We Need Murrow

    Ever heard of Edward R. Murrow? He’s a legend in journalism who gained notoriety reporting out of London during the German Blitz in World War II.   He had a habit of taking radio microphones to the tops of buildings to record the sounds of bombs dropping. As the war ended, Murrow was also one of the first to cover the liberation of German concentration camps. When he got back to the states, Murrow was an avid proponent of television as a tool with great potential for education, and was a strong proponent for non-profit news programs. Today, he’s largely remembered for his direct opposition of Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare.

    For those who don’t know, the Red Scare was nation-wide paranoia of alleged Communist infiltration and subversion by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Americans were told Soviet agents could be lurking everywhere, undercover as your neighbors, co workers, government employees, and even family members. Everyone was a threat, and it was your responsibility as a citizen to report any and all “suspicious activity” because the fate of the free world depended on it.

    Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy was the face of this paranoia and it bolstered his career by making wild, largely unsupported accusations of communists within the government and the entertainment industry. Those who opposed his aggressive methods were usually labelled as communists themselves, largely silencing opposition and often ruining lives in the process.

    Murrow saw it as his duty as a journalist to counter the senator’s campaign of fear. Along with his team of reporters, Murrow assembled a series of broadcasts to expose the belligerent, hypocritical nature of McCarthy’s witch hunts.

 

 

I find those old reels as relevant now as they ever were. The current political climate is the most sinister, brutal, and ugly I have ever known. Truth and integrity don’t seem to apply anymore in an age of “alternative” facts.

I feel that, right now, we need Murrow more than ever. But we don’t have Murrow. He passed away decades before I was even born. He never got to see a world where barriers to publishing are almost non-existent and content can be instantly delivered to devices the public can carry in their pockets. We can never know how he would have reacted in the face of the Far-Right wave that has swept into Washington. We cannot say how he would have reacted to the ever-increasing commodification of news. We will never know how he would have challenged a political regime to which objective facts are completely meaningless, and complete fabrication is a daily occurrence.

All any of us can do is try to learn from Murrow’s legacy. He taught us that knowledge and friendship cannot be restricted by border walls. He charged that it is one’s duty as a citizen to be informed.   Murrow taught us that hyperbole is a tool of fear-mongering and holds no place in reporting, and every legitimate reporter must use the power of journalism in the defense of truth and liberty.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of the days to come. For all of my life, I had liked to imagine I would be able to stand in defiance of oppression. It was an easy fantasy to maintain, for I quietly believed previous generations had left no dragons to slay. I suspect it’s that complacency that has allowed those beasts to return—not at our gates, but in our walls. All I can do, all any of us can do, is use what tools we have to fight for what we know is right.

What comes now will not be easy or glamorous, but it will be necessary. We are going to have to stay vigilant on the local stages of government as well as the national, calling out misuse of power and standing against it. That means seeking out news beyond one’s social media feed, corroborating information, being in touch with government, protesting, and above all, voting.

We can take some comfort knowing history favors progress and those who abuse power may have that power stripped from them. We all have a long fight ahead of us, but it is one I believe we can win.

 

 

Can Photography be Art?

            Recently, Guardian reporter Jonathan Jones wrote a scathing, almost bitter piece on the $6.5m sale of Peter Lik’s photo Phantom to a private collector. ”Photography is not art,” Jones said. “It is a technology. We have no excuse to ignore this obvious fact in the age of digital cameras, when the most beguiling high-definition images and effects are available to millions.” 

Peter Lik's 'Phantom.'

Peter Lik’s ‘Phantom.’

            Now, as someone who has devoted the majority of his life to photography, one would assume that my immediate reaction would be to take Mr. Jones to task over his flagrant dismissal of the thing I love, but I’ve spent no small amount of time questioning the eligibility of photography as art. I would look at my friends who could draw, sculpt or write fiction and envy them. With a few simple tools; paper, a pen, paint, they could create a limitless connection from their imaginations into the material world. Meanwhile I, with my literal thousands of dollars of equipment, could only document what was already there. I felt like a thief, stealing the beauty of models, the wonder of nature, the complexity of the human condition, trapping it in my tiny box and calling it my own. I’ve spent years trying to reconcile where my attempts to capture the world around me ended and my own ability to create began. I could have just compared my work to a dictionary definition of the term “art,” but I find arguments based solely on semantics to be shallow, bordering on empty. So, I took it upon myself to start exploring for an answer.  Now, I have come to an answer that I have accepted as satisfactory, but, in order to truly convey that answer, I am going to need to retrace my steps.

