Press Dan Bishoff

“Princeton exhibit takes on what passes for journalism in today’s world “

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It is the mission of the Bernstein Gallery to mount art exhibitions that deal with public policy — the sort of exhibitions that often get their organizers into trouble elsewhere. Bisecting the first floor of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs, the gallery is showing work by Marcia Annenberg titled “News/Not News” through mid-February. 

While some Bernstein Gallery exhibitions have sparked deep controversy — what gallery director Kate Somers calls “near-catastrophes,” often dealing, of course, with the Middle East — “News/Not News” isn’t likely to do that. And not because of any flaw in Annenberg’s work. The chief theme of “News/Not News,” the draining away of authority and seriousness from contemporary American journalism, is something everybody agrees about. 

What really gets people mad about the news media is the question of why that is happening and who is responsible, themes Annenberg addresses mostly by inference.

Annenberg, who lives and works in New York (she’s a distant cousin to the clan that lent their name to two schools of journalism, one at Penn State and the other at the University of Southern California), paints with a candy-colored Pop palette. She often uses bright primary colors and simple line drawings, like those in a cartoon or a how-to diagram (we’ve compared her in the past to early R.B. Kitaj or Ida Applebroog, but there’s a bit of Chris Ware there, too). 

“Great American News” (2001) lays out her leitmotif. A blonde news anchor flanked by theatrical masks for comedy and drama, and floating over the disembodied elements of the Stars and Stripes, announces “NEWS.” At the bottom register of the picture are the jumbled elements of James Rosenquist’s famous Pop protest painting, “F-111” — a light bulb, a generic consumer package, soda can, car, a handgun and the fuselage of an American jet. 

Many of her pictures reference earlier American art in just that way. “Home on the Range” shows a husband and wife, based on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” watching TV; “Dusk, Railroad” appropriates the station tower from Edward Hopper’s “Railroad Sunset” but with the iconic entranceway to Birkenau at the end of the converging rail lines in the distance. “Yankee Doodle Went to Town” (2004) borrows its shape from American Pop artist Tom Wesselman, replacing Abe Lincoln with two oil roustabouts in hard hats, the flag-striped lower half emblazoned with a partially spelled out “Halliburton” (a reference to the firm’s no-bid contracts during the “War on Terror”). 

The breezy pop execution, all bright colors and simple forms, plays with the essential contrast between American commercial design and a more dire realism. Corporate corruption and militarism are being air-brushed from our consciousness by entertainment. Several canvasses, like “Yankee Doodle,” are festooned with red, yellow, and blue circles borrowed from the package art on Wonder Bread.

And there’s the culprit. “I once spoke to a producer for NBC, who said all their surveys told them that entertainment is what the people want,” Annenberg says. 

Any commercial mass-audience media property has to try to reach the broadest possible audience. And “news,” at whatever generation you peg its best practice, is really what most people decide it is: What gets read, what gets the most eyes. That’s what advertisers are buying. It’s Pop where, to paraphrase Devo, newspapers that die of a broken heart can get reborn as works of art — Pop art was born in the design departments of New York City magazines and ad companies and fashion design and comic book sweatshops. Just look at the pedigrees of Warhol, Thiebaud, Johns and Rauschenberg and so many more.

In her later installations, Annenberg has an even more, well, journalistic visual style. In “No News Is Good News,” She hangs reproductions of eight major newspaper front pages from the day President Obama signed the latest National Defense Appropriations Act behind a gauze curtain. Only one, the Dallas Morning News, carries a front page headline; the New York Times and the Washington Post blurb stories inside. Everywhere else there are local sports team triumphs, public corruption scandals, new recreation attractions opening up — the day-to-day hum of daily journalism. 

Annenberg’s point, included in the explanatory panel, is that this NDAA included extensions of military authority to search and seizure of civilian property in terror-related cases. A shaving of a fundamental right, something the founders loudly patted themselves on the back for thinking about in their regulation of standing armies. 

But, however outrageous you may think it was, last year’s NDAA probably wasn’t the best way to sell metropolitan newspapers in the 21st century. Few people knew what it was, or what was in it; fewer cared. It wasn’t Pop.

Other stories, like the John Bobbitt case from the 1990s, the subject of another painting by Annenberg, are absolutely Pop, for a whole combination of reasons having to do with individual desire, fear, psychological interest, whatever. That such personal stories matter more to readers than broader threats to the whole polity is the fundamental challenge of competitive journalism. But it’s also true that people would spend a lot of time talking and thinking about a story like John Bobbitt’s, which really cut through the clutter, even if there were a war on.

“The People Are Stupid” isn’t a deceptive slogan of either the Right or the Left. It’s a business plan.