Conflating Art and Journalism Is Bad For Both
September 07, 2016
So a weird thing about making money writing words and making money doing art and sometimes making money writing code is that people really want to define what it is you do, exactly. This becomes especially important when people are, for example, a publisher who needs to see your book or a radio show that is having you on to talk about your book.
And one of the words those people decide to use is “journalist” and when you hear those words your internal organs start to collapse and maybe you want to have a nervous breakdown. For reasons. And you ask them not to use it and they use it anyway.
That being said: I have had bylines in real publications! Writing things that involve actual facts and not just opines about things in the world (OK sometimes opines too though). I interview people, I transcribe interviews, I file records requests, and I fact-check with sources before going to publish things. That all sounds like journalism, Ingrid. Why can’t you be an artist and journalist?
This isn’t a blog post about my extremely goth tortured relationship to why I can’t ever be a Real Journalist (TLDR: imagine how you’d feel about being adequate enough to be a journalist when your role model for journalism is your dead father who covered Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination). This is about the blurring of art and journalism as a consequence of late capitalism and the attention economy, and why that’s worrying. I don’t think that it’s bad to do art and do journalism, I just think it’s important to have clear boundaries between art and journalism, and in a moment where basically all forms of self expression (be they art, journalism, or tweets) are boiled down to interchangeable commodities, it’s really easy to ignore those boundaries, and that’s bad for both art and journalism.
ALthough, this is based on a very specific (and, probably, naively antiquated) idea of what constitutes “journalism” and what constitutes “art.” Journalism is a field that, as far as I understand it, is defined really strongly by its mandate to serve a “public interest” (which can mean a lot of things) and by an assumed code of ethics. It’s not really a Hippocratic Oath-type code. Guidelines and codes of ethics for journalism are mostly defined and published by professional associations and can vary from institution to institution.
Here’s one from The Society of Professional Journalists. A quick glimpse through this list is basically a sample of positions that, in contemporary art, would effectively be “conversation topics” or “just your opinion.” For example:
Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. (This exhibition brought to you by Credit Suisse…)
Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear. (The art world’s kind of getting better about this, kind of, but I invite you to look at the most recent Whitney Biennial and Joe Scanlan’s both insulting and embarrassing work to consider how that tends to get fraught real fast because institutional legacy.)
Never plagiarize. Always attribute. (so let’s talk about the history of appropriation…)
OK, there’s a whole section called “Minimize Harm” here, I don’t know if I need to belabor my point. This obviously gets way more fraught and weird with art that looks at pointed political issues and especially art that enteres into the weird blurry space of computers and things. People who do ethically questionable things as journalists have historically been excoriated and tend to lose their jobs. People who do ethically questionable things as artists tend to like, keynote fairly high-profile art and technology conferences in mid-sized Midwestern cities (ahem, ahem). So who sits between those worlds and how, exactly, does that work?
The people who I see do it well tend to have clear parameters. Molly Crabapple as painter with exhibitions produces very different work from Molly Crabapple who spends months reporting in conflict zones. And I am not saying that people who work in the ethically ambiguous space of art can’t work in the ethically non-ambiguous space of journalism. What has me kind of anxious are two things I see happening: the in-housing of artists in news environments with vague definitions of roles and expectations, and the classism implicit in labeling an artist who works with certain privileged political topics a “journalist artist”–as opposed to those dilettantish “activist artists” who, say, spend time with grassroots organizations or raise up the work of marginalized communities or address topics that don’t attract white hacker boys. Both of these topics probably merit their own write-ups, so I’m going to focus more on the emerging thread that makes these two things that worry me possible.
Maybe one one reason for the conflating and collapsing of art and journalism into each other is just an aftereffect of the fact that the tools digital artists employ don’t look all that different from the tools employed by digital artists (a D3 visualization on the ProPublica website and a D3 visualization by an artist both…look like they were made by Mike Bostock; videos in the Whitney and videos on the New York Times website could have the same production company working on them). But I also think it has to do with the economic model of journalism increasingly resembling the value metrics applied to art–attention and “engagement” rather than, say, public interest or service. So maybe it’s less that I worry about what it is for artists to do journalism as I worry about how an attention economy rewards the worst and most ethically problematic tendencies in both fields.
I’m thinking about the similarity between an egregious art project and an egregious act by a journalist, both of which happened in the past year: artist Dries Depoorter’s Tinder In, in which he found womens’ LinkedIn and Tinder profile pictures and presented them side-by-side as artworks (without permission, naturally), when Nico Hines outed gay Olympians in Rio for a Daily Beast story, potentially risking the lives of Olympians from countries where homosexuality is essentially a crime. Very different contexts, but similar ethical dilemma–using pseudo-public data from social media and placing that data in some context for public viewership, without the individual’s permission.
Depoorter has since apologized and now shows the work with faces blurred–but he’s obviously very cheeky and aggrieved by the kerfuffle, pointing out that he’s included himself in the series so isn’t he, too, under surveillance? But he’s a white male media artist in Europe. He doesn’t owe anyone decency, and I don’t assume as an artist he’s entering into any “do no harm” contract–that art project isn’t bad because he’s acting like a cretin (although I think he is), it’s a bad art project because it’s an insipid premise (surprise, people present themselves differently on different social media platforms, welcome to 2011, buddy).
But Nico Hines does owe the subjects of his reporting basic decency. While the Daily Beast took the story down and the editors issued an apology, Hines himself has yet to issue any public apology. In fact, his online activity has pretty much stopped since the Olympics. If he was fired from his job, it happened quietly–no epic Stephen Glass-style denouncement (although the distinction between the kind of shaming of a journalist fabricating stories versus the shaming of a journalist potentially harming someone’s life with their reporting is itself a pretty interesting thing). In all likelihood, Hines will land on his feet.
In the case of both Hines and Depoorter, both ultimately got a fuck ton of attention for doing ethically questionable things and neither, apparently, faced particularly heavy professional consequences for it. And frankly, in the case of the *Beast it was professional damaging, but ultimately also probably got them a lot of traffic. Those pageviews of the now taken-down story might cover the cost of Hines’ severance package.
(Reminder: this is a blog post where I am speculating about things, please don’t sue me Daily Beast you of all people who know the bloggers vs journalisms dichotomy too well.)
Anyway this was supposed to be a blog post and now it’s a few thousand words, and maybe it’s not clear what my point was. As my very goth backstory suggests, I have a really, really high, arguably romanticized opinion of journalism as a field. I believe that the denigration of journalism is one of the biggest contributing factors to the fucked-up discourse of the present moment–and I consider the denigration of journalism into vacuous attention-economy commodity by people like Jonah Peretti as bad for the field as its denigration into blunt ideological tool by Roger Ailes. Artists who choose to enter into journalistic spaces or take on the badge of journalist have to do so with the understanding that journalism is not in the eye of the beholder or something done merely to provoke. The political choices of journalists need to be held to a higher standard than the political choices of artists, because if the politics of both are merely contingent conversation pieces with no real cost, the work of both (and the human beings and ethical harms potentially implicated in both) become mere fodder for capitalist churn.