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?”

  • Peter

    Sleep & food deprivation? Shame the producers also have their final judgments. Would have been more original if they’d tried a different approach.

  • Sasha

    Thanks Greg, a genuine interpretation of what I consider a very daring show. I wonder how popular it is between the two coasts? I launched, an art marketplace and creative community, on the premise of making art more accessible to everyone and I was very excited to see that Bravo was airing this as it may be a step in that direction. While Bravo seem to celebrate the artist stereotypes more than their actual work, I think it was a daring leap and hopefully a good test to see what works and what doesn’t for future shows.

    • Mo

      It was pretty popular in Kansas City. Two of the three finalists were from “between the coasts” – Kansas City and Minneapolis. Both cities have thriving artist communities. With a local artist making it to the final week, that lead to lots of local coverage on radio and in the newspaper here in KC.

  • Susan Tschantz

    I was actually saddened by the show. The quiet, hardworking day to day artist was not at all represented, but then we don’t make good TV!

    And the constrates and even rather silly comments! The preoccupation with potty humor, the kind you see amoung 10 year old!

    While some of the have talent and may someday be real artist, all the surviving artists lacked maturity, and were too eager to conform to the notions of the judges. I would have like to see one artist stand up to them and really take on the judges!

  • Melany Terranova

    Greg…thought your points were well made…..thanks!


  • Melany Terranova

    Susan! While I agree with your points, “this conversation” had to begin.

    Peter….I also wonder how this program/format will change/evolve. I had to read the sleep/food deprivation twice!

    I’m just happy that like it or not, the world of Fine Art is joining the
    mainstream…..and feel that more opportunities will come to artists.


  • Greg Lindquist

    Thanks for all your responses. I’m curious:

    @Peter: In your opinion, what approach would have made the show more original?

    @Sasha: re: “the premise of making art more accessible to everyone”– How exactly should everyone have access to art? Not to be total Marxist, but is it necessary to own art to experience it? And relatedly, do we genuinely experience art by viewing it through the lens of television?

    @Susan: How would have one “taken on the judges?”

    @Melany: What kind of opportunities might you think come for artist out of this show?

    In general, reflecting on the whole season, I was surprised by the winner but also not surprised why Abdi won– his work was most universally accessible and took him out of the thematic insularity and limitations of the art world. I was also impressed by the solidarity and supportiveness amongst most of the contestants, who, although competing amongst themselves, seemed to be also truly caring about the other contestants, which is really the way the art world works amongst artists.

    Also, I’m glad the final show was not given limitations and that the artists were given solitude to work. That’s the other thing about the first nine episodes, most artists work alone, not amongst their peers or, in this case, competitors. What if the next season’s contestants were given private studios? How would that change the dynamics?

    –Greg Lindquist

  • Judith Braun

    Hello Greg, Thanks for the recap of WoA and for using an image of my work. I think you got a lot of your impressions quite right, and my only point to make now that I just read this again is that I don’t really have a “stylistically engrained way of working” as you suggest. ….though I do focus intently during periods. I think I was sent home partly for not being as purely enthusiastic about the show itself, I didn’t express what an unbelievable opportunity it would mean for my career, and things like that, that others were more evidently feeling. I can easily see how I fit their casting as a contestant to start with, but not one that would fit the role of winner. Not to say I couldn’t have risen to some irrefutable winner status through the challenges, but as I said when I did get booted..”that I had a great time, but I didn’t adapt to the overall game that well”…that’s not a defense or excuse, just how it felt at the time. Here’s my website where you can see that my history covers a wide range of practices, not to mention that I’m a skilled carpenter and was a college professor of figure drawing for several years. Thanks again, Judith

    PS The website:

    • Greg Lindquist

      Hi Judith:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and impressions of the show. I realize that you have developed more approaches than simply the abstract hand paintings, and you used one as inspiration in the portrait challenge, for example. However, I think the show suggested it was difficult for artists like you, Ryan and also Jaclyn, who have very distinctive styles. Since you quoted my review directly, I’m not sure if the particular wording was part of what bothered you, but it wasn’t intended as a criticism (an engrained style can be in fact an asset), and I can understand (as an artist myself) your feeling the need to defend the breadth of your work.

      The challenges/assignments aspect is one part that I have a lot of questions of authenticity about– most artists spend a lifetime developing a particular style, mode of working or exploring of a subject matter. It makes us highly specialized in a way not unlike an art historian or critic in often a very narrow area of subject matter. Which is also why I wonder if the shifting of assignments may have been easier by artists earlier in their development because it’s a little more familiar of a situation– i.e. like being in an undergrad studio class again.

      What I am curious about is to what extent if at all the producers influenced the judge’s decisions of which artists were eliminated and when? You mentioned you think you were eliminated in part because of your lack of enthusiasm, which I find curious because I have a sense that Abdi won in part because of his overenthusiastic , if a bit naive, personality. What do you think?

      Greg Lindquist

      • Judith Braun

        Greg: Sorry for slow response. On your last point, about Abdi’s enthusiasm, yes it’s my opinion that it played a part in his being chosen as winner. Though I have been told emphatically that the judges made their own choices throughout, I don’t believe it…and there is a small print disclaimer at the end of the shows that says the producers were involved. But it’s just like how the judges swear that they didn’t overtly plan their crits. I realize the editing created their sound bites, but I am also convinced that they spent hours preparing their strategy and tactics to lead to a conclusion. I won’t go so far as calling it scripted. We were/are all under very strict-sounding contracts and you won’t find anyone telling you they were influenced or even knew what they were going to say…but whereas the contestants really are standing in front of the camera’s without a clue, the judges come to the crit with an agenda.

