Thereafter, what might seem to be two very different wellsprings of inspiration pretty much merged. Focusing on the materiality of newspaper inevitably raised questions about what those little pieces of paper said, which dragged in the jangling, newsy world of politics and war and celebrity and everything else the newspaper promised its readers on a daily basis. And as artists developed a more conceptual approach to using newspapers — publishing their own absurdist or self-aggrandizing broadsheets, analyzing and dissecting the hidden mythologies of the news business — they often, and perhaps accidentally, made work that is alluring on a purely aesthetic and tactile level.
“Shock of the News” presents a fascinating cross section of the results, from an original copy of Marinetti’s testosterone-soaked manifesto (like something Walt Whitman’s evil twin might have written had he grown up in a Prussian boarding school) to works done in the past five years, as the newspaper business hemorrhaged jobs, profits and confidence. Paul Sietsema’s 2008 “Modernist Struggle” ink and enamel work, a meticulous trompe l’oeil rendering of two pieces of newspaper, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (which includes the headline “Modernists Struggle with Traditionalists Over Guns”), feels autumnal and reflective, an honorific painting that gives the newspaper the same treatment as a Dutch still life or an old family portrait hanging above the mantel. The precision of his image, including the painstakingly realistic rendering of slight creases and curled corners, is wistful, perhaps loving, and the results are such an accurate rendering of banal objects that attention focuses on the small dissonance between use of the singular in Sietsema’s title (“Modernist Struggle”) and the plural in the headline the artist paints (“Modernists Struggle . . . ”).
What is the Modernist Struggle, and why is Sietsema calling our attention to it? Among many other tensions and contradictions, the paradox of modern life includes the way mass culture both empowers and demeans us, invites us into the body politic and nullifies our individuality, educates us and feeds us a steady stream of banality. The spread of newspapers followed and encouraged the spread of literacy, the rise of modern political participation and consumerism. Newspapers moved a great mass of humanity from a world that was small, parochial and ignorant to a world that was big, exciting and idiotic. Loving and hating them is natural, like loving and hating democracy, progress and the automobile.
Here, in a focused, dense and direct way, is the game the brain plays again and again in this show: Words make us precise in our looking, alert to errors, contradictions, ironies. When Picasso introduced a scrap of newspaper into his 1912 work, he cut off the text after the “u” in Le Journal — the fragment suggests “game” and “day” and sex play — inviting other lobes of the brain to an art party. In almost every work on display in the three dense and rewarding rooms of the exhibition, if words are visible, they provide a point of entry for interpretation. Sometimes they are a dead end, but often they are extraordinarily powerful, as in the way a trapezoidal piece of newsprint cuts off the names of young men lost or missing in battle in Hans Richter’s 1943-44 scroll painting “Stalingrad (Victory in the East).”
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.