The Clickbait Journalism That Went Too Far

The Arts

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Perhaps it started with the Sunday Times. The newspaper’s brilliant Insight team brought genuine scoops from the uncovering of Soviet defector Kim Philly’s role in MI6 to the thalidomide scandal and its links with Haig whisky, who revealed Israel’s secret manufacture of nuclear weapons and, recently, the FIFA cash-for-votes scandal, but after Rupert Murdoch acquired it in 1981 much of the rest of the paper was filled with feature writers, some illustrious, some vacuous.

The firing of highly experienced film critics and other heavyweight arts reviewers, and their replacement with camera-friendly blondes delivering Hello!-style summaries, was a step even TV hadn’t taken (most of the BBC’s arts and history series are presented by their writers). And when the press took on a new form – the online daily – the feature writers turned their pieces into lazy clickbait.

Whatever your politics, both the Telegraph and the Guardian are quality newspapers of high integrity that handled their recent scoops (MPs’ expenses, the NSA) with dignity. But they, too, have fallen for the clickbait deal, the chatter-generating spot that will encourage traffic with a bit of épater le bourgeois opposite-opinion.

Jonathan Jones is no fool. An English journalist and art critic who has written for The Guardian since 1999, he has judged the Turner Prize and written intelligently on art. This week, though, he stopped onto a mine after criticising the 888,246 ceramic poppies deposited in the Tower of London’s moat to mark Remembrance Day, comparing the art to UKIP support.

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The commemorative installation by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper has caught the national imagination and become – to the horror of art critics – popular. Mr Jones would rather see the public flocking to the spindly scribbles of Anselm Kiefer, whose drawings of barns, barbed wire and bodies, he feels, better represent war. But in his criticism Mr Jones entirely fails to understand the mechanics of commemoration.

When Princess Diana died, millions of plastic-wrapped bunches of flowers were placed outside Kensington Palace, the effect of which was trite and tacky – why not take all that plastic off, for a start, and instruct people not to leave teddy bears and boxes of chocolates? The point was that a broad swathe of the population felt included, and the poppy is an inclusive and easily-appreciated symbol of war which does not denigrate the fallen whom it represents. Is his criticism that it’s not high art? (Anselm Kiefer’s pictures aren’t much to write home about). Or that it’s too populist?

If war can touch everyone, shouldn’t its memorials also do so?

No, the problem is that this was the latest example of the Guardian’s increasingly lazy, knee-jerk clickbait feature writing, a result of having to provide 24 hours-worth of words each day. Last week’s article by a female performance artist who ‘married herself’ in a folk ceremony was another instant Guardian classic that bounced around the Twitterverse before vanishing, one hopes, for good. And along came Mr Jones with an article designed to cause outrage among Daily Mail readers for not being austere and unapproachable. (For once, even the Mail was moved to write an intelligent rebuttal to the piece).

I don’t doubt Mr Jones’s integrity (whereas I do many of the Sunday Times critics) but if he thinks this outpouring of crimson from a castle keep known as a symbol of power and war is not moving, he is profoundly mistaken. The effect of the installation is of a tidal wave of blood, a remorseful haemorrhaging of pain that’s a genuinely cathartic image.

Good art does not have to be so cerebral that it cannot be appreciated by the public. Mr Jones knows about art and knows what he likes, and this isn’t it. But having seen his vacuous selections for the now irrelevant and derided Turner Prize, I suggest that the rest of us know what we don’t like. In this case the aesthete should admit his mistake and take note of the populist.

3 comments on “The Clickbait Journalism That Went Too Far”

  1. Slabman says:

    Nobody takes Mr Jones seriously. He knows a little about art but he doesn’t know what he likes. If there’s an ‘r’ in the month he likes Hirst. If not, he likes him not. He praises Emin’s drawing skills – nuff said. However, the following are both true and not exclusive: the poppies are a powerful work of public art, and, Anselm Kiefer is a great painter.

  2. snowy says:

    I noticed there was some kerfuffle about it earlier in the week, but paid it no heed and didn’t read the source article. Until today and it’s a bit of a mish-mash. [I don’t know his stlye well enough to be sure, but it gives the impression of a piece that has been crudely cut for length.]

    It opens with a eye grabbing headline and a one paragraph precis/summary of the article to follow. But beware, these tend to be written not by the author, but by a sub-editor with a brief to ‘sex things up’. A cause of frequent complaint by writers.

    The article proper gets of to a reasonable start with “I accidentally got swept into a tide of humanity at the weekend, or to put it another way, couldn’t move for crowds.” by paragraph three he reveals “… it was humbling to suddenly realise what people in Britain are actually looking at.” In paragraph four; he notes “This is the real thing – popular art.”

    So far so good, the next paragraph has an awkward disjunction, some very lack-lustre research, an ignorance of history, before going completely ‘wibble’ in the last section.

    [Though if I want properly insane art critique, Brian Sewell is hard to top.]

    The seldom montioned story behind the poppies in the moat is that they have raised £15M for service charities to help those injured in modern conflicts.

  3. John Griffin says:

    Gideon Osborne, from his offshore inheritance income, could probably fund Help The Heroes to a similar level over a couple of years. It wouldn’t be needed if
    A the government accepted its responsibility for aftercare of those it sent off to do its dirty work
    B it didn’t send them off in the first place – my eldest spent 18 months as an officer in Afghanistan, and now British forces are in Syria and Iraq (ignore the BS from the government brown-nosing media, they’ve been in Syria for months).

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