It makes one realize the obsessive power of words, the way in which if they are legible, they must be read, and once read can never be unread. For many decades, long before the Internet, newspapers were addictively readable, often a guilty pleasure. They came with habits and rituals as satisfying as the small ceremonies of smoking or mixing a drink. Several works reference the obsessive quality of newspapers, including one of the finest in the show, Laurie Anderson’s 1976 “New York Times, Horizontal/China Times, Vertical” which weaves together two very different front pages, leaving ghostly but still legible echoes of both. “It was a very obsessive meditative & relaxing job trying to keep the strips straight,” Anderson wrote in an e-mail passed on by the National Gallery.
But the power of the word is double-sided, and it seems also to lead to a persistent vein of aggression in many of these works (a catalogue essay by the independent critic Sarah Boxer deftly explores some of this terrain). Words demand to be read, and sometimes we read so avidly we don’t look. It’s a bit like the ubiquitous television in restaurants these days: Once it’s on, conversation stops.
Aggression shows up in multiple ways. John Cage used burning newspaper to create ghostly traces of print on a spare 1986 image called “Eninka 22.” Andy Warhol seems to shoot a newspaper front page (announcing the assassination of John F. Kennedy) with freakishly happy stencil blasts of silver in “Study for Flash — November 22, 1963.” Dieter Roth made sausage out of newspaper in his 1961 “Literaturwurst (Daily Mirror),” using gelatin, spices and sausage casing to create something repellently fecal. Other artists obsessively cut up and reassemble newspapers, like some sadistic exercise in unnecessary surgery.
One wonders, why so much anger? Perhaps because newspapers and artists have been riding the same dangerous currents of Modernity, confronting similar tensions between appealing to public opinion and shaping the world, or standing back and transmitting something like truth. Many of these works are traces of a dream for a power beyond art, and at the same time, they register the corrupting nature of that power. Marinetti dreamed of an audience and an influence that came easily to newspapers in 1908, as would other artists, who dreamed of having a political or social impact on their world.
But they all failed. Art became insular, a pastime for elites, a market game. And newspapers are now being superseded by other media.
“Shock of the News” ends on a bit of a sad note, like an affair gone sour, both parties too old and too isolated to care much about rehearsing the past. Jim Hodges’s “The Good News/Al Arab Al Yawm, 8/6/2008” gilds a Jordanian newspaper with gold, producing a sumptuous but unreadable object, like sacred plates that have lost their text, or the ultimate absurdist extension of meaningless luxury. It seems to announce that the reading is over, the game finished. One can’t even see one’s reflection in the pages. It’s a good note on which to end: Art became all about needless luxury fetish objects, and newspapers ceased to have anything to say.
Shock of the News
Runs Sunday through at Jan. 27 at the National Gallery of Art. East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215. www.nga.gov.