A few weeks ago, Insider reported that the Georges Bergès Gallery had sold White House bad boy and emerging artist Hunter Biden’s paintings for large sums to two buyers with political connections to his father: Elizabeth Hirsh Naftali, a philanthropist and Democratic donor, and Kevin Morris, a high-powered attorney and Biden confidant. To allay concerns that political favors could be bought through such purchases, Hunter and his father had previously promised that Hunter’s paintings wouldn’t be sold to cronies or party donors. But considering that Hunter’s main role in his father’s political operation appears to be a middleman between the president and third parties seeking to curry his favor, this assertion was never believable. Who other than someone seeking political influence would spend $500,000 on paintings like Hunter’s? The younger Biden’s painting technique is at a novice level, and the content of his work recalls the sort of decorative images you could find at a Cape Cod flea market.

“It is hard to deny the curious, appalling magnetism of his photographic self-portraiture.”

That isn’t, however, to dismiss Hunter’s talents entirely. If those in charge at Bergès had an ounce of courage, they might instead have chosen to showcase his iPhone self-portraiture—the scandalous images found on his infamous laptop. Hunter will never be more than a mediocre dilettante in his painting, but it is hard to deny the curious, appalling magnetism of his photographic self-portraiture. As was discovered by all who pored over these images when they were first leaked, they are hypnotic—addictive, even.

Chekhov believed that the role of the artist was to ask questions, not answer them. Hunter’s self-portraits give the viewer the sense that the man making them can hardly understand why he’s doing what he’s doing—not just why he’s compelled to endanger his life, career, and family name with hard drugs and prostitutes, but why he can’t resist the urge to document it all. But that is precisely the creative impulse. Hunter has it, even if he doesn’t understand it. Clearly, Hunter isn’t producing his iPhone photography with the intention of making art, let alone to understand what the art is saying. We could interpret these works as a type of art once celebrated by the modern avant-garde: art brut, or “raw art,” defined by painter and sculptor Jean DuBuffet as art made outside the boundaries of official culture. Hunter’s raw selfies couldn’t be further outside the official culture—they weren’t made to be seen by anyone in the first place, let alone interpreted as art and critically appraised.

Hunter isn’t the first artist to emerge out of the ranks of the elite, develop a taste for the moral squalor of the demimonde, and forge art out of his excursions into it. The 19th-century painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born into the aristocracy and found himself alienated by it; he took comfort in the arms of prostitutes in Parisian brothels—experiences that inspired some of his greatest and most innovative work. The raw material of Hunter’s iPhone oeuvre has another precedent in photographer Nan Goldin’s iconic slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which depicts Goldin and her friends having sex, taking drugs, and being victimized by domestic abuse. One particularly haunting self-portrait of Goldin’s, which shows the artist with a brutal shiner after being assaulted by her boyfriend, finds an echo in a Hunter selfie taken in close-up at a dentist’s office, which reveals the extreme damage done to his teeth during years of crack and methamphetamine abuse.

Hunter appears to be not just fascinated with his own debasement, but thrilled and possibly in love with it. His images give the sense that self-destruction makes him feel alive where his hollow life as a nepo baby and political hack makes him feel dead. There is a palpable joy in many of the pieces capturing the artist as he engages in all manner of lurid, paid-for sex. But of course, it doesn’t take a genius to detect the darkness embedded in the joyous debauchery. These photos weren’t taken by a man at peace with his role in the world.

Hunter’s body, the subject of some of his most striking images, is itself formally intriguing. His relatively thin frame is marked by years of extreme alcohol and drug abuse. His small shoulders and concave chest are mismatched to his protruding and distended belly, surely the result of alcohol intake and a poor diet. Yet he misses no occasion to flaunt his physique. One can’t tell whether he is delusional about his own beauty or finds his body’s remarkable degradation darkly funny. His eerie, angular “skinny-fatness” recalls the grotesque caricatures of Egon Schiele, but is more brutal for its blunt reality.

The photographer Francesca Woodman’s enigmatic, haunting self-portraits are another precedent. Woodman lived in the shadow of famous (if not as famous as Hunter’s) parents—the artists George and Betty Woodman—and her self-portraiture forged a private space of creativity in which she could express her alienation. She used slow aperture speeds to create a distorting effect that makes her appear spectral, vanishing into her solid surroundings, in a chilling anticipation of her eventual suicide (she jumped out of her apartment window at age 22). Hunter’s selfies likewise frequently point to a kind of aesthetic disintegration of the self.

Picasso famously described art as a “lie that tells the truth.” Hunter’s photo archive, in a direct inversion of this dictum, is a trove of truths that has unraveled an entire web of lies, both political and personal. This brings us back to the question of motives: Why would Hunter create such a detailed photo document of his debauchery, and why would he ever leave a laptop bearing such sensitive and revealing content with a small-time repair shop? As Freud would no doubt tell us, on some level, Hunter wanted to be caught. He wanted someone—the public, his dad—to see his degeneracy and corruption, and his prolific corpus of photography.

These images can’t be decoupled from the revelatory political documents also found on his hard drive, such as the 2015 emails showing Hunter arranging a meeting between his father, then the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine, and executives from Burisma, the shady Ukrainian energy firm that was paying the illustrious vice-presidential son upwards of $83,000 a month to sit on its board. The documents lend his self-portraiture an undeniable political dimension. They are vibrant illustrations of a corrupt political functionary as a broken man. The combined effect of the selfies and the documents is to form the kind of political art that hasn’t been seen since 1974, when the artist Hans Haacke waged revenge against Guggenheim Museum for canceling his 1971 exhibition by extensively auditing the trustees of its board, revealing broad financial and corporate corruption in the process. In this instance, Hunter has taken up the roles of both Haacke and the Guggenheim trustees, the exposer and the exposed.

The revelation of this archive set in motion by Hunter’s negligence is an unburdening of the secrets and lies that have defined his life. But beyond that, his selfies are a plea for freedom from his own degeneracy and degradation, and from his father’s looming shadow. What is art if not such a striving for freedom? From this perspective, what is Hunter if not an artist?

Adam Lehrer is an artist and Compact columnist, based in New York. He blogs at Substack and is the host of the System of Systems podcast.


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