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April 26, 2011

Forging News (Part one of four): The News Media’s Misrepresentation of the Art Criminal

by Katherine Ogden, ARCA Alum 2009

This article is a study concerning the current lack of representation of art crime criminals in the news media. This study focuses on news media outlets in the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy in order to examine why the news media tends to sensationalize art crimes while downplaying the role of the criminal. This article will work to find a conclusion to the quandary created by the news media as they continue to create a view of art crime criminals as sexy and fascinating as opposed to dangerous and criminal. A quandary that leads to people both within and outside of the art world being unable to distinguish between the real and the fictional art crime criminals, something that must be corrected.

Literature Review:

There is no research published on the representation of art crime criminals in the news media, so for the purposes of this examination the following information was reviewed: newspaper articles, criminology, crime and media, criminals and media, victims in the media and popular culture representations of criminals. Through the literature review it became apparent that the relationship that the media creates between art crime and the criminals committing the crime is dealt with in an entirely different way than the media represents common criminals.

For more than forty years the news media has represented art crime in a fashion eliciting feelings of awe and amazement. As a result, while the general public perceives art crime as insignificant, criminals have developed misguided ideas pertaining to how to profit from and engage in art crime. This study will focus on the traditional methods employed by the news media to represent criminals and will expand to compare those methods to those used to represent perpetrators of art crime found in the print and electronic versions of the top newspapers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy. Radio, motion picture and television media will be excluded from this analysis. As opposed to using the term “art criminal” which tends to imply acts of criminal mischief such as graffiti, for the purpose of this discussion I will utilize the term “art crime criminal” in order to focus on those criminals responsible for art thefts, forgeries, and other serious art crimes.

The News Media: The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth?

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
In order to understand the portrayal of art crime criminals in the news media, one must understand the origins and uses of the medium. Currently, the general public holds a misguided belief that news media outlets deliver the truth with fact-filled stories meant to inform readers. However, given high incidences of exaggerated reporting of current events it is evident that a main purpose of the news media is the entertainment of the newsreader with fact-based news articles. In this case attention should be placed on the phrase “fact-based.” As with any business, news media outlets require profits in order to survive. Much of this income is derived from advertisers who prefer to work with outlets holding the largest percentage of circulation within a given market (Demers). As a direct result of this relationship news media outlets work to attract the most readers and in order to accomplish this they compete to create the most entertaining and interesting stories each day. Even if those stories stretch the concept of “fact-based.”

When reporting on stories related to crime, news media outlets tend to distort the truth in order to paint the perpetrator in a more negative light. This allows the media to create a more interesting story while simultaneously creating a distorted image of crime for their audience. Conventional criminology states that:
To be realistic about crime is not an easy task…We are caught between two currents, one which would grossly exaggerate the problems of crime, another covering a wide swathe of political opinion that may seriously underestimate the extent of the problem. Crime is a staple of news in the Western mass media and police fiction a major genre of television drama…the media abound with images of the dangerous stranger. On television we see folk monsters who are psychopathic killers or serial murderers yet offenders who even remotely fit these caricatures are extremely rare…the criminologist knows that this is far from the humdrum nature of reality…the nature of crime, of victimization and of policing is thus systematically distorted in the mass media (qtd. in Brown 42).
It is because news media outlets struggle to increase their circulation that the public’s view of crime has become so distorted; a bleak picture of a society emerges filled with robbers, rapists and killers. Much of the general public places its trust in the media to tell them what and who to fear, absorbing any suggestion that a certain individual should be associated with a crime. Since a large proportion of the public informs their understanding of crime from news media outlets, their comprehension of the crime world is far from the reality. In relation to this analysis, news media outlets often portray perpetrators of non-art related crime as more monstrous and offensive than they may be in reality, while at the same time portraying the perpetrators of art-related crime as suave and almost gentlemanly. Which could not be further from the truth in most cases.

The Media’s Portrayal of Art Criminal: As Suave and Sophisticated or Unappealing and Slovenly?

If you were to ask someone walking around the mall this weekend to describe or to name an art crime criminal I would dare say the majority would answer describing the fictitious criminal as suave, sophisticated, handsome, and smart. In other words, Thomas Crown. Most of the general public believes that art crime criminals are either collectors looking for the crowning piece to their collection or common thieves hired by these collectors to enlarge their collections. Sadly, this misconception carries over to many news stories that in turn mention fictional characters such as Dr. No, Thomas Crown, and the Ocean’s 11 crew, in articles furthering the public’s misunderstanding of the danger of art crime. The seriousness of this misconception lies in the fact that it is not only the general public that is fooled by these fictional characters, but people in the art world themselves.

As part of my coursework I presented seventeen peers with photos of real and fictional art thieves. Out of the examples, none of my peers were able to identify the real art thieves while easily identifying the fictional art thieves. Although this small exercise mainly demonstrated that well-known actors are more readily identifiable than anonymous criminals, it also illustrated a significant problem associated with art crime: how can we fight art crime if students of art crime are not able to identify the perpetrators of crimes against it effectively? How has the infiltration of media become so intense that even those who have studied this field can have the wool pulled over their eyes?

This has come to fruition because news media outlets have evidently followed Hollywood’s lead and assisted in the creation of the “sexy” art criminal. News media outlets rarely, if ever, publish photos of art criminals since the focus is placed on the fantastic nature of the crime itself, not of the capture and conviction of the criminal who perpetrated it. These media outlets repeatedly break from their mold of demonizing criminals when it comes to art crime, portraying them as exciting and elevating them to a level of revered indifference when in fact they should be feared and reviled like any other criminal.

A prime example occurred recently. On September 24, 2009, the New York Times reported that two armed men stole Olympia, a painting by Rene Magritte worth $1.1 million dollars. This case exhibited an example of a rising trend in art crime whereby criminals have started using deadly weapons, a far departure from the pacifist art criminal picture that the news media has previously painted (Itzkoff). Such inaction on the media’s part is highly detrimental in relation to the prevention of and enforcement against art crime and presumably may suggest further indifference to such acts in the future.