Obama-Enchanted, Part II: WaPo Art Critic Finds Smithsonian's 'Superstar'

Tom Shales wasn’t alone in praising Obama in the Washington Post today. Art critic Philip Kennicott acted embarrassed that the Smithsonian's American history museum would already put on an exhibit honoring Barack Obama’s inauguration at the 100-day mark, even if they had a good reason:

The Smithsonian hasn't mounted an exhibit like this, for a sitting president, in recent memory, if ever. And it's not doing it because it's historic -- George W. Bush's first election, which hung in the balance for weeks, was also historic -- the Smithsonian is doing it because Obama has the peculiar, hard-to-define but easy-to-spot power of the superstar.

Obama trumps Reagan in image management, Kennicott declared:

We've come a long way since the press was wowed by President Ronald Reagan's carefully constructed images. Although there were images of photographers photographing him, the ideal Reagan image eliminated the photographer in an effort to create a transparent, perfect window on the spectacle of power. Today, the presence of the photographer is celebrated. Obama is the cynosure of all lenses.

Cynosure? Dictionary.com defines it as "something that strongly attracts attention by its brilliance, interest, etc.: the cynosure of all eyes."

Kennicott even lamented how Obama lives in "the Jonas Brothers fishbowl," like a teen idol:

Obama is a strange hybrid of politician and celebrity, and so we see him in perfectly framed images, enacting political power, and we see him being borne down upon by hundreds of ominous cameras. Even the supposed victimization of the celebrity by the photographer -- the "dark side" of celebrity -- is hinted at in this exhibition. Obama doesn't just suffer Kennedy's "loneliness" of power, he lives in the Jonas Brothers fishbowl.

Kennicott's usual loathing of George W. Bush is much subtler in this exercise, but his preference for Obama is still apparent:

Other images seem designed to emphasize the difference between Obama and his predecessor. A photograph of the two men talking during a pre-inaugural White House meeting shows Obama the Listener, juxtaposed with Bush the Decider. Bush emphasizes his point with his index finger tightly pinching his thumb, a hard, almost angry gesture. You can almost hear the old Bush tone, insistent, didactic, perhaps a little impatient.

Kennicott seemed embarrassed that the Smithsonian would be so quick to declare history before it's barely unfolded, against the "best standards of museology." But he didn't really wonder whether the Smithsonian's curators are being cynical about their federal funding, or whether they're simply Obama-enchanted, like the "critics" on the payroll of The Washington Post.

Washington Post Philip Kennicott
Tim Graham's picture