Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

The Next Great Reality TV Winner: Bravo’s Work of Art

Work of Art: The Next Great Artist is the best attempt so far to bring the art world to mainstream media. It earnestly tries to make the process of making art and discussing its merits and shortcomings more accessible to the general public, or at least, the reality TV demographic. The show has a diverse cross section of age, ethnicity, gender and occupation for its contestants, a credible selection of judges (the omnipresent critic Jerry Saltz who at one time wondered why people told him he should be on television and gallerists Jeannie Greenberg Rohatyn and Bill Powers) and guest judges (artists Andres Serrano, Will Cotton, Jon Kessler, Ryan McGinness). “Work of Art” in many ways is successful in presenting an appearance of authenticity, of resemblance to the art world. There are impressive details of presentation such as alternating contestants’ titles between day jobs and artistic medium of choice. However, as the season has gone on, with the choices of the artists who have been eliminated, it has become clear that “Work of Art” is less concerned with translating the complexities of art than with crafting dramatic situations of personalities that make for good reality television.

Ryan Schultz, Self Portrait with Christmas Lights, 2008. Oil on canvas, 18 x 36 inches.  Courtesy of the Artist
Ryan Schultz, Self Portrait with Christmas Lights, 2008. Oil on canvas, 18 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

One of the most obvious reasons for this lies within the format of reality television itself: editing. Twenty-four to 48 hours of time and footage comprises each 45 minutes episode. The compression involves the omission of a large amount of back story, detail and dialog. What is cut too often appears to be a deeper, fuller explanation (although, it could be rambling) by artists or judges about the work itself. As an artist, I am curious about whether these contestants are aware of when their work uncannily resembles other contemporary artists’ works: When Jacyln made a tank filled with water that vaguely resembled her former employer Jeff Koons’ early equilibrium pieces, did she, rather than her peer Trong, acknowledge this likeness? And what about Miles’s “shocking” drawing of cartoon genitalia that strongly evoked Sue Williams’ similar paintings?

This editing may be more extreme than the producers want us to easily know. A friend of mine advising a contestant’s participation was disturbed to find in the contract very draconian stipulations. In addition to creating severe environments for the contestants through deprivations of sleep and food sans alcohol (is this what we artists consider ideal working conditions?), Work of Art reserves the right to manipulate dialog, in fact to completely rearrange and transpose conversations. The example the contract gave is that if a contestant answered “yes” to question number one and “no” to question number two, in post-production, the contestant can be presented as answering no to question one and yes to question two. The “reality” of the show entails a significant degree of artifice.

Maybe these insider details are all too obvious revelations for those in the entertainment industry. While the episodes’ selections of winners and losers have seemed reasonable, I noticed that the weaker personalities tended to be the first to go. This led me to wonder: do the “art world judges” only deliberate amongst themselves? After examining the show’s closing credits in paused increments, I found some phrasings flashing across the screen in a time too brief to read: “Winning and elimination decisions were made by the judges in consultation with the producers.” So, when the loser’s dismissal is recited, “Your work of art didn’t work for us,” what the host neglects to say is neither your art nor your personality any longer works for the show.

Judith Braun at work on one of her finger paintings
Judith Braun at work on one of her finger paintings

When I watch this show, I am reminded of numerous projects from art school. In the real art world, however, artists don’t compete for exhibitions through assignments like “Make a work of art based on your drive through a city in an Audi” or “Design a cover for this Penguin classic novel.” In cases like these, beyond unabashed commercial advertising, the show becomes more about adaptability of creative approach than about deeply developing concepts or visual languages. Furthermore, it demonstrates that artists who do have distinctive, engrained stylistic approaches have difficulty working outside these modes, such as Judith’s abstract hand painting and Ryan’s self-portraiture.

Ultimately, I am curious about the winner’s prize: not the $100,000 cash “grant” (is the MacArthur Genius the only other grant of a larger amount?), but the solo show at the “world reknown” Brooklyn Museum. How will this show be presented and what will it do for the winner’s career? And more importantly, will the work stand alone on its own merits, or require the explanation, “that art reality show winner?”