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'Breaking News' is broken — art confronts media failings at Getty show

by Marc Haefele | Off-Ramp®

Donald R. Blumberg, American, born 1935. Untitled, from the series Television Political Mosaics, 1968-1969, 1968-1969 Gelatin silver print. Image: 50.8 X 61 cm (20 X 24 in.), Courtesy of Donald R. and Grace Blumberg © Donald Blumberg The Getty Center

Over the past half-century, the distrust of the print and broadcast media has just kept on growing.  Newsgatherers are asked to do more, and yet seem to deliver less. Increasingly, even the media is prone to criticizing itself.  Particularly after the last US election, whose results were an upset to most of the news world.

Now, at what seems a very appropriate time, there is a show at the Getty Center about media incomprehension itself, as singled out by several noted contemporary artists surveying photos, video, and print media. “Breaking News: Turning the Lens on News Media” is a broad, creative take on how easily our newsmongers fail at telling us what is really happening. 

Sometimes, the artist uses simple emphasis and mild exaggeration: This is artist Donald Blumberg’s approach, particularly with his blow-ups of 1960s local newspapers’ jejune coverage of the Vietnam War.

Daily Photographs, 1969-1970; Donald R. Blumberg (American, born 1935); United States; 1969 - 1970; Gelatin silver print; 38.7 × 55.9 cm (15 1/4 × 22 in.); 2009.4.3
Daily Photographs, 1969-1970; Donald R. Blumberg (American, born 1935); United States; 1969 - 1970; Gelatin silver print; 38.7 × 55.9 cm (15 1/4 × 22 in.); 2009.4.3 The Getty Center

Blumberg’s expanded dotty-grain news photographs grant an almost Roy Lichtenstein-like absurdity to the accompanying bloated news texts, which include a solemn ROTC colonel handing a batch of medals to the grieving parents of a young soldier killed in action and an interview with a non-combatant Air Force sergeant, who exults the homey comforts (“movies every night” and fresh milk daily, all the way from Hawaii) of his Vietnam bivouac while deploring those who protest the war. Somehow, this home-front reportorial mediocrity now seems as culpable as the war atrocities headlined elsewhere in Blumberg’s work. 

Two spacious print-media creations stress how news magazines (remember them?) evaded the major topics of the time. One composition by Alfredo Jaar shows 60 years of Life magazine covers, starting in the 1930s. During this period, much of WW II was fought in Africa, followed by 20 years of tormented decolonization, plus ensuing civil wars that still endure. Of some 3,000 weekly Life covers, only five refer to Africa. This is one way of telling about a story that isn’t being told. Another Jaar compilation is of all the 1994 Newsweek covers—the year of the Rwanda massacre. Only one cover touches on the ghastly event.

Alfredo Jaar, Chilean, born 1956. Untitled (Newsweek) (detail), 1995.
Inkjet print. Sheet: 48.3 X 33 cm (19 X 13 in.) Courtesy Alfredo Jaar and Galerie Lelong, New York. © Alfredo Jaar, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York
Alfredo Jaar, Chilean, born 1956. Untitled (Newsweek) (detail), 1995. Inkjet print. Sheet: 48.3 X 33 cm (19 X 13 in.) Courtesy Alfredo Jaar and Galerie Lelong, New York. © Alfredo Jaar, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York The Getty Center

Martha Rosler became famous for her activist photo-surrealist arrays, such as her 1960s  “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Back Home,” a series of inkjet prints on view here. 

House Beautiful: Giacometti, from the series "House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home," c. 1967–1972. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography and The Modern Women’s Fund. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY Artwork © Martha Rosler, courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY
House Beautiful: Giacometti, from the series "House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home," c. 1967–1972. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography and The Modern Women’s Fund. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY Artwork © Martha Rosler, courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY The Getty Center

 She jammed together some luscious and supertasteful suburban home interiors with the grim actualities of Vietnam combat, conflating the irreal with the real. The power of her work lies in the dissonance between the seductive allure of home décor and the overhanging presence of death in an unjust war. Oh yes, Pat Nixon is there too.

Several artists worked with the idea of the TV presenter, the anchor person or interviewer as a mediator between the audience and the event.

Robert Heinecken, American, 1931–2006.
"A Case Study in Finding an Appropriate TV Newswoman" (A CBS Docudrama in Words and Pictures) (detail), 1984. Dye bleach prints.Framed: 112.4 X 108 cm (44 1/4 X 42 1/2 in.)
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Partial purchase through The Board of Overseers Acquisition Fund and Partial Gift of Marc Selwyn © The Robert Heinecken Trust
Robert Heinecken, American, 1931–2006. "A Case Study in Finding an Appropriate TV Newswoman" (A CBS Docudrama in Words and Pictures) (detail), 1984. Dye bleach prints.Framed: 112.4 X 108 cm (44 1/4 X 42 1/2 in.) Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Partial purchase through The Board of Overseers Acquisition Fund and Partial Gift of Marc Selwyn © The Robert Heinecken Trust The Getty Center

Over 30 years ago, the late Robert Heinecken created what he called a “docudrama” melding talking heads in a study called “Finding an Appropriate Newswoman,’’ suggesting a certain interchangeability of on-air celebrities.  I was much taken with David Lamelas and Hildegarde Duane’s 15 minute video, “Interview With a Dictator,” in which Duane impersonates a Barbara Walters-style TV interviewer doing a one-an-one with Lamelas, posing as an arrogant deposed Latino potentate in trim, blue blazer, and Ray-bans. In the discussion format, the despot’s past atrocities mellow into inane pleasantries and he even seems to be hitting on his interviewer. 

It’s a graphic illustration, and seen immediately following the Trump election, demonstrates how  what should be media scrutiny often winds up elevating or even exonerating its subjects.

Some of the artists displayed  seem to sympathize with the manner in which subjects and events can be so immense that they overwhelm the most proficient and intelligent media figures. In CNN Concatenated, Omer Fast weaves together, in the transposed, truncated words and halting sentences of CNN newspeople, his own monologue driving home the sheer anxiety, terror, and lack of comprehension that followed the greatest American catastrophe of this century—the September 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center.

"The Breaking News exhibition is not an exhaustive survey of this material,’’ says  exhibition curator Arpad Kovacs.  "But it tries to show various facets of artists reacting to the news everyone sees.” Yet to those of us actually in the media, “Breaking News” also shows, relentlessly, how easily and often newspeople fail in the simple but immense task of conveying to the rest of us what is actually going on.

"Breaking News: Turning the Lens on Mass Media," is at the Getty Center through April 30, 2017.

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