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On Remorse and Owning It

Bill Lasarow

I am not a big fan of Hunter Biden, but I’m not a detractor either. His recent plea deal appears to stem from a few years that followed the death of his brother, Beau Biden. Beau, who was serving as the Attorney General of Delaware when he died of brain cancer at age 46, was a rising political star who was preparing to take the next step. Had he lived he would have run for his state’s governorship in 2016. Hunter, who earned a law degree from Yale, followed a rather bland path through the banking industry, worked as a lobbyist, and operated more than one investment firm. He has sat on organizational boards, including an appointment by President George W. Bush to the board of Amtrak. He and his first wife (they divorced in 2019) raised three children. The outline of his biography is that of a solid if pedestrian business career, no doubt made possible by the vast privilege of being a Biden. As Joe Biden’s son, I would describe his career up to the time of Beau’s death as successful but pedestrian. Not all of his business dealing were with the most savory of clients, but the partisan view that they were shot through with corruption is vacuous. If there is any truth to Republican assertions, it is that there are many Republican officials guilty of far greater transgressions than anything Hunter Biden did. Oh yes, and he took up painting when he was a kid, though he did not attend an art school. 

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Hunter Biden, “#2 (side A and B),” mixed media on sheet metal, 24 x 48”

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Hunter Biden, “019,” mixed media on wood, 24 x 18”

Hunter’s one real weakness was that he had a drug habit. For at least two years following his brother’s death it appears to have dominated his life. The money paid to the IRS for failure to file two consecutive years of non-filing implies that he was sufficiently out of control that he was unable to complete at least some ordinary activities. That is pretty pathetic.

 

These troubles suggest two things. First, he suffers by comparing himself to a father and brother who were extremely high achievers in their field of choice, namely politics. Hunter may hate politics, or he may love it. But his history tells us that he was never going to make that his life’s work. Second, his career path was surely not well chosen. Making and managing money? Serving as a minor back room power broker? A number of reasons drive people to drink or drugs, and one of those is choosing the wrong path. This guy already has serious issues with trauma and comparison. By ordinary standards he has done very well in his businesses and with his family. But he could not have lived his life trying to measure up to ordinary standards.

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Hunter Biden, “Untitled #13,” abstracted floral composed of layers of watery pigment blown through a straw.

Courtesy of George Etheredge for The New York Times

Painting has provided an antidote for, we are told, decades. Perhaps it started as a nice little hobby, a pleasant way to fill some extra time. Perhaps it served as therapy, the activity providing a deeply personal space in which problems and obligations receded enough to allow for emotional healing. His New York-based dealer, Georges Bergés, promotes Hunter as one of the most important artists of his generation, but that is not accurate on the face of it, nor is it fair to Biden as a serious artist. Bergés, with his Soho location and taste for a salon setting, displays a nostalgia for an earlier era in New York. The art that he represents is an expression of those good old days when the highest complement to a dealer or curator was that “they have a great eye.” He deliberately sets himself, and therefore the artists he represents, apart from nearby Chelsea, that is to say he is not interested in or equipped for art world trends; he aspires to timelessness and to the personal relationships he strikes with his circle of artists and collectors. In the context of the art world, this is a romantic and conservative vision rooted in art for art’s sake, the pure aesthetics of formalism. If you love the New York School, Bergés speaks that language.

 

How Hunter arrived at that relationship is of little interest to me, but for now it seems like a comfortable match. I see how some of his father’s political enemies charge that the sales of his work is a form of influence peddling, and they charge that his market is inflated relative to the inherent value of his work. But no top tier artist affiliated with an elite gallery in New York is, frankly, priced mainly in the five figure range, at the highest in the low six figures for their major work.

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Hunter Biden, “Haiku Series #12,” mixed media on sheet metal, 60 x 48”

It is not uncommon for much younger artists to barrel into the market for the first time at a higher price point; but most, nearly all, do not. Hunter, within the larger art market, is beyond art therapy and, at age 53, perhaps just beyond emerging, though his 2021 show at Bergés was his first solo. But if he — or his dealer — imagine that he is today a force in the art world’s marketplace or as a cultural influencer, nothing could be further from the truth. But he is a public figure, if a reluctant one. That is not a knock, considering his history and background, as well as the current place that art occupies in the culture and in its own historical trajectory. I would place Hunter on the fringes of all that.

That is not to say he should be placed among that icky category of celebrity so-called artists, most of whom are at best enlightened amateurs and dabblers. I do not put him in that not very illustrious pigeon hole. He is more than comfortable with the tools of the painting trade, able to convey both urgency and aggression in images that are painstaking to execute. His color sense tends towards the dramatic, at times becoming overwrought; he is at least a pretty decent draftsman. When elements like stippling appear you feel that he maintains respect for each individual dot. Within a nice range of styles and subjects there is a convincing continuity, but it ranges from lovely complexity to downright awkward.

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Hunter Biden, “Untitled #12,” mixed media on canvas.

Courtesy of George Etheredge for The New York Times

All of this suggests that Hunter has gradually arrived home, and his true home is in his studio buried in images that he, and he alone, finds motivating. I hope that he sticks with it primarily for his own sake. It is his best response to a world, a very different world from the one that he is clearly not cut out for. When he settled the two elements of the five year DOJ investigation by Trump’s politically motivated appointment of David Weiss — talk about your witch hunts — by paying the two years of taxes that he had failed to file for, and formally giving up drug usage (and a gun he owned for two weeks before his wife tossed it) in exchange for probation, complete with expressions of remorse, he effectively regained his freedom. The pathological resistance that the Trumpist culture of the NPP (National Predatory Party) to any admission of error or guilt is self-delusional and has done great damage to America. By his actions Hunter has owned his flaws and his mistakes.

 

All of this tells me that if he does do some campaigning with Joe next year, he would do well to show up in paint spattered jeans and a t-shirt. He no longer needs to compare himself to anyone or anything but his own creative aspirations. He will never be a governor or president, thank goodness. Artists who spend their days in search of the best version of themselves, exercising their freedom of expression, and who have something to say are always welcome into the club. Beyond that, talent and aesthetic relevance can take over. Even with all of the advantages his unusual life has handed him, as well as the enormous headaches, Hunter Biden has at least earned a seat at the table. He hopefully has many years of creative discovery ahead.

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