“Trump Sworn In, Issues a Call.”
This is the phrase brandished on the front page of the New York Times on January 21, 2017. That Saturday, the day after the president gave a bizarre inaugural address filled with nationalist rhetoric, millions across the nation flooded the streets of their cities to protest his election and the threat to women’s and human rights. Yet the words above the fold of one of the world’s most widely-read periodicals struck an unfittingly reverent note. Artist Mira Schor took a black Sharpie to newsprint and proffered a sobering alternative.
“I think what’s significant is that in the issue, the reporting was much tougher,” Schor told Hyperallergic. “Their language was more honest, more accurate. But they don’t put that on the cover — they bury the lede.”
Nearly four years later, Schor has produced approximately 66 interventions of the Times — she hesitates to call them artworks, though many of them have a visible painterly spirit, balancing spatial and formal elements. One example is a recent cover dedicated to the Republican National Convention, overlaid in her distinctive block text against expanses of white paint. She has reworked the paper’s headline, which credits Trump with transforming the Republican party, to denounce his use of White House grounds for a partisan event — an alleged violation of the 1939 Hatch Act.
“Is this really the headline for what took place last night in Washington D.C.?” Schor asks in the caption to the post on her Instagram, where she has been sharing the works. “Be best,” she urges, tagging @nytimes.
For decades, Schor has created works of political urgency and feminist ethos. One of her major multi-canvas installations, “War Frieze” (1991-94), was based on language appropriated from news coverage of the First Gulf War. Since the 2016 election, she has produced approximately 200 drawings and a series of related paintings responding to the daily news. In these quasi-surreal landscapes, a cadre of suggestive symbols — a red necktie, a sagging phallus — embody the current executive in chief.
In recent weeks, Schor has witnessed an unprecedented response to her New York Times interventions in particular, which have been suddenly shared by the thousands on social media. But the artist says she did not initially conceive of the works as a series; instead, she told Hyperallergic, they started as “an effort to educate people.”
“I felt the need to respond to the namby-pamby, weak reporting that was missing the point or diminishing the reality,” she said. “I’m not ever trying to make it pretty or beautiful. I’m doing what I think is necessary.”
In her edits, she exposes how words can work to warp reality. Though many of these annotations take place on the front page, some of Schor’s most interesting alterations are to easily-missed details in the paper’s interior: her sharp comments on a letter to the editor from a conservative reader, for instance, or her attention to not-so-subtle equivocations. In one article, she has highlighted in yellow the term “naturalized immigrant,” and added the correction, “You become a naturalized citizen.”
Schor is quick to clarify that the Times is far from the sole news source needing improvement, but it is the only one to which she has a print subscription. The physical medium invites a more impactful and tangible mediation that is less achievable in the digital. The artist and her sister have a collection of historical issues of the Times, including its coverage of the Watergate scandal; Schor is intimately attuned to the periodical as a physical object. For instance, she observes that the current paper is about six inches narrower than it was then, and has shrunk several times over the decades.
“There’s something about seeing an actual piece of paper and where stories are placed in relation to others. Whether it’s at the top of the page or not — there’s an impact and has meaning,” she tells Hyperallergic.
“I have not stopped subscribing. I will subscribe to the Times until they go out of business; it’s part of my life to read it,” Schor continued. “But I think what’s happening now to the paper is very tragic. I think they’re very frightened, which is why they’re doing this pussyfooting — in the tone of the language of the headlines, the interior, and also the op-ed selections. I think they’re very afraid of Trump.”
Indeed, the president is notorious for his ruthless attacks on the press, with the Times among his principal targets. His campaign has sued the paper for libel, claiming an opinion piece published by one of its columnists falsely asserted a “quid pro quo” between Trump and Russian officials.
Schor recalls her mother reading the Times cover to cover with a voracious hunger for objective truth and a critical eye. She first became aware of the paper’s tendency toward conservative reporting after attending the 1967 march on the Pentagon and reading the attendance numbers, which struck her as conservative.
“I think that everyone comes to political awakening from a specific place. Maybe something happens in your life where you suddenly get a sense of injustice,” she told Hyperallergic. “For me, I’m a first-generation American, and my parents were refugees from Hitler. They were in France when the war began and fled.”
“There was a historical awareness of fear of fascism, knowledge of the history of Europe and so I think I was very much on alert as this history that we’re in right now began,” she added.
It is perhaps not surprising that Schor’s Times interventions are going viral in the months leading up to one of the most contentious elections in the history of this nation, as the threat of disinformation and electoral fraud become more imminent. Readers who remember with bitterness the failed predictions of vote forecasters in the wake of the 2016 election — among them the New York Times‘s Upshot polls — may be especially attentive to vague headlines and overly optimistic leads across all media.
On the day of Trump’s inauguration, during an artist speak-out at the Whitney in solidarity with the #J20 Art Strike, Schor expounded the impact of artworks — even those which are not explicitly political — to stir human sentiment. Artists, she said, have a responsibility to reach an audience and mobilize it to action. Her bold edits of a trusted news source invite us to do our own double take.