How artists have wrestled with nonstop news

April 11, 2017 at 6:10 PM EDT
An exhibit at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles takes an artistic route when it comes to covering the news. “Breaking News” takes audiences to a time back before the Internet, often featuring artists who sought political as well as aesthetic expression. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: A museum exhibition explores a different way of covering the news through art.

Jeffrey Brown is back with the story from a recent trip to Los Angeles.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-four-hour news channels, digital news feeds, the latest tweet, it’s the now-familiar, nonstop, sometimes overwhelming world of news and information we live in.

But that sense of news bombardment isn’t really new, and an exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles shows how artists have often commented on, wrestled and played with it.

Curator Arpad Kovacs:

ARPAD KOVACS, Curator, J. Paul Getty Museum: Most of us just don’t know how to make sense of it. And I think that’s where artists step in and are able to kind of make something fruitful and sort of thoughtful, and take the images, take the text, take the information as source material to make something that looks critically at the information that we receive every single day.

JEFFREY BROWN: The exhibition, titled Breaking News, takes us to a pre-Internet era, featuring work by artists often seeking political, as well as aesthetic expression.

For Martha Rosler, the starting point was LIFE magazine as a guide to the American psyche. As the Vietnam War raged, the magazine captured the war in photographs. But turn the page to sumptuous home interiors. Rosler put the two together, in one photo, Pat Nixon in the White House, with the image of a war victim over the fireplace.

ARPAD KOVACS: She’s making this juxtaposition, bringing these two disparate images together, in an effort to show how we can sometimes be oblivious to what’s happening in this world.

DONALD BLUMBERG, Artist: This stuff is from ’70-’72.

JEFFREY BROWN: Artist Donald Blumberg also sought to transform a news medium into a work of art, one that says something about the times. He took images from newspaper stories about slain soldiers or war atrocities.

DONALD BLUMBERG: And I re-photographed them, and I wanted to enlarge them to a size that was inescapable for the viewer to pass. And it was intended to be a direct political act against the war in Vietnam. That’s what it was intended to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: By saying, look hard at these photographs that sort of appear.

DONALD BLUMBERG: Look hard. You can’t escape it.

JEFFREY BROWN: He also began photographing his television set, freezing in time major historical events. His first work captured images from the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

DONALD BLUMBERG: It was a way of creating a reportage to photograph off the television and translate it into a mosaic, a mosaic in which a person could look at the whole story and break it up into little fragments, one cell, two cell, horizontally, diagonally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Then there’s a kind of strange news poem created by Omer Fast in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He took single words spoken by CNN anchors and reporters. You will certainly recognize one of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The standard of reporting.

JEFFREY BROWN: To fashion a piece about fear and anxiety.

Robert Heinecken played with news anchors in a different way, as a kind of commodity, in his piece, Case Study in Finding An Appropriate Newswoman.

He used photos of newscasters and combined them into an idealized co-anchor.

ARPAD KOVACS: I think what he was interested in is trying to reveal all of the complex decisions that go into making such a choice that the general public is not aware of.

Here, we have five panels in which he’s reproduced issues of LIFE magazine.

JEFFREY BROWN: For some artists, the subject was what’s left out, what’s not there. Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar created this large-scale five-panel piece with every cover of LIFE magazine. In a kind of “Where’s Waldo?” style, he called it Searching for Africa in Life.

ARPAD KOVACS: When you look at this work, you realize that there are very few instances where the continent of Africa is represented. And in many of those instances, it’s actually rather ambiguous whether the cover pertains to a story that deals with Africa.

JEFFREY BROWN: The news as art, the art of the news. The exhibition Breaking News is at the Getty through April.

From Los Angeles, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for the record, the Getty Foundation helps to underwrite the NewsHour.