’s “Buy this book, which is designed to suck more money out of people who already own all the original Curious George books!”

The meaning of this picture changed for me that day, because it prompted a conversation in which I learned that maintaining an ironic, cynical pose that resisted material society did not insulate me from the obligation of introducing my toddler to a world that included hatred and death.

So there I go… I’ve explained how the text relates to my life. High school English teachers really love that sort of thing, or so I gather, because I teach a steady stream of high school graduates who initially want to write about whether they found a work interesting or boring, or which character they identify with, or how they would have felt if they had been in the protagonist’s situation.

Let’s go back to the cowboy painting.  Does Bush’s personal interpretation negate its hidden history, or does the hidden history negate Bush’s optimistic reading?

It’s easy to fault Bush for being “wrong.”  Let’s do a little bit of biographical magic, and see how easy it is to incorporate the backstory into the narrative of Bush’s own life, and so argue that Bush is “right” after all.

Bush has frequently described his life before age 30 as reckless and irresponsible.  His record includes a DUI arrest, and some disorderly conduct while a student.  But according to his personal narrative, he quit drinking, met his wife, joined the Methodist church, and basically shaped up.

So that fellow on the horse could be the young Bush pursued by his past, just as it could also be the mature Bush pursuing his political ambitions.

Yeah. That could be it.

But if we think along these lines, we’re simply lobbying to get our own personal opinions entered into the big dusty book of “correct” answers.  We’re still looking for “the right answer.”  In our haste to evade the Scylla of “the correct answer,” let us not fall into the Charybdis of “anything goes.”

Bush chose this painting for the wall of the Oval Office because of its meaning to him — a perfectly plausible meaning, since as we have seen the image has been used to illustrate a story that illustrates Methodist themes.  Even if there weren’t a good case for the Methodist reading, Bush’s choice has endowed the painting with a new context. The painting no longer means what it meant when it was known only as an illustration for magazine stories about horse thieves.  It is just as silly to mock Bush for liking a painting about a horse thief as it is to praise or criticize The Saturday Evening Post for using a picture hanging in Bush’s office to illustrate a story about a horse thief.

The debate over what “in fact” the painting means tells us little if anything about the picture as a work of art.  I’d need to get a much closer look at the picture (and learn a whole lot more about art) before I would be able to say anything about that.

I teach a lot of college students who are fresh out of high school. I feel like I have to do a lot of tap-dancing in the first few weeks of term, in order to get them to stop thinking of literary analysis as the hunt for the one “correct” meaning of a literary work.  I work hard to dispel the notion that literature professors memorize the contents of a big dusty book that is full of “correct” answers, and that a student’s job is to get the professor to reveal the “right answer” for students to echo back.  I’d much rather encourage a spirit of intellectual inquiry. I’ve come to realize that in all my classes, no matter what the subject is, I’m really teaching critical thinking skills — something that was in scare supply when I looked up online reactions to this picture. (Notable exception: Boing Boing.)

I haven’t read any of the stories that went with the painting, but it might be a fun project for the next time I teach American Literature.