Museum-Quality Journalism? The Observer’s Editor Weighs in on ‘The Last Newspaper’

On the fourth floor of “The Last Newspaper,” the New Museum’s tribute and elegy to the news business, old papers are stacked into a corner and bound with string. The piles, by artist Robert Gober, are made to resemble bundles headed to recycling. The New York Times is represented, as, I thought, was The Observer.

Bending down to make sure, I lifted one pink corner of one page of the newspaper I edit. “Do not touch!” The hipster guard swooped down on me. “This is an extremely valuable piece of art. It is like touching a MONET!”

So this is what print journalism has come to–a museum curio that just might crumble without extraordinary care. While a lot has been written about the end of newspapers,  and the digital tablets that will replace them, this exhibit is, as far as I can tell, the first from a major museum looking at modern newspapers in retrospective.

Except that it’s not. As provocative as the title is–and as defensive as it made me and my journalist wife feel as we stepped inside–“The Last Newspaper” isn’t about that. In fact, the problem with the exhibit is in determining precisely what it is trying to say. While we both left relieved that the curators hadn’t found enough material to nail down their premise, the exhibit suffers from a randomness that reminded me of a bad small-town daily, a mixing of spaghetti dinners and Eagle Scout announcements I do my best to avoid. (By the way, I’m sorry I touched the artwork. “First time at a museum?” one of my colleagues later asked.)

Dash Snow does us the favor of splattering semen on the images, then dusting that with glitter.

Which is not to say there aren’t some intriguing ideas at play here. One recurring theme is the packaging of news and how that affects our experience of it. At the entrance to the exhibit, visitors are encouraged to cut and paste the day’s newspapers together, leading  to some compelling mash-ups (a headline from the Afghan war, for instance, slapped over a story about the weekend box office results).

Francois Bucher, in a piece called Forever Live, lays out the front pages of four British newspapers to show how differently each of them handled a U.K. espionage story. The placement and size of the photographs, the kind of pictures used and the location of the story on the page produces dramatically different narratives. While those of us in the news game know this instinctively, seeing the results splayed out gives me new empathy for subjects who complain that photos and headlines conspired to make them look bad.

In a similar approach, a piece by Pierre Bismuth remakes the front pages of U.K. newspapers (which are disproportionately represented here) to simply repeat the main photo on the page, so that it runs twice. The work effectively shows how a single change in packaging the news can entirely alter how we view an event.

Other works are more forceful in their commentary. On the top floor of the exhibit, Thomas Hirschhorn fits mannequins in dresses made of news photographs on a single theme. The work is riveting; the juxtaposition of the fashion world and, say, the Gitmo detainees or murder victims captured my own queasiness in reading the Sunday Times some weeks. The contrast between the real world and Madison Avenue’s version of it can often feel uncomfortably jarring.

Dash Snow, as was his wont, produces the most provocative piece of the exhibit–a series of New York Post front pages about Saddam Hussein, including his capture and beheading. Mr. Snow does us the favor of splattering semen on the images, then dusting that with glitter.

Much else about the exhibit seemed off-point. There was, for instance, an installation of video screens showing weather reports and forecasts from other cities, which succeeded in telling me nothing. Similarly, Hans Haacke installed a printer that unspooled news from the world’s wire services; spent paper piled up behind the machine. While the piece had nostalgia value for me–my first job at The Wall Street Journal was to stand next to those printers, read the wire reports and pass the newsiest ones around to my colleagues–I’m clearly a niche audience. (Unfortunately, I visited on a Sunday, and missed Eating the Wall Street Journal by performance artist William Pope.L, no relation. Apparently the work features actors in Barack Obama masks lingering among the patrons and eating copies of the financial daily.)

While some of the works here certainly have something to say, it remained unclear to me why they were in this particular exhibit and how they fit in with the rest of the pieces. Political commentary mixed with nostalgia mixed with the digital future.

To add some interactivity to the exhibit, the museum commissioned a series of free newspapers, produced in the exhibit space and distributed as amped-up guides. Seeing the young staffers at their quaint little desks churning out their little stories-as-art had the same effect on me as the pile of newspapers I dared to finger at the beginning. Is my industry really that far gone?

Downstairs in the lobby, I flipped through the free paper, which had the wry title “The Last Post.” The stories included an interview with the curators of the exhibit and a filmmaker’s take on the woes of the Los Angeles Times. I set the paper down and looked at my fingers, blackened by the ink. I had to smile.

  Museum-Quality Journalism? The Observer’s Editor Weighs in on ‘The Last Newspaper’