        As for the advantage of the younger contestants because they are closer to the academic assignment way of working, I think that’s probably true. Of course I thought I had the advantage of breadth of practices and experience, and I also thought I’d be able to think fast. One hurdle for me was working in an unfamiliar environment, without my own tools and organization..not having any walls…and having camera’s watching me think. But everyone was pretty much in trial and error mode and running around anxious and confused at some point. Except Miles of course!

  • Melany Terranova

    Nice to hear from you Greg…and “Hello” Judith! I did feel your discomfort.

    Well, the show has served a purpose by bringing fine art to the masses…
    It offered a starting point for many discussions/questions of examination long overdue among a wider audience about the art world.

    I “made” everyone I know aware of the show. There is no doubt that it is
    drawing people who are “out of the art loop” into the art loop….and creating interest in original art.

    In these difficult economic times, there is a lot an artist or gallery can do to grab these people now…and I am pushing forward, doing that now with
    a gallery in Arizona, where I am living for the next few months. We have
    hooked our energies together and already are planning a few events that will benefit everyone while giving birth to new collectors.

    Honestly, the “dead art” that people buy from the “big box stores” is just that……dead. New collectors would be better served buying art from new
    artists or the bargain art bin! They just need to be encouraged and shown how to hang quirky pieces. For sure, their peers will regard them as
    “more interesting.” Our culture is something else today…..everyone has the same furniture, etc….why not define ourselves through art and have
    a grand conversation?? There are millions of homes that could use a dose of this.

    What I am saying is that a h-u-g-e opportunity is here for ALL artists.

    I am as “at the bottom of the art world” as one can be…but I bet I start climbing! So can others. Very exciting!

    Gotta go…someone is coming to get a free piece before I take my duds to the bargain art bin!! :>)


  • Judith Braun

    Hello Melany, It’s nice that people outside the art world took interest in the show, in fact, they might be way more enthused than the inner sanctum of the art world itself is. I don’t think most serious artists, myself included, took the show seriously, but more as a novelty, or just something to trash talk about over the summer. That’s what I really think, but I still did it for the fun of the challenge. Your references to Big Box stores as a place that people buy art actually shocked me…that’s how isolated I am…or we are in NYC. I didn’t even think they sold anything but decorative shelving or furniture. You sure have your work cut out for you if you are bridging a gap that wide, and I hope you make the leap all the way over to serious art, and don’t stop too long at quirky. Don’t get me wrong, I just say that because I think of ART as essential to the life of the universe! Like great literature…would I want a universe without Crime and Punishment, …or Edirp and Ecidujerp? I hope you spread lots of your good energy about creativity. Thanks for sharing! Judith

  • Melany Terranova

    One statement that came up during the season was. “But, is it art?”

    It is so much fun to look at the web site portfolios of Judith and other
    artists to see WHEN their art really moved from the academic to “art.”

  • siobhan humston

    I finished watching the last episode of Work of Art/Next Great Artist this morning after having watched all the others in the last three days! I have to add that it is the first time ever that I have watched a full season of reality TV, and I must say that I enjoyed it, for many reasons. Every one of the characters was talented and interesting, yet it was obvious that the selection process was not strictly about these two factors. As in life, like it or not, we move forward(and yes, sometimes backward)not just for our talents but also for our tenacity, our attitude, our experience, our appearance, gender and/or race.
    Seeing folks make art and learn to push and reveal themselves was stimulating even in somewhat contrived circumstances (ie: shared open studios as well as living quarters, all art supplies provided free of cost, strangled time constraints, not to mention having camera record it all). I am certainly not arguing a case for reality TV, but I would support the idea of this program as a lead in that may stimulate discussion and interest in the visual arts.

    I think it was an interesting and visually intriguing piece of television that may achieve what great art, white walls and art history books do not: presenting the personal in thinking and talking about art. While I felt an obvious path was being followed toward a directed and well edited end, I enjoyed watching and relating to the hope, the excitement, the vulnerability, the creativity and the questioning of the contestants as well as the comments and input of the judges. So much of it was like seeing an accelerated art school experience that had me feeling both nostalgic for my four years at art school, along side of feeling relief and pride that twenty years later, I am still creating art and do so for a living.

    If we want reality about art in the film medium, we may go to some of the many amazing documentaries about visual artists, yet even they are manipulated by the directors, writers, producers and even the artists themselves. If you want reality in the art world, visit a visual artist’s studio when they are suffering the food and sleep deprivation mentioned briefly in the article, leading up to a solo exhibition deadline, or post solo show where not one piece of art was sold and the rent is due tomorrow. Or, eavesdrop on a conversation between a curator and an artist two weeks before a show is scheduled to be open! But that is another show…

    Thankfully, one program cannot do it all, so if you have fun and learn something then the time is not wasted. In my mind, if a simple reality TV program can bring awareness to, and perhaps even help to validate the centuries old tradition of making art, then bring it on!

    Cheers, Siobhan