The other day I ran across the 1998 movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels while flipping channels and watched it for the first time in years. It’s a lighthearted romp, as they say, about two canny con men played with wit and panache by Michael Caine and Steve Martin. Together, they accumulate riches by bilking dim heiresses in a fictional French Riviera town based on Saint-Tropez or Cannes. Watching the movie, I found myself thinking: hmm, whom does this remind me of? Then it hit me: of course! Who else? Joe and Hunter Biden.
Because the Bidens’ crimes aren’t like something out of Scarface or The Godfather or, for that matter, All the President’s Men. Don’t get me wrong: they’re major crimes, far worse than anything Nixon and his cronies ever got up to. But to read accounts of those crimes is to be reminded not of a gangster movie but of farce.
No, unlike the Caine and Martin characters, the Bidens aren’t criminal geniuses. Even at the peak of his powers, Joe Biden was every dumb, oily, empty-suit politician on a sitcom. But he was a hell of a lucky guy, too. Even tiny little Delaware gets two senators, and all it took for him to be re-elected repeatedly from that peninsular speck was absolute fealty to the credit-card giants that basically own it. And Hunter? Hunter is the very apotheosis of the spoiled, useless princeling who can’t stop getting into preposterous scrapes. Of course he smoked Parmesan cheese. Of course he had a fling with his dead brother’s widow.
Separately, father and son are cartoonish enough. But when you put them together, they’re, well, slapstick clowns out of a picture like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. China, Barisma: these shameless pay-for-play operations beat everything else going for sheer brazen sleaziness. If the Democratic Party weren’t itself so crooked, and if the CIA and FBI and mainstream media weren’t so totally in the tank, these two would’ve been locked up long ago. Instead, the Big Guy’s in the White House and Sonny Boy, the con artist, is, suddenly, as of a month or so, the paint-and-canvas type of artist, too. And not just an artist but — surprise! — an instantly successful artist. If there were any justice in America, he’d be drawing on the walls of a cell in Leavenworth. Instead, he’s got a New York gallery that plans to sell his canvases for six or seven figures a pop.
Granted, some of the criticism of Hunter’s new career has been misguided. It’s been said that his art stinks. So what? What can that possibly have to do with anything? Have you strolled around a museum of contemporary art lately? In 2018, the most prestigious art award in the UK, the Turner Prize, went to “a series of short clips filmed on an iPhone featuring the Scottish countryside from a train window, a T-shirt on a radiator and a cat pawing at a lamp.” One of the most celebrated artworks of our time is Tracey Emin’s 1998 installation My Bed, which consists of her actual unmade bed plus such items as “[c]rumpled tissues, period-stained clothing, cigarettes, empty vodka bottles, a pregnancy test, lubricant, and condoms.” It sold in 2014 for £2.5 million.
Art used to be about beauty. Even the Modernists of a century ago, who sought above all to “make it new,” believed in beauty. But postmodernism? Nope. For a long time now, art — at the least the kind of art that’s taken seriously in the professional art world — has been purely about “épater la bourgeoisie,” i.e., sticking it to the deplorables. Explicit political messages of the right kind are always welcome. Ditto sheer ugliness — such as the giant slabs of rusty steel by Richard Serra (described in the New York Times as “the best-known living sculptor in America”) that can quickly turn any pleasant public place into an eyesore. So it is that back in June, when the New York Post asked the chairman of the MFA Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts about Hunter’s work, he actually gave it a thumbs-up. So did a veteran New York gallerist. If the art world is rolling out the red carpet for him while extraordinarily gifted artists with years of training and first-rate technique can’t even get a gallery to look at their stuff — well, that’s just the way the art world works nowadays.
There’s another fact about the art scene that’s critical here. It’s incredibly sleazy. On his July 30 show, Tucker Carlson played an excerpt from an art podcast, Nota Bene: This Week in the Art World, on which Hunter Biden had been interviewed. “You seem to have good spirits about this sort of crazed narrative around your painting,” the interviewer told Hunter, plainly going along with the ludicrous pretense that Hunter’s a serious artist and that any concerns about, oh, the use of art sales to grift for his dad is sheer MAGA nonsense. Raising the question of whether Hunter should be ashamed of his new racket, Carlson said no: it’s people like that interviewer who should be ashamed.
“Who,” he asked a guest, “was that bootlicker, that throne-sniffer?” The guest didn’t know. In fact, the two hosts of that podcast, who, as they themselves told Hunter, usually interview “art dealers” and “auction-house people,” are Nate Freeman, a reporter on the art business, and Benjamin Godsill, an art advisor. And their entire interview with Hunter was every bit as nauseating as the bit Carlson played. As Hunter fed them his fatuous flim-flam, they cooed in excitement: “So cool! So cool!” “So exciting!” “Amazing!” At the end, one of them said: “Do really well, okay, brother?” In short, they played along and sucked up like pros. Given all the negative reactions to Hunter’s newly minted art career, one of them asked, “how hard was it to share this part of you?” (meaning, that is, to share that deep part of Hunter’s soul from which his artwork springs). “There’s so little upside for you in sharing this with the world!” one of the interviewers said sympathetically. Yeah, aside from those six-figure checks.
But of course, those checks are exactly why Freeman and Godsill are interested in Hunter and his art. Does it have any aesthetic merit? The question could not be more immaterial. The world in which these podcasters operate has nothing to do with beauty, or for that matter with truth and morality. Freeman writes about the art business; Godsill advises potential purchasers on savvy art buys; on their podcast they talk to dealers and auctioneers, not to the Van Goghs and Matisses of our time. It was reported on July 1 that Freeman had just been hired by Vanity Fair — which thrilled him because, he said, reading Vanity Fair “made me want to be a writer.” (Imagine wanting to be a writer because of Vanity Fair!) His Instagram consists largely of photos taken at upscale spots like the Chateau Marmont in L.A. and Brasserie Lipp in Paris; one of his latest articles is about “What A-listers hung out in the Hamptons, Aspen, and Cannes?” This is a guy for whom art isn’t about beauty but about money. No wonder he’s moving up the art-world ladder. And no wonder he and Hunter got along so famously.
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