January 1, 2012 –– The biggest news on the front pages of eight of the nation’s biggest daily papers concerns what China’s TV shows tell us about its popular culture, the Mayan projection that the world will end in 2012, changes Catholic schools face, a look back at the year that was, and — remember this? — the fiery 2012 presidential campaign.
The previous day — December 31, 2011 — the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was signed by President Obama. Only the Dallas Morning News gave it front-page coverage — four inches below the fold. The New York Times had a tease for the story on page 22.
The NDAA extended military authority to search and seize civilian property in terror-related cases — and yet civilians were hardly aware, because the news got scant attention.
New York City-based artist Marcia Annenberg, a self-described news junkie who watches all six New York City television news stations all day, every day, as well as following websites, blogs and other media, missed the story until a week later. “How did that skip my attention,” she recalls thinking. “That’s pretty important — and frightening, to think your free speech rights are taken away, when your data — e-mails, phone calls — can be monitored any time.”
So she sent away for January 1 print editions of the dailies mentioned above, only to learn she had not missed the stories — it hadn’t been covered.
“If I’m not a suspect, why should my data be looked at?” she asks. “The Bill of Rights is what America stands for. How do you define America when the Bill of Rights is taken away?”
In Annenberg’s multi-media work, “No News is Good News,” all eight front pages are presented behind gossamer curtains, parted to show the scant coverage, and pinned with a bow made from fabric in red, white and blue stars and stripes.
It is part of the exhibit “News/Not News,” on view at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Bernstein Gallery through Thursday, February 14.
“The media is obsessed with sexuality at the expense of the coverage of actual news,” writes Annenberg, in conjunction with “White House/Your House,” a large painting depicting black-and-white line drawings of men and warfare in the periphery, and a large bluejean-clad crotch front and center.
“Annenberg uses sardonic wit and irony to update iconic works of art by artists such as Grant Wood, Edward Hopper, Tom Wesselman, and Gerhard Richter,” says curator Kate Somers. “Even if the viewer is not aware of the specific references to current events — post 9/11 — in these paintings and wall installations, there is a palpable sense of loss and foreboding in spite of the often candy-colored pop art palate. These are not worlds in which we want to live.”
The painting “Great American News” questions the diminishment of network news coverage. Across the canvas, the letters N-E-W-S in a red-and-blue font common to news organization logos of the 20th century — the recent disappearance of Newsweek in print form comes to mind — are surrounded by happy/sad drama masks, stars and stripes, implements of commerce and war, and the face of a newscaster with Afro-Asian features and bright blond hair. Her multicultural face seems to imply we’ll get the world news from her, but in fact the world seems to start and end in her face.
“Home on the Range” is a contemporary “American Gothic.” In the large acrylic a middle-aged couple, slouched on leather recliners, is fixated on the little black box, the electronic hearth, surrounded by colorful polka dots and a map of the U.S. Americans are addicted to TV and film, and the escapism it offers, Annenberg tells us.
“On the surface, this is light-hearted and adorable,” says Annenberg. “But it engages us to its deeper meaning. The map of America is all this couple knows from the local news. We’re living in a bubble. I haven’t seen a single human interest story about a family living in Afghanistan. How much does the average American even know about Afghanistan?”
Grant Wood’s iconic American couple with the pitchfork are now couch potatoes, she says.
From Daumier to Picasso, from the Mexican muralists to American Social Realists — and for that matter, all the artists exhibited at the Bernstein Gallery — artists have responded to politics and current events. “There is always a role for artists in reacting to world events and culture,” says Annenberg, a distant relation to Walter Annenberg, the one-time owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer who went on to found TV Guide and Seventeen magazine. “I never met them,” Annenberg says of her media mogul relatives. “I went to city schools and worked all my life for everything I have. But maybe my interest in news is genetic.”
Raised in Manhattan, Annenberg’s parents — a lawyer and fine-art photographer — were also news junkies and subscribed to I.F. Stone’s Weekly, the independent investigative newsletter from Washington, D.C., that campaigned against McCarthyism, racial inequality, and the Vietnam War.
Annenberg’s father, who studied at Cooper Union, went back to school at age 85 to learn PhotoShop, and when he was 89 had an exhibit of his digital photography at Nexus Gallery in the East Village.
