New Yorker writer speaks on art ownership, Elgin Marbles

Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik

By Martha Groppo

A butterscotch pudding in the oven made Adam Gopnik late for his Kentucky Kernel interview. It was fitting; the book author and staff writer for the New Yorker has several things cooking at any given time.

In his articles for the New Yorker, Gopnik has written about diverse topics from Winston Churchill to Shakespeare to life in Paris. Gopnik has also been an art critique and an art historian and has done work with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Gopnik will bring his art experience to UK to discuss the Elgin Marbles on Monday night in the Worsham Theatre as the first speaker of this year’s Bale Boone Symposium.

“He has a level of energy that surpasses that of most people,” said Robert Rabel, director of the Gaines Center for the Humanities, the group sponsoring Gopnik’s visit.

Gopnik will debate with Joan Breton Connelly, professor of classics and art history at New York University and member of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, in the opening event of the symposium. This year’s symposium is about art ownership and cultural property.

Gopnik said he will argue that the Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon by the British and are housed in the British Museum, should remain in England and not be returned to Greece. The heated modern debate over whether or not the Elgin Marbles should be returned is a part of a much bigger question of whether or not individual nations own art.

“The people who made the Elgin Marbles did not feel that they were Greeks making them for Greece,” Gopnik said. “They were Athenians making them for Athens.”

He said the argument for returning the marbles is based on the “new idea” of nations that began with the unification of Germany and the Manifest Destiny. He said he also disagrees with returning the marbles because of the precedent the decision would create.

“It implies that if these things need to go back, then what else needs to go back?” Gopnik said. “All of the museums of the world would be emptied out.

“By the same argument, we could say that all the Picassos should go to Paris.”

He said Picasso’s works of art were created in Paris, but that Picasso himself was a Spaniard, making the question of which nation “owns” Picasso’s works even more convoluted.

Gopnik has a special interest in the Elgin Marbles because they remind him of the romantic date he was on when he first saw them.

“I persuaded my girlfriend to run away to London to see the Elgin Marbles,” Gopnik said. “We were still teenagers and as I was trying to woo her, I tried to persuade her to come with me.”

Gopnik said his girlfriend loved art, so she agreed, and the couple saw the marbles on a rainy day in 1977.

The museum visit evidently made a good impression on Gopnik’s date.

“I made an honest woman of her,” Gopnik said.

His Elgin Marbles girlfriend became his wife.

Gopnik’s personal amateur interest in the Elgin Marbles resembles his interest in some of the other topics he writes about.

“You don’t have to be an expert to be excited,” Gopnik said.

He said he prepares for his diverse article topics by doing research almost identical to the research college students do.

“The only difference is I most of the time get to choose my own subjects,” Gopnik said. “There is a part of me that is forever and perpetually a graduate student.”

Currently, Gopnik is researching a book about food. He said he prepares primarily by reading.

“You just sit and read,” Gopnik said. “I love to read. Reading is a skill that improves with time.”

Despite the amount of academic study he puts into his books and articles, Gopnik maintains that he writes for average readers, not academics.

His own experience with academics was, characteristically, diverse.

“I had one of those weird trajectories,” Gopnik said.

During his undergraduate years at McGill University in Montreal, he began studying physics, switched to statistics and then changed to art history.

“I really just wanted to be a writer,” Gopnik said.

Gopnik’s UK visit will be his second. Last year, he spoke at the Bale Boone Symposium about his book on Charles Darwin and his contemporary Abraham Lincoln entitled Angels and Ages.

Rabel said the success of Gopnik’s visit last year inspired the Gaines Center to invite him back for this year’s symposium.

For more information on Gopnik, visit, (