Read all about it – newspapers as art

Yesterday’s news, so the popular UK saying goes, is today’s fish and chip paper. It’s ancient history, very forgettable and not part of the current chitchat. Something else has happened, something new, and that always takes precedence. The only thing it is good for, a newspaper that is, is as a disposable container for some hearty grub.
Unless of course you’re an artist from the modern and contemporary era with a predisposition for unconventional ideas – why not, they have argued, make the newspaper something more than just a conduit for information; why not make it into art?
This originality is explored in Shock of the News at the National Art Gallery in Washington, which is a comprehensive examination of the way luminaries from every art movement across a 100-year period – 1909 – 2009 – have “co-opted, mimicked, defused, undermined, memorialised, and rewritten newspapers”.
“Although a handful of recent exhibitions have explored the topic, this is the first to offer a systematic examination of the newspaper as both a material and subject in modern and contemporary art over the course of a century,” remarked Earl A. Powell III, director of National Gallery of Art.
The show begins in 1909 with the troublesome Filippo Tomasso Marinetti. On February 20th of that year, the Italian thinker published The Futurist Manifesto in the newspaper Le Figaro, delivering an articulate and eloquent statement for what was, at least philosophically, a pugnacious art movement.
“It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries,” one passage of the manifesto pronounced. Belligerency markedly trumped pacifism.
Meanwhile, as the Futurists were plotting to overthrow nature and put in its place an artificial world dominated by machines and industry, Pablo Picasso, for whom life was entwined poetically with women – as if they had all cast a wonderful spell on him – was about to pilfer part of a newspaper in the name of art.
In 1912 he produced Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass, a collage that was not just a first for the Spaniard, but also a first in the world of art. No one had ever used newspapers in this way.
Outside of the context of newspapers, it has to be said that placing these works together is brave. Picasso was, after all, in contrast to Marinetti et al, a lover, not a fighter, for whom Peace and Freedom – to take the title of a Tate Liverpool exhibition of his activist work – was attainable through non-violent means.
“While the aims of Marinetti and Picasso were poles apart, their seminal efforts marked the beginning of a trend,” the gallery explains. “Visual artists began to think about the newspaper more broadly – as a means of political critique, a collection of ready-made news to appropriate and manipulate, a source of language and images, a typographical grab bag, and more.”
Taking the lead from this two influential individuals, the exhibition, which is arranged chronologically, documents how quickly an obscure idea became a trend all over the world, with artists in both the US and Europe, Cubists, Dadaists and Surrealists alike, suddenly seeing newspapers in a very different light.
One of the works of art, executed in 1930 by the brilliant Jean Heartfield, celebrated for his compelling and often political photomontages – his brilliant parodies of the Nazis are particularly good – is a perfect example of this new appreciation.
Here we see a sepia photograph of a man who has had his entire head wrapped in pages from Vorwärts, which was the Social Democratic Party’s official newspaper, and Tempo, which was a mass-market tabloid. His derision, if not evident in the picture, was unmistakeable in the caption underneath it: “Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers goes blind and deaf.”
Political scrutiny is revealed to be a recurring theme in many of the works on show principally because it was a response to the milieu artists found themselves in. The twentieth century was an outrageously turbulent time, an epoch that can be defined as an experiment, where grand ideologies – liberal democracy, fascism and communism – purported to be humanity’s salvation.
This is illustrated in Emory Douglas’ All Power to the People (1969), a powerful portrait of a young African American hawking Blank Panther newspapers, and Laurie Anderson’s New York Times Horizontal/China Times Vertical (1976), which intricately laced together the front pages of both papers to bring attention to the ongoing tension between the two countries.
The show ends in a full-circle with Jim Hodges’ The Good News/Al Arab Al Yawm 8/8/2008 (2009), which was created by painting every page of a Jordanian newspaper gold.
Several meanings can be extrapolated. Newspapers today, even if they are now digital, are nothing but vacuous objects that peddle lies…as they always have done. To gild them and fade away the words suggests that there was never anything worthwhile reading.
It can also be interpreted as an attack on the vanity of today’s art, where palpably hollow works contest to being something that they clearly are not. This is otherwise known as art for money’s sake, which, according to some critics, is exemplified by Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. These, they argue, are the products of financial catalysts – artistic impulses do not exist.
Either way, like Picasso’s magnificent century-old collage, what can definitely be surmised is that an average newspaper, whatever stories it may contain, can be much more than just paper for fish and chips. It can also be a timeless work of art.
Shock of the News at the National Art Gallery in Washington runs until January 27th 2012.
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