RESTORATION PROJECT Work of Artby Sharon L. Butler
Why were so many artists, art bloggers, and critics glued to the television Wednesdays at 10 p.m. this summer watching Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, an often embarrassingly lame television show whose producers clearly had no idea what it means to make art, let alone recognize a great artist? Why the endless yammering about the show at every party and opening?
For starters, Work of Art represents the first time a commercial TV network has attempted to bring the New York art world into people’s homes via a weekly series. Any number of casual viewers have strolled through an outdoor art festival, visited a museum or café gallery and appreciated still-lifes, landscapes, and portraits. But far fewer people have visited a Chelsea gallery to ponder serious art issues like, say, relational aesthetics, or to consider conceptually challenging site-specific installation projects. The fact is, apprehending abstract art for any reason beyond its decorative suitability is intimidating for many non-art-industry people.
I hoped that the show would share artists’ trials and tribulations with the world—that it would recognize and even celebrate the fact that our endeavor is difficult and culturally valuable. Most artists worried that Bravo’s portrayal would be unflattering and trite, that it would trivialize what they felt so passionately about. In addition, hardcore art world isolationists were disgusted that the show, produced with corporate money, had co-opted artists and critics, diverting them from more profound undertakings.
After the first show aired in June, most art commentators withheld harsh judgment, but as the series unfolded, the burgeoning critical response grew more and more negative. Seasoned artists like Judith Braun, Trong G. Nguyen, and Nao Bustamante were cut in the early rounds. The challenges the producers presented were invariably out of touch with contemporary practice, and there was palpable fear among both artists and jury that the show was going to ruin their careers. One of the most cringe-inducing tasks involved creating a project about childhood, at a children’s museum, using children’s art materials. The producers apparently understood that childhood experiences inform every artist’s work, but perhaps felt that a more nuanced exploration of this idea would fly over viewer’s heads.
In the first episode, the artists were paired up to create portraits of each other in an absurdly short time period. After watching this installment, artist Laurie Fendrich, who blogs at The Chronicle of Higher Education, declared in a widely circulated blog post that the show was a “deep betrayal of serious contemporary art.” Critiquing the two non-representational portraits, the jury, which included New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz, declared inexplicably that successful portraits must include a visual likeness of the person being portrayed. Amanda Williams, an abstract painter who is an adjunct at the Illinois Institute of Technology, was sent packing. The accepted view for years has been that portraits don’t have to incorporate any obvious likeness, and a communal howl of disgust seemed to rise from the New York art world. The judges and contestants blogged after each episode, eager to tell us what really happened—or, worse, Twittered during each episode to give their side of the story in 140 characters or less (when not trying to hawk products like self-produced photography books and junk jewelry), creating a free-for-all, carnival atmosphere.
Both artists and critics rightly complained that the show’s depiction of the artistic process was flawed because in the real world artists have neither assigned challenges nor time constraints. Assigning a book cover design project seemed particularly ill-conceived. Artists weren’t even given time to read the books, virtually ensuring a sorry outcome. Eventually it became clear that the show wasn’t actually about art—that the winners and losers weren’t being chosen for the quality of their artwork but because their stories suited a carefully constructed reality TV narrative. And indeed, selective editing exaggerated, maybe even fabricated, romance and interpersonal drama. In the end, Abdi Farah, a sunny, guileless contestant, with estimable drawing skill but no discernible intellect or depth, beat out Peregrine Honig, an older neo-bohemian from Kansas City whose work possessed greater sophistication and subtlety.
Many artists simply stopped watching, outraged and depressed that the show was so inane and contrived. Some, myself included, stopped worrying about the quality of the art being produced, the falseness of the challenges, or the mischaracterization of the artist’s life, and began to enjoy the show’s predictable campiness. The fact that the winning contestant would receive a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum continued to stick in the craw, but otherwise my disdain started to dissipate.
The million-plus viewers who tuned in to watch Work of Art at its popular peak could not all have been from the insular New York art world that, for the most part, hated the show. And for these non-MFA wielding viewers, the critical arc may have been different. I spoke with a few self-taught artists at an outdoor art festival in Connecticut recently and they admitted that they liked the show more than they had originally expected. At first they thought the artists would be academically trained, and thus so smart and articulate that they would make less confident autodidacts feel insecure about their own work, but that wasn’t the case. Long intimidated by the New York elite, they felt that Work of Art usefully informed them about contemporary art issues and approaches. Where the insiders saw artists who weren’t good enough, and critiques that weren’t sufficiently clever or nuanced, these outliers appreciated a clarifying exposition on otherwise baffling conceptual approaches, unconventional uses of materials, and the lexicon and dialogue of art criticism. (Imagine what an impact the program might have made had the art and criticism actually been good.)
Kids were also afforded a more sophisticated view of art than they get in their traditional art classes. I watched one episode with my eleven-year-old daughter and it actually changed the way she thought about art. Later, out of the blue, she suggested that a good challenge might be to make art out of materials found in a hardware store except for the paint because “paint is too easy.” After watching one episode, she realized that everything has the potential to be art. In addition, Carolina Miranda reported in her WNYC Culture blog, Gallerina, that during the opening reception at the Brooklyn Museum, high-school kids flocked around the winning contestant asking engaged questions about his process and materials.
So one conciliatory take on Work of Art is that however dumbed-down and cynically-aimed it may have seemed, it did the art community a service by proving that a general audience is interested in watching a TV series about contemporary art, which will ultimately expand the audience for art in general. On the Bravo casting website, producers have already put up a notice seeking artists to participate in a second season. After season one’s more or less deserved critical bloodbath, the producers ought to get some informed art industry workers to consult on the challenges, the judge selection, and the editing so that the show more faithfully reflects contemporary approaches and issues. But it seems wrong for artists and critics to conclude from Work of Art’s failings that art can’t be both serious and have popular appeal. Rather than whining so much about sacrificing art’s integrity, we should pay more attention to demonstrating its worth.