I stopped in the New Museum to see what a bunch of smart, interesting minds would have to say about newspapers, but in the time I spent there I didn’t get too far past the observation expressed later that night at a gathering I attended: “Anyone who’s ever read a newspaper knows how silly they are, we don’t need an exhibit to tell us that.”
By “silly,” this observer (who happens to read a daily newspaper religiously) was really saying: Anyone who expects newspapers to be something other than what they are is fooling themselves. They are what they are. Seen through that lens, this exhibit was full of high expectations met with reactions you’ve heard before at the water cooler.
Compare the phenomenon of a daily newspaper to museum-quality questions, and it’s just too easy to be critical. Is it really news that newspapers focus on the interests of local readers and devote less attention to those who live elsewhere? That their interpretation of events don’t always hold up over time? That the stories in a given day are never complete? And that, sometimes, they are a cheap alternative to throw rugs? As someone who spent decades in the trenches of those questions and more, I didn’t find these observations particularly timely or fresh.
“The Last Newspaper” takes up three-plus floors of the New Museum (which, if you haven’t visited in a while, moved into new lodgings on the Bowery almost threeyears ago). It’s pretty ambitious stuff. I spent most of the time I had available checking out works from 27 artists that spanned a period from 1967 to 2010. But the project also puts five partner organizations (StoryCorps is one of them) to work conducting on-site discussions, compiling a weekly newspaper, and encouraging participation. Video, digital, audio and three-dimensional interpretations — they’re all here. Even the obligatory dresses made from newspapers. The dresses, by Thomas Hirschhorn, had me longing for Tim Gunn. (“Thomas. Talk to me.”)
Re-imagined news pages — photos repeated, text rerarranged, whole pages redrawn, superimposed with images and text — were everywhere. Font geek that I am, I loved seeing the elements of a newspaper page deconstructed and reconstructed, whether reverently or ir-. Wolfgang Tillmans incorporated documents, brochures, postcards and printouts on tabletops to evoke the messy, ongoing work of piecing together events and trying to make sense of it all. I was inexplicably enthralled by a video interview with the obituary editor of the New York Times (imagine a perfectly nice guy applying a chilling “sliding scale of importance” to the deceased).
But it was the works that juxtaposed personal, visceral reactions with the printed page that appealed to me. Judith Bernstein’s collages from 1968 and 1967, which play off clippings about civil rights and the Vietnam war, felt much more present to me. The smudged lines, urgent hand-written words and objects so clearly worn by human use give them a voice I welcomed. The “Vanilla Nightmares” series, Adrian Piper’s drawings-on-front-pages from the 1980s, had the same effect on me: human forms and human emotions responding to the detached accounts on the page. It’s a comment on race that doesn’t try to be clever.
It’s never a bad thing to apply critical (and creative) thinking to the media, especially the under-danger-of-extinction mainstream media. And it can be bracing to watch artists respond to the news itself. But the thinking here didn’t move me forward in any particularly helpful way. Surely, newspapers — or the idea of them — are worth more than retrospective criticism?
Looking over my notes from that visit, I see I scratched down more thoughts about the second-floor exhibition, “Free,” which looked at the Internet as a public art space. It had me stretching my mind to reconcile that big morph we’re all experience as we wade from the old news streams into the new (well, some of us are still wading). The truths that can come out of randomness, the disappearing line between the observer an the observed, the dissolving filter between occurrence and interpretation — now there’s something newsworthy. I think the New Museum buried the lead.
“The Last Newspaper” is open through Jan. 9. This blog post also appears on Art City, the visual arts blog at JSOnline.
:: About the New Museum: www.newmuseum.org
:: About this exhibit: www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/428/the_last_newspaper