With journalism in the midst of a reinvention, there’s no shortage of opinions as to which content or practitioners will carry the flag forward. We’ve read enough about whether data is journalism, and we can fill a book with opinions on bloggers and whether what they do is journalism or not.
But here’s another question: Regardless of what you’re doing — writing, coding, designing — is it worthy of being called art?
On a recent trip to New York, we stopped in Mountainville to tour the Storm King Art Center. It’s a 500-acre sculpture museum with works by Maya Lin, Andy Goldsworthy and others who take simple elements and arrange them in fresh, surprising ways. We toured the fields, and we saw stone, glass, metal and earth all crafted into surprising shapes. The place is massive and so are the works. For example (click for full size):
Beethoven’s Quartet (front) and Pyramidian by Mark di Suvero:
Frogs Legs, also by di Suvero:
If art is “the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions,” the works at Storm King more than qualify. As we happened upon the pieces, each prompted a reaction. It wasn’t just the pieces themselves but the way Storm King’s curators had them arrayed around the site’s expansive hills and fields.
In the old days, in the newsroom, we used to talk about stories or pages that evoked a reaction. We called them “Hey, Martha!” stories. As in, “Hey, Martha! You have to read this!” Something about the craft or the news or the combination hit the senses.
There’s still no shortage of news. But combined with craft? In the context of faster, nimbler, smaller and less expensive, some of the craft that got many of us into this business — working with words or images in an artistic way — seems harder to find. But when a piece of journalism actually is artfully done, it jumps out from the mass of the day’s information.
The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in the sturdy wooden armchair that barely contained him, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. In the first pew of spectators sat his wife, looking stricken, absently twisting her wedding band. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept. He was virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment. He would not speak at all for the longest time, not until the nurse sank down beside him and held his hand. It was only then that the patient began to open up, and what he said was that he didn’t want any sedation, that he didn’t deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all, and then to die.
Every word of that story grabbed me — not only because I knew of the case but because Weingarten told it masterfully. As a parent, I could feel this family’s pain and horror deep in my own gut.
Recently, I wrote that unique content is a journalism organization’s most valuable currency and that quality builds uniqueness. Arguing over whether a blog is journalism or not misses the point. We need instead to pursue quality. So, if you participate in the act of creation as a journalist — as a writer, reporter, editor, coder, photographer, designer, videographer, audio producer — ask yourself this about your work:
- Is it thoughtfully arranged?
- Does it display mastery of the form?
- Does it appeal to the senses?
- Does it communicate well?
- Will it evoke a response?
In other words, is it art? Those questions aren’t limited to paintings in a museum or metal structures in a field.