Annenberg herself graduated from City College in 1972, with a double major in art and English, then studied at the Art Students League until earning a master’s degree in studio art from New York University in 1982.
Today, even though there’s more news available online, “a lot of people still tune into networks, and there’s a lot missing,” says Annenberg. “A lot of Americans don’t search for online news. One-third may get it from the internet, but what about those who don’t search — how do they get the story?”
She points to Fox News’ “Around the World in 80 Seconds.” “How can anyone get an understanding of the world in 80 seconds?” she asks. “It’s an issue of national security. That’s why 9/11 caught America by surprise. The majority had never heard of Osama Bin Laden.”
And mainstream media is only getting worse, she contends. With limited budgets and staff, some news stories are left out altogether. “Even though there are more channels, there’s a decline in coverage — who, what, where, when, and why has been degraded. The distinction between news and opinion has been blurred — most people can’t make the distinction.”
Climate change is an example. “It’s been studied for 50 years. It’s documented by scientists. It’s not a matter of opinion — but people don’t know that because it’s not covered. This will affect our children and grandchildren. It’s so much more important than who movie stars are dating.”
Annenberg uses bright colors and a pop art style in her paintings, along with Wonder Bread packaging, to show our news is white, bland, without nutritional content. “I grew up on Wonder Bread,” she admits.
Wonder Bread pervades “What Did You Learn in School Today?,” with its Shirley Temple-like pixie and a Pluto-like dog against a colorful backdrop of polka dots and the words “Agent Orange” and “Depleted Uranium.”
We don’t teach about chemical weapons in school because it’s too uncomfortable, Annenberg maintains. Yet the consequences affect the health of our children and our planet. “The public is not aware of the danger of our weapons to destroy our lands, our soldiers, and our future generations. We use these chemicals as defoliants in Vietnam and elsewhere, and they lead to birth defects and cancer. It’s just not ethical.”
“Button/Mushroom” is a four-panel painting about nuclear proliferation, showing the progression of a button, a disc, Planet Earth and a mushroom of the so-called “button” variety. The button mushroom, we learn, is cultivated in more than 70 countries and proliferates readily — making the edible fungus a metaphor for the nuclear proliferation that would consume our planet.
Would, or will? If we continue to dilute, or even obliterate, our news media, escaping into boob tubes or Facebook or Pinterest, and fail to educate our children, this could surely happen.
Interestingly, there is another exhibit relating to newspapers at the Mariboe Gallery at the Peddie School in Hightstown (a school that has received substantial support from the Annenberg Foundation).
Shanti Grumbine’s Kenosis Project, on view through Friday, February 8, involves the erasure, excision, and reconfiguration of the New York Times to elicit a sacred experience of the everyday.
Kenosis is an ancient Greek noun for emptiness. By physically removing content, Grumbine’s works make space for what has been forgotten, suppressed, or ignored in print, as well as what is lost in translation of experience into words.
“I source ancient narrative formats such as commemorative paper cutting, illuminated manuscripts, medieval musical scores, and stained glass,” writes the artist, who divides her time between New Paltz, New York, and New York City. “The acidic nature of newspaper and its rapid shift in color aids the association of time passing, highlighting the fragility of the page and the imminent dissolution of print.”
Using cut newspaper pages as stencils for screen-prints, Grumbine looks at journalistic language as a structure that both reveals and obscures. Overlapping printed pages become sliding doors that prevent or allow access to images of protest. A page is screen-printed over digitally printed blown-up sections of advertising. When flocked with glitter, the page transforms advertising imagery into landscapes suggestive of outer space. “Kenosis functions as a ritualistic act of beauty to mend the deficits of human ingenuity,” says Grumbine.
News/Not News, Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Mondays to Fridays, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Thursday, February 14. Artist reception and talk, Sunday, February 3, 3 to 5 p.m. wws.princeton.edu/bernstein.
Shanti Grumbine Kenosis Project, Mariboe Gallery, Peddie School, 201 South Main Street, Hightstown. Through Friday, February 8. Call 609-944-7551 for appointment. Free. www.peddie.org/mariboegallery.