In Which I Take Bravo’s “Work of Art” Far Too Seriously

Posted on | December 1, 2011 | Comments Off

I recently started watching the Bravo show “Work of Art”—not that I needed much of an excuse—after reading some of Jerry Saltz’s New York Magazine recaps. What was an art critic, whose very currency is taste, doing in the wilds of reality TV? safe online casino slots

That competitive art-making should land on television was probably just a matter of time.  ”Work of Art” has all the ingredients that have made “Project Runway” and “Top Chef” so successful: a visual creative process with an end product that can be held up for judgment.  Sure, art likes to imagine itself a world apart from food and fashion, but the boundary between art and commerce has always been blurry.  It’s not for nothing that the prize in one episode was a chance to have a piece sold at auction; monetary value is the easiest, if not necessarily the best, measure of artistic value.  (I suspect the literary world hasn’t eschewed the reality TV limelight out of some high-minded aesthetic idealism; it’s just hard to see the telegenic potential in bunch of sun-deprived poets pattering away at the keyboard.)

“Work of Art”  does have one difference from its sibling shows, however, in that it attempts to bring the language of criticism to television.  Where “Project Runway” and “Top Chef” have external criteria by which to measure the output of the contestants—is it well made?  is it wearable?  how does it taste?—“Work of Art” has no language for judgment besides what is good.  And explaining what makes for good art on television is no easy exercise.  The strange thing about watching the show is that it’s easy to tell which pieces are successful and which are failures simply by looking at them, but the language of the “crit”—as the judging sessions are called in art-school fashion—do little to illuminate why.  A sequence of drawings based on New York Times photographs of Libyan soldiers, by the increasingly evil Lola, is, if not exactly MoMA-worthy, at least compelling.  A pile of money drenched in fake oil and banded together with ribbons of newspaper is embarrassing.

The judges consistently favor works that do the interpretive legwork for them, just so long as the piece in question stays one degree short of “too obvious” (see: oily dollars).  Anything that can’t communicate meaning in five seconds of screen time is a dud.  The winning piece for the newspaper challenge had a built in headline: “Where is Ai Weiwei?”  The piece that won the challenge about movement was a video of a guy spinning in circles.  “We’re all reading it in a different way than you wanted it to be read.”  “I couldn’t figure that out and I wasn’t interested really in trying to figure that out.”  These are the sorts of statements one hears routinely: it’s as if the judges expect the work of art to dictate their conclusions without their having to actually judge.  The expectation is that the relationship between the artist’s idea and its expression should be facile and immediate.  In practice, the work of building those connections should fall, at least in part, on the critics.  (Though to be fair, Jerry Saltz is the only member of the judging panel who is technically a critic.)  Instead, the judges operate within the mandates of reality TV even more than the would-be artists: the easy narrative wins the day.  I suppose this is what I get for imagining criticism might make for riveting television.


Comments are closed.