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Aesthetic Journalism

Thursday, 14. March 2013 | 00:00 (tz: Europe/Amsterdam)

Although some readers might uphold the 20th century definition of aesthetics as concerning subjective forms or 'beauty' enforced by a group of modernist believers, others would rather engage with a more open-ended terminology. Take for example, Alfredo Cramerotti's: 'a process in which we open our sensibility to the diversity of the form of nature (and man-made) environment and convert them to tangible experience.’ So in other words, most anything that is produced nowadays could be considered aesthetics? What is perhaps most engaging is how aesthetics is taken up in journalism, in other words what Cramerotti entitles aesthetic journalism, with his eponymous book.

Cramerotti states that this concept makes possible contributing to knowledge building with a new aesthetic regime, which, in turn, questions the truth-value of a traditional regime. More importantly, it denounces that the system of representation is the same as what it represents as journalism is thought of trying to do -being the same as the facts represented. According to him it involves those artistic activities in the form of investigating social, cultural and political circumstances that take shape in the art context, rather than media.

Besides the overt comparison in Cramerotti’s book ‘Aesthetic Journalism’ of art’s approach to journalism’s tactics, what surfaces is the coinage ‘artistic research’. Gone are the ways and days of emotive, poetic practice or even happenings for that matter, art now residing in tantamount activities of time-consuming and thorough investigation of material and sources beforehand. Ostensibly art practitioners have just as much time on their hands to do research as investigative journalists, and that research is often presented as just that- occasionally mixed in with sources, archival materials and documents. The aesthetic use of journalistic methods is to be seen in the recent exhibitions of artists employing archive and field research, interviewing, survey, documentation style, graphic visualisation, text-based and photo reportage. One of the aims of the book is to draw a parallel between these two fields. ‘The artist-researcher, like the investigative journalist, assumes the role of the narrator and takes responsibility for the facts reported.’

If the art of checking facts has been lost to the subjective then investigative journalism appears much like that of artistic research. ‘Investigative journalism is a form of story-telling; coherence is produced when facts are inserted into a narrative that has a structure familiar to the viewer. When facts are embedded in a coherent narration that appears to be read as authentic, they become plausible and convincing. Journalism is a constructed methodology in which facts are gathered and encoded, in a way so that we understand it as if it were reality itself. Formerly mediated in the world of mass media, from TV, radio and newspapers, it is now ubiquitous. Although one is asked to tell the truth when reporting -as a witness to history making- we now have social media, in the forms of mobile phones, Twittr and Facebook to take account. It is not the expert analyst but the inspired and determined citizen (netizen) who nowadays uploads excerpts, sources and testimonies to the internet, to be shared with the masses, exposing the ‘real’ for what is.

Therefore how can it still be true in this day and age of social media, where news is aggregated from numerous sources, Google determining much of the selection according to popularity, that journalism can be regarded as truth? What Cramerotti successfully does is to dethrone the veracity and objectivity applied to journalism and news reporting. As coherently stated in the book it is no longer the objectivity of the professional journalist at stake here. There really never was ‘truth’ to begin with, as we might have idealistically conceived of it, many moons back.

This book also looks at art as being absorbed by generalist media industry, or journalism becoming a (common) art form. Asserting that art nowadays has taken up the field of journalism in her on-going colonisation of realms outside of art, I infer from Cramerotti’s suggestion that ‘art should enter the expanded field of media culture’ and by this, not remain an autonomous system. The reciprocity between art and journalism is nothing new, ‘literature and artistic experiments have always preceded journalism and pop-culture’. Cramerotti further cites Jonsson (2004) to make a point that the ‘implicit avant-garde film aesthetics influenced TV editing as well as ‘painting on photojournalism, via 19th century realism, establishing the visual pattern for documentary filmmaking.’ 

Although the artist might use similar methodology to that of the journalist, it is also divergent and Cramerotti hereby fulfils one of his aims of the book by questioning whether to still employ fiction as a subversive but meaningful and effective agent of reality. He goes on to explain that with the term aesthetic journalism we make it possible to contribute to building knowledge with the use of a new aesthetic regime, which then raises doubts about the truth-value of traditional regimes. He even goes so far as to state that ‘by questioning the status quo, challenging the aesthetic dogma of what truth (can) look like, aesthetic journalism can possibly tempt mainstream journalism to reconsider its approach.’

I not only doubt whether building a new aesthetic regime as such would be possible let alone suffice, but I also have trouble believing that aesthetic journalism would have such an impact on the media industry. These tactics might be applied to those mass media contexts but what kind of value would be created for mainstream journalism to tease their interest? If aesthetic journalism really wanted to break out of its chains and into the larger sphere to do some real damage then it might want to reconsider its usage as an art world coinage.

Although the book clearly maps out the what, when, how, who and why of aesthetic journalism I still have the most difficulty with the ‘where’. In reference to the viewer the book stays focused on those examples of art world contexts. In Cramerotti’s thinking, ‘what artists can do better is to construct a self-reflective medium, which ‘coaches’ its viewers to ask relevant questions by themselves, instead of accepting representations as they are proposed’. Do not many contemporary installations attempt to do just that? The point being that art is not about delivering that information (like journalism) but questioning that information.

To summarize, aesthetic journalism does not distance itself much from the notion of investigative journalism-given that objectivity is not a measurable feature. It can be considered to employ fiction as a subversive but meaningful and effective agent of reality, emphasing in the words of Rancière, more the 'effect produced' than the 'facts to be understood'. And the task of the artist is not to answer, but rather to inquire.

‘In the end the ability to imagine is closely connected with the possibility of change and this is the potential residing in all forms of cultural production.’ It’s not just investigative or embedded journalists conveying news. News has become the art of ‘news-making’, and as we say here at n.e.w.s., it’s the newsworthiness that brings it into the spotlight of attention. It’s not only in the world of art and aesthetic journalism where we should be asking questions but in our daily encounters with ‘news’ (pun intended) from whatever source.