Whither Washington, Post-Gopnik?

You know, some things have just been bugging me about this Blake Gopnik/Washington Post situation. I deeply don't care about Gopnik in a gossipy way. I suppose if I were pressed, I'd be generically glad for him now that it has been reported that he's going to work for Tina Brown in New York as a "special correspondent, arts," even though the I could also imagine that gig could/would be utterly irrelevant, and the specifics of it could be excruciating. Fortunately, that's not my problem.

I'm more interested in what his departure says about art-related writing and criticism in Washington, DC. In other words, what does it reveal about state of the Washington Post, does it have any implication for Gopnik's replacement?

Because, this:

It hasn't been two weeks since Tyler Green wrote that Gopnik "has been doing the best work of his career on the Smithsonian fiasco."

I'd say that's a bit of a low bar, but I have to agree; Gopnik came out quickly, clearly, and strongly in defense of art, Wojnarowicz, and curatorial independence. And before that, he'd already given the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" an excellent and strong review.


But here's the thing: we know now that when he wrote this "best work," he was either interviewing, auditioning, or negotiating for his new gig.

Is this a coincidence? If so, then never mind. A politically charged story drops into the Style section's lap just as Gopnik's looking to clinch his deal with the buzz-obsessed Brown. He should send a muffin basket to the Catholic League's office and be done with it.

But it's not like important art didn't exist before this month. And it doesn't explain why, after so much mediocrity and obtuseness in the Post's arts coverage, Gopnik suddenly became persuasive or relevant, or even good.

Did the Wojnarowicz fiasco somehow energize Gopnik, enable him to rise beyond the workaday museum fluffing and throwaway Chelsea gallery crawls?

Was the Smithsonian's blundering cowardice and the possible reignition of the 80s culture wars just the right confluence of major player-ism and political gamesmanship to prod the Post's editors to action?

Was Gopnik actually auditioning for his new job, or at least making sure that he himself stayed ahead of the biggest DC art story of the year?

I'd guess that's the case, and I'd assume that Gopnik's own ambition and self-regard were motivation enough; the unfolding NPG scandal positively demanded the Post's critic to take a stand. Censorship at the Smithsonian? Not on my watch!

And that'd be fine, too, I suppose. Though the sudden fire in Gopnik's belly still makes me wonder, 1) where's it been all these years, and 2) what happens now that he's leaving?

It's possible that Gopnik's been coasting all this time, and just shlubbed his way into fleeting, brave relevance, like how Aaron Brown happened to be the guy anchoring CNN on the morning of September 11th. It'd be hard [but not impossible!] to screw up the Wojnarowicz story, and he was just doing his job.

But if Gopnik's recent incisiveness arises not in spite of himself, but in spite of the Post? I could really boil this whole post down to my suspicion that to the Post's editors, art for DC is either a weekend diversion or a political football. And that anything else just doesn't compute.

I mean, can we just acknowledge how weird the Style editors' announcement of Gopnik's departure was? [emphasis added on the oddest parts]:

...[he] is now taking on a new opportunity in New York, the place he has long understood and explained but will now fully inhabit. We are sorry to lose his voice on the matters of aesthetics and politics that he has interpreted in Washington's fine arts centers, though he leaves us with one of his greatest journalistic moments, leading a team in Style who have reported on and challenged the Smithsonian's decision to remove a provocative work of art from a provocative exhibit...
Art is a foreign country [New York] which Gopnik "explained" to us. Aesthetics and politics. I wasn't imagining it. Fine arts centers. I'd ask what that even means, if the paper didn't file its art coverage under "Style > Museums."

And as for leading a Style team, I'm sorry, but Tyler has reported circles around the Post on the Smithsonian story. The Washington City Paper, too. The brightest spot in the Post's NPG/SI coverage, ironically, is not Gopnik's, but the response by Post veteran Philip Kennicott, which did get major front page weekend real estate, and which is probably the single most powerful analysis of art, censorship, and the culture war I've seen anywhere.

Kennicott's achievement notwithstanding, I don't see how any new critic can improve things if the Post's editors don't fundamentally address their blindered view of art.

While, I would add, holding the Smithsonian leadership to account as only the Post apparently can.

Because just as the Post's editors praise Gopnik and his team, they've repeatedly missed or misreported the Wojnarowicz story. And while the paper and Gopnik toast each other at a farewell party somewhere, Clough is proving he can stonewall the media and ride out the controversy he created.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: December 19, 2010.

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