That canvas has rabbit ears

I was tempted upon my first watching of Bravo’s Work of Art to jot notes in my moleskine a la China Chow at the first ‘gallery show’, but decided instead to watch with an open mind and avoid any acerbic criticism as much as possible. 

You might recall my two minds on the concept of the show in a pair of April posts (which you can revisit here and here.) I feared in those days that I might have to tightly shut the blinds and give excuses to my friends why I would be unavailable for an hour each week (unassailable reasons like bikini waxes and auditing were the best I came up with,) but now that I’ve gotten my first taste…  

Allow me to quickly revisit my reservations:   

  1. It will be formulaic; (Speakeasy’s Hillary Busis calls it “Project Runway — With Paints!”)
  2. It will be contrived. Never bet on these reality contests – it’s not as far from WWE as you’d hope;
  3. Weekly assessments will be based on biased and non-impartial judging (not jurying);
  4. It will not conclusively lift any of these artists out of obscurity or poverty;
  5. It will be a perversion of the creative process.
(As my Canadian readers know, this isn’t an easy-to-find show if you don’t subscribe to whatever specialty cable channel it runs on (as I do not, the fact that I own a working TV is nothing short of bizarre) so I don’t want to wax too poetic about it. I managed to find a way to stream it online (and no, I’m sorry I won’t reveal my source) but if you’d like to read about it you can check out New York Magazine’s Vulture TV Recaps here.)

Work of Art: The Next Great Artist - 14 contestants and 4 judge panel

 As I feared, I’m eating my words. Or snacking on them anyway. 

Is the show formulaic? Of course it is. It’s TV! Expecting anything else is like asking for a different coloured sky. Are there ‘characters’ filling each of the 14 spots? Obviously. Maybe part of it is an automatic result when you condense a person’s personality into soundbytes and vignettes. There’s a ringer, a sleeper, an outsider, a mother-hen, a princess, a weirdo, a comedian, a neophyte… and truth be told, I already have a crush on OCD Miles, winner of the first week. A viewer cannot, should not, and does not expect a cast of characters to be homogenous, and these are no exception. Casting did a great job. 

Assessments made by biased and non-impartial judges are a fact of life, and a tenet of the art world. These judges — China Chow, New York Mag art critic Jerry Saltz, gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, and Half Gallery co-owner Bill Powers — are nothing if not well-versed, well-travelled, and well-seasoned in the art world. It was one of China’s comments as she delivered her final verdict to the three last-place contestants that reassured me: “Art is supposed to make you feel something — your pieces made us feel nothing.” (It prompted an immediate knee-jerk comment “People on TV feel??” but I digress…) 

Will I disagree on a weekly basis with their choices of best and worst art? Perhaps. But that’s life. And it would be remiss of me to ignore the wealth of experience these judges bring to bear on their assessments. 

Poverty, especially for artists and especially in this economy, is unavoidable without a day job. Even Jerry Saltz comments how little he was paid for doing the show. I imagine the artists took home nothing.  

The awful truth is that this was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Not because the money was so good; in fact, I took home less than $1,000 per episode. But the idea of trying to do art criticism in front of a wide audience — even if it was mangled by the format of reality TV — totally thrilled me. It thrills me still. Jerry Saltz, Vulture TV Recaps

But obscurity? There’s an ill this show can cure. Already I know (and in some cases LOVE) these artists I had never previously heard of. And of course, the ones who are most successful will rise the furthest out of obscurity. There’s no telling whether they’ll have staying power once the show ends, or whether any unsuccessful contestants will go on to lead famous lives despite not making the cut.

My last fear, the perversion of the creative process… I’m not sure how to address this one. Episode 1’s portraits were completed inside of 13 hours. That’s a pretty quick turnaround for something destined to be seen by four big names and a million viewers at home. And if Miles’ breakdown shows us anything (something about a part of his screening process was irrevocably broken in the crucial moment) it’s that this show will be rife with drama in the studio. I know there are artists who have no problem with sharing a space and creating in public. But others do. It’s too soon to tell what effect competition will have on creativity, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out. 

Will I watch again? Oh, you bet I will.

1 Comment

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One response to “That canvas has rabbit ears

  1. anonymous coward

    I watch this show!

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