'Breaking News' Artists Use Mass Media As Their Medium

Jan 31, 2017
Originally published on February 1, 2017 7:25 am

Breaking news is everywhere, 24 hours a day. And now, it's made its way into an art gallery as well — in an exhibit called "Breaking News: Turning the Lens on Mass Media." In Los Angeles, a Getty Museum show examines artists' reactions to mass media in decades past.

The exhibit includes more than 200 photos and videos, from 17 different artists. They're not photojournalists — these artists take the work of photojournalists, and turn it into something else.

They appropriate images of terrorism, war, natural disasters. For two of the artists, the Vietnam War is a major theme; They lifted deeply disturbing images from magazines, newspapers, TV screens, and collaged or manipulated them to reflect their horror at the war. (Caution: As you scroll down further, you'll come to some of those disturbing images.)

Martha Rosler clipped a Life magazine color photograph of a handsome 1960s living room, and on top of it, pasted a shot of a devastated, Vietnamese man carrying his blood-spattered child. The sobering juxtaposition brings the war into the American living room.

"Often these images from Vietnam were appearing in the exact same issues as these interior scenes," explains Arpad Kovacs, who curated the show.

A reader could easily flip through the magazine and miss one or the other. But the artist intervenes. "What it does is it makes America confront two different realities. ..." says Kovacs. "It's very political, it's very aggressive. But it's meant to be. You know, a lot of these pictures initially circulated in underground magazines. These are pictures that are not on the fence. They really stake a claim and stand for something."

Rosler was a student of John Baldessari — the 85-year-old artist is an iconic figure in the Los Angeles art world, with works in major American museums. He, too, manipulates photographs, adding text, and lettering. He once had students in his Conceptual Art class react to undated, uncaptioned news photos he pinned to a bulletin board. In one news picture, a uniformed man kneels, bending his face to the ground. He could be kissing the ground, or smelling the grass.

"You don't know," Baldessari says. Which is exactly the artist's point — he wanted his students to ponder what was going on in the photo.

Meaning is slippery, Baldessari says.

There's clear meaning, though, in the newspaper photographs Donald Blumberg uses in his art. During the Vietnam years, he had a photo show at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Police occupied the campus during an anti-war student protest. A flying wedge of cops ran by, chasing the students.

"They were trapped in the stairwell of the campus and beaten with clubs," Blumberg says. And for him, that was the last straw "in thinking I was going to be a decorative, fine art photographer, doing beautiful photographs for people to look at."

He started clipping news photographs that captured the disaster in Vietnam. He enlarged, and then photographed page one of the New York Daily News — a photo of the massacre in the town of My Lai, with the headline, "GI Shot Child, Walked Away." Another headline reads "Grenade Is Cut From Prisoner's Face," with the X-ray of that face, and the lieutenant who dug out the live grenade with his pocket knife. Around each story, Blumberg shows a thick dark black frame — the black is in memoriam, like the black ribbon worn after a death in the family.

"I like to be as political as I can," Blumberg says. "One of the ways of being political is through my photography."

Every day we are bombarded by photographs — more images than we can possibly absorb. For Donald Blumberg and other photographers in this exhibition the magic of still photography is that it stops time. It gives viewers the chance to really look and think about what's happening in our world.

"I think good art is always about something difficult. Art is more than a pretty picture," Kovacs says. "Good art is about sort of challenging the status quo and making a statement."

Through their photographs, these artists are bearing witness for future generations — those who weren't there when the news actually broke.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The images that often come from breaking news can be dramatic or brutal or upsetting. And that has provided inspiration for art. In Los Angeles, an exhibit at the Getty Center looks at artists' reactions to mass media, what they saw day after day in decades past. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: It's a big show - more than 200 photos and videos, 17 artists. They're not photo journalists. They take the actual work of photo journalists and turn it into something else. They use news images of terrorism, Hurricane Katrina, the death of a pope. The war in Vietnam is a major theme for two of the artists horrified by that war assaulting them through the mass media of the day. They lifted pictures from magazines, newspapers, TV screens and collaged or manipulated them to reflect their horror.

The original news images are deeply disturbing. The artists' use of them amplifies the disturbance. Martha Rosler took a Life magazine picture of a handsome 1960s living room and on the living room stairs pasted a clipping of a devastated Vietnamese man carrying his blood spattered child. A sobering juxtaposition, the war in our living room.

ARPAD KOVACS: Often these images from Vietnam were appearing in the exact same issue as these interior scenes.

STAMBERG: A reader could easily flip through the magazine and miss one or the other, but the artist intervenes.

KOVACS: What it does is it makes America confront two different realities.

STAMBERG: Arpad Kovacs curated the Getty show.

This is not very subtle, though, is it? It's really political and quite focused.

KOVACS: It's very political, it's very aggressive. But it's meant to be. You know, a lot of these pictures actually initially circulated in underground magazines. These are pictures that are not on the fence. They really stake a claim and stand for something.

STAMBERG: Martha Rosler was a student of John Baldessari. The 85-year-old artist is an iconic figure in the LA art world with works in major American museums. He too manipulates photographs, adding text and lettering. He once had students in his conceptual art class react to undated, uncaptioned news photos he pinned to a bulletin board. Baldessari pauses at one of them in the Getty show.

Look, there's a man bending down and it looks like he's kissing - I can't tell. Is he kissing the ground or...

JOHN BALDESSARI: Well, you don't know that. You're just making that up.

STAMBERG: Which is exactly Baldessari's point, just what he wanted his students to do.

BALDESSARI: That's the way you're reading it.

STAMBERG: He could simply be bending to smell the ground, the artist says, or the grass.

BALDESSARI: You don't know that.

STAMBERG: But I like that I can wonder about it. And I can make up some story around it. I like that.

BALDESSARI: Sure, sure.

STAMBERG: Meaning is slippery, Baldessari says, although there is clear meaning in the newspaper photographs Donald Blumberg works with. In the Vietnam years, he had a photo show at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Police occupied the campus during an anti-war student protest. A flying wedge of cops ran by chasing the students.

DONALD BLUMBERG: They were trapped in the stairwell of the campus and beaten with clubs. That was the last draw in thinking I was going to be a decorative fine art photographer doing beautiful photographs for people to look at.

STAMBERG: He started clipping news photographs that captured the disaster in Vietnam. He enlarged and then photographed page one of the New York Daily News, a photo of the massacre in the town of My Lai with the big headline, "GI Shot Child, Walked Away." Another headline, "Grenade Is Cut From Prisoner's Face" with the X-ray of that face and the lieutenant who dug out the live grenade with his pocket knife. Around each story, Blumberg shows a thick, dark black frame. The black is in memoriam, like the black ribbon worn after a death in the family.

BLUMBERG: I'd like to be as political as I can. And one of the ways of being political is through my photography.

STAMBERG: We are bombarded with photographs. They come at us from everywhere, so many images - more than we can absorb. For Donald Blumberg and other photographers in this Getty exhibition, "Breaking News: Turning The Lens On Mass Media," the magic of still photography is that it stops time, gives viewers the chance to really look and think about what's happening in our world, our lives.

I must say, as a lover of art, I look at art to get away from the news and to get away from realities and tragedies and war and all of that. Here, they're saying, in your face.

KOVACS: I think good art is always about something difficult.

STAMBERG: Again, curator Arpad Kovacs.

KOVACS: Art is more than a pretty picture. Good art is about sort of challenging the status quo and making a statement.

STAMBERG: Through their photographs, these artists are bearing witness for future generations, those who weren't around when the news actually broke. In Culver City, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.