            If photography can’t hold status as art, what else can’t? According to an excellent essay written by renowned film

Screenshot from Capcom's 'Okami.'

Screenshot from Capcom’s ‘Okami.’

critic Roger Ebert, video games cannot be art. The crux of his argument is that video games have both rules and a “win state,” meaning that they aren’t art in the same way that a game of chess or football can’t be considered art. But this never quite settled with me. What about the breathtaking visuals of Okami? What about that creeping realization that you, the player, are becoming more of a monster than the giants you slay in Shadow of the Colossus?  And I can’t recall a single film that made me care about its characters and break my heart as much as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask .That game showed me a world of people whose lives were being torn apart by an apocalyptic threat they could all see but do nothing to prevent. I wasn’t playing to win, I kept going because I genuinely wanted to take care of these characters.  I believe that writer Jerry Holkins put it best when he responded, “If a hundred artists create art for five years, how can the result not be art?”

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            Now, Holkins is famous for writing comics, a medium consisting almost entirely of illustration and writing, two of the most universally accepted forms of art, and therefore would be an artist himself. But, the legendary Rube Goldberg, a comic creator himself, derided the medium saying, “Comics aren’t art, they’re vaudeville!” He said this to Will Eisner, a creator whose work was so prolific and powerful that the industry named its most prestigious award after him. Goldberg said this at the emergence of the medium that would give us the story of intergenerational trauma that is Maus, the cross cultural breakthrough of Persepolis, and the beautiful, heartbreaking tapestry of Sandman. But still, we’ll take Goldberg at his word and rule that comics aren’t art.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

Marcel DuChamp’s ‘Fountain.’

            To bring things full circle, there are works that I, myself, have deemed unfit of the title of “Art,” the most immediate example being Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a piece that is literally nothing but a urinal with a signature. It sounded more like a teenager’s attempt to get out of actually working than a widely recognized and celebrated work of art. But the kicker is, the Fountain’s designer did too. See, Duchamp was at the forefront of a movement called Dada whose main tenet was absurdity for or the sake of undoing the status quo. Dada was, in the eyes of its idealists, anti-art


            If all of this seems like a confusing mess, that’s only because it is. The more we try to define art, the more the creative community will fight to transcend that definition, because that’s what art does. And on the way to achieving that, it will either ignore its detractors or make it a mission to prove those detractors wrong entirely. Art is, in a sense, everywhere and can be anything.

           Art and culture serve as mirrors facing each other, and whether intentional or not, dismissing something as “not art” is to dismiss that culture. When someone refers to Electonica as “noise” instead of “music” is, on some level, saying that they can’t stand those damn kids and their raves and their strange outfits. If Phantom isn’t art, then the photographers, whom Jones perceives as doing nothing but showing up and pressing a button, can never be artists. When someone scoffs and decries work as not being art, they are trying to dismiss the existing or emerging culture surrounding it, so that their own views may remain unchallenged.

        This mentality isn’t just some intergenerational quirk; it can have very real, very harmful consequences. In the 2012 documentary Revisionaries, the predominantly white, conservative Texas Board of Education struck a reference to Hip hop from a history text book and replaced it with Country-western music. Here, we see an attempt to literally erase black influence from history, sending the message to children that urban and black culture does not even merit considering. They consider an alternative culture as “others” and therefore beneath their consideration.

        It is still possible to address shortcoming of a work while still validating its creator. Instead of asking ourselves about the validity of a work’s status as art, the more constructive question is, “is it good art?” While this question is every bit as subjective as asking if something can be art, it both not only acknowledges that subjectivity, but forces us to think about why the subject in question deserves status as high or low art.

            Ultimately, whatever detractors might say to discourage art, they can never take away the impact a work may have

Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother.'

Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother.’

had on its audience. Those feelings of excitement, empathy, tragedy, and beauty will always stay with you because that’s what art is. Jones’ claims that photography is more technology than voice or creativity will never be able to lessen the emotional impact left by iconic pieces like Migrant Mother or Napalm Girl.  He can’t make the work of Jerry Uelsmann or Margaret Bourke-White any less stunning. And clearly, Jones’ remarks weren’t  enough to stop someone from seeing over six million dollars of value in an image.

            I know we want to defend the things that we’re passionate about, but we need to remember that they don’t always need defending. The detractors are only hurting themselves limiting what they will allow themselves to experience. For all the vitriol artists face, their work lives on, their voice immortalized. And we, the artists can take comfort that art is all of its forms will always find a way.