Comparisons are rarely drawn between the fields of art and journalism. But most of last month’s work on my Knight Challenge project, Virtual Street Corners, was spent networking and conducting research into these areas. Since I will be hiring several citizen journalists, I’ve been reading up on that topic, and thinking about the similarities with the art world, which is something I’m much more familiar with. I’ve been contemplating whether there are lessons that can be transferred from one to the other.

One of the most obvious connections between citizen journalism and community-based artists is the shared desire to create more expansive and inclusive viewpoints than those offered by larger corporate ventures. In going local (and now hyper-local), both these grassroots movements hope to reach a broader range of people by presenting news or art that is more relevant to the lives of their audience.

Creating an Informed Consumer/Participant

Chi-Town Daily News’, a Knight-funded project in Chicago that developed a cadre of citizen reporters, reminded me of Wendy Ewald’s art project where she handed out cameras to untrained artists, often kids, and asked them to take pictures, while also training them in the art of photography.

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Many of the resulting photos were compelling (like the one above), but Ewald put equal value on how the process affected the new artists. That is, tremendous importance was placed on the transformation occurring among the participants, and how their perceptions changed as they analyzed their environment through a lens. This shift was then transferred to family and community.

If we return to the analogy between Ewald and Chi-town’s citizen journalists, it’s clear the Chi-town project is doing much more than gathering news quickly and cheaply. The project cultivates a public which is more educated about, and invested in, the process of journalism, thus increasing their interest in journalism, and their ability to analyze and interpret the news.

I always marvel at how, despite the enormous amount of information at people’s fingertips, we remain so uninformed. A solution requires more than just developing methods to produce better information — it requires better ways for people to digest that information and relate it to their personal experience. Although some worry that the democratization of new media has lowered professional standards, increasing participation by “non-professionals” in the creation of news and art creates a more informed consumer (audience), and a higher demand for what we produce.

Dialogue Instead of Didactic

A similar point is made by Jon Pounds in the latest issue of Public Art Review, where he argues that we need to push art to be more like cooking than science. That is to say, we accept that many of us can dabble with and experiment with cooking, while still understanding a need for high quality chefs and food experts. They don’t have to be at odds.

It seems to me that the relatively recent activity in the blogosphere, on Twitter and in other forums for non-journalists to delve into the journalistic realm causes us to now ask how journalism is defined. “What is journalism?” This similar tension between fine art and community art is not new. The question, “What is art?” is clichĂ©. But like the new media journalist of today, community artists now believe that we can best reach our audience when we engage in dialogue instead of didactic.

It is for similar reasons that many community-based artists choose to show in public or alternative spaces. While at first it seems that museums and galleries serve the purpose of promoting the importance of art, the flip side is that these institutions help establish a separation between art and daily life. It’s a type of ghettoization, if you will, that prevents a majority of the population from experiencing the work. With the purpose of overcoming that division, many community-based or “socially engaged artists” have adopted an approach of either merging their practice with other fields, or disguising their arts identity altogether. I think my foray into journalism/art with Virtual Street Corners harnesses that strategy.