Journalism and Hans Haacke

What follows is the blurb, Table of Contents and introduction to Chapter 1 of  What is Journalism? the Art and Politics of a Rupture,  published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.

Two articles dealing with a related issue – the characteristics of journalism as a research practice – may be of interest:  Journalism as a research discipline in Pacific Journalism Review, Vol. 19(2) of October 2013 and Research degrees in Journalism: what is an exegesis?  in Pacific Journalism Review, Vol. 20(1) of May 2014.


What is Journalism? the Art and Politics of a Rupture

This is a deeply provocative and original book.  It argues that journalism should treat itself academically as a discipline on a par with history, geography and sociology, and as an art form in its own right.  Time, space, social relations and creative communication are intrinsic to journalism.  Chris Nash takes the major flaws attributed to journalism – a crude empiricism driven by an un-reflexive ‘news sense’, a narrow focus on a de-contextualised, transient present, and a too intimate familiarity with powerful sources – and treats them as methodological challenges.  Drawing on the conceptual frameworks of Gaye Tuchman, Pierre Bourdieu, David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and Sergei Tretiakov, he explores the ways in which rigorous journalism practice can be theorised to meet these challenges.  The argument proceeds through detailed case studies of work by two leading iconoclasts – the artist Hans Haacke and the 20th century journalist I.F. Stone.  It concludes that the academic understanding of journalism is fifty years behind their practice, and it is long past time for scholars and practitioners to think about journalism as a rigorous disciplinary research practice.

  1.   The Case for a Rupture 
  2.   Hans Haacke 
  3.   I.F. Stone 
  4.   Space, Geography and Journalism 
  5.   Time, History and Journalism 
  6.   News Sense, Sources, Sociology and Journalism 
  7.   Art and Journalism 
  8.   Accountability, Silences and Journalism

Hans Haacke is a German-American artist, internationally acclaimed with a long list of works, exhibitions, commissions and publications to his credit.  He was born in 1936 in Köln, Germany, and in 1965 migrated to New York where he has lived ever since.


Haacke’s metier is related to conceptual art.  He was invited by the Guggenheim Museum in New York to stage a one-person show in 1971, a prestigious achievement for an artist barely ten years into his career.  Shortly before the exhibition was due to open, it was cancelled by the Museum Director, Thomas Messer, on the grounds that three of the works produced for the exhibition were not art but “journalism”.  The rejected works included Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 and Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971.  None of Shapolsky, Goldman nor DiLorenzo had any known associations with the Guggenheim Museum.


The curator of the exhibition, Edward F. Fry, himself a well-published authority on cubism and contemporary art, defended Haacke’s work and was sacked by Messer. Fry wrote:  “In his works Haacke has succeeded in changing the relationship between art and reality, and consequently he has also changed our view of the evolution of modern art.” (Fry, 1972)   Fry was never again employed in a major US institution, despite his pre-eminent international reputation. Shapolsky was exhibited in a group show the following year at the University of Rochester and at the 1978 Venice Biennale; it and Sol Goldman were subsequently purchased by the Centre Pompidou and the Tate Gallery respectively.  Haacke had a solo show at The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1986, and other work by him has been exhibited in the US over the years at private galleries, in group shows and at some smaller public institutions, but till 2008 not at the leading US institutions.  Shapolsky was co-purchased with MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporani Barcelona) in 2007 by the Whitney Museum of American Art where it was included in a show of recent purchases the following year.


In the meantime Haacke had been continuously productive and exhibited in leading galleries and events internationally, including Documenta and the Venice Biennale.   He was invited by the newly re-united Germany to occupy the country’s pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale, where he and fellow exhibitor German-Korean artist Nam June Paik were awarded the ‘Golden Lion’  prize for the best pavilion of that year.  In 2000 he was controversially commissioned by the German Bundestag to produce the work DER BEVÖLKERUNG for the renovated and reoccupied Reichstag building in Berlin, and in 2012 invited to produce a new work and stage a major retrospective by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.  This last was titled Castles in the Air, and concerned the contemporary burst real estate bubble and impact of the global financial crisis in Spain; the retrospective included the Sol Goldman piece excluded from the Guggenheim forty-one years earlier.   His work has been conceptually rigorous, politically engaged and controversial throughout.


So the jury of his peers, major galleries, leading scholars and critics internationally, contra Thomas Messer, has judged that Haacke’s work is certainly art, and that he is one of the major artists internationally of the last half-century.  But we cannot let Messer go so lightly, and have to ask – is it also journalism?  And if so, what is journalism?  This book addresses these two questions.  Its short answer to the first is Yes, which opens up the much more interesting questions of what sort of art is journalism, and inversely what sort of journalism is art, and what do the two have to offer each other?


Perhaps unsurprisingly, Messer’s challenge has been taken up only on the art side of the query, and not the journalism side.

As young Roy Lichtenstein put the case in a famous interview, the problem for a hopeful scene-making artist in the early sixties was how best to be disagreeable.  What he needed was to find a body of subject matter sufficiently odious to offend even lovers of art.  And as everyone knows, Lichtenstein opted for the vulgarity of comic book images.  Here’s what he said to Gene Svenson in November 1963:

It was hard to get a painting that was despicable enough so that no one would hang it – everybody was hanging everything.  It was almost acceptable to hang a dripping paint rag, everyone was accustomed to this.  The thing everyone hated was commercial art; apparently they didn’t hate that enough either.

….[J]ust eight years later, success came to Hans Haacke, who, upon invitation, produced three unacceptable pieces, which the Guggenheim Museum refused to install.

(Steinberg, 1987: 8)


What was it about a meticulously researched, neutrally presented set of publicly available information about two large landlords’ real estate holdings that could not be hung on the walls of the Guggenheim?  More broadly, if anything from Duchamp’s urinal to Lichtenstein’s paint rag could be art, why couldn’t journalism?  Is journalism ‘sufficiently odious’ not to be art?


Haacke’s published supporters among fellow artists, critics, scholars and curators have not engaged with the journalism side of the equation since 1971.  They have explored, analysed and praised the implications of his work for art as such, while in full measure his detractors have damned it for the same, but for all of them journalism has been a known object from which art can and should be distinguished.  In this view, art as such is open, dynamic, fractious and intellectually contestable, whereas journalism as such is closed, static, more or less homogenised and intellectually confined, almost by definition to some minds.


The seed from which this book has sprung germinated on a crisp winter’s day in New York City, early in 2008.   My partner and I, both journalists teaching in Australian universities, were on a holiday during which we had been visiting contemporary art exhibitions in Chicago, Pittsburgh and in and around New York, and that morning we walked across Central Park to see what was on at the Whitney.  Coffee in hand, breath fogging before us as we walked, we were discussing conceptual art, and the question arose: if the art of any particular work resided in the concept, then could journalism – as such – be art? and if not, why not?  This was not the same question as whether journalism could be artful, ie aesthetically pleasing, beautifully filmed, literary, etc. or whether it could be about art, but whether it could be art, in the same way as a snow shovel or bottle rack for Duchamp.


We walked into the Whitney galleries, and there on the wall was Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, unanticipated and instantly recognisable to both of us as investigative journalism.  So the answer was clearly yes, and to our abject ignorance had been given almost four decades earlier.  What were the implications of that for journalism?