Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Work of Art, the Next Great Artist," or, How to Fuel Public Disdain for Contemporary Art

Work of Art, the Next Great Artist, the Bravo network's Wednesday evening reality show produced by Sarah Jessica Parker and hosted by China Chow, pits an initial class of fourteen artists against one another in a competition for Fabulous Prizes. What's hot for an artist these days? The same things Bravo's Top Chefs and Project Runway fashion designers want: Fame and Fortune. For artists, these take the form of $100,000 cash, a feature in Blue Canvas magazine, and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.

Oh my: Where to begin about this despicably cynical program?

First, the competitors are not art neophytes. At, the program's website for this, the second season, you can read a bio for each contestant. Most  have art degrees. These are from Yale, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the School of Visual Arts in New York, Cranbrook Academy—and a few less exalted places, like the Michigan State. Most have been in significant shows (at the Drawing Center, Kennedy Center, Akron Art Museum, Queens Museum, P.S.1, MOMA). They have earned fellowships, commissions, and prizes (cover art for Time magazine, New York Fellowships for the Arts, Mary Koga Award from the Japan America Society of Chicago, screening at the Sundance Film Festival). Some have jobs as teachers or professors. Others, for all their cleverness and accomplishments, are still waiting tables.

All this tells us what? That fine art is still one very uncertain way to make a living, let alone to become rich; that the chances of becoming as famous as Jeff Koons or Catherine Opie (who?) are as low as a playground hoopster's chances of becoming a top earner in the NBA. Perhaps it even tells us that art school honors don't translate into artistic "greatness"—or even greatness, for that matter.

Work of Art's contestants are shepherded along by a team of art world professionals—by people who successfully make money off of their connections to artists. Judges are art critic Jerry Saltz, gallery owner Bill Powers, and Ms. Chow (among whose listed credentials is her inclusion in "the prestigious 'Best Dressed Lists' for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Vanity Fair"). The mentor is Simon de Pury, identified on the Bravo website as a major figure of the art world,

"renowned for his legendary performance on the auction podium and for his deep and longstanding knowledge of the global marketplace. De Pury is Chairman and Chief Auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, the leading global auction house for Contemporary Art, Design and Photography, and still owns a significant share in the business after selling the majority in October 2008 to the Mercury Group, Russia's largest luxury retail company."

De Pury's qualification for mentoring artists is, apparently, that he knows what sells, whether or not he has any creative skills or knows the handle from the blade of an X-Acto knife. De Pury checks in with the students as they work on their projects so he can communicate to them early—through verbal hints or patrician scowls—an  establishment take on their concepts. In an episode when artists were paired up with child artists, one contestant took de Pury's hint and transformed the bleeding eyes in her sculpture to ultra perky eyes surrounded by long, curled eyelashes. Is it a surprise that a bonus in one episode was to have the winner's toothless work auctioned at Phillips de Pury & Company?

Each week, de Pury and Chow assign the artists a challenge. We've seen them divide the artists into two teams, each charged to mount a coherent show on the theme of movement. As if this weren't sufficiently like a classroom assignment, the students, in a stunning retreat to What We Learned in Theory Class, never even thought of kinetic art nor of any dynamic motif. After the challenge was introduced with a dazzling performance of gymnastic ability by Parkour athletes, one of the teams chose to focus on the motion involved in digesting solids.

In another challenge, each artist was asked to create a work of art that would complement a work by a precocious child artist. (If they had been asked to create a complement for sofa cushions, would that be demeaning, or would they have leapt in just as eagerly?) No direction was given that their works be cheerful, yet this was strongly enough implied that an artist was sent packing partially because she made something grim. Children's art is supposed to be happy! But then, children are usually directly or indirectly urged to be so. Cheerless art gets children sent to the therapist and artists banished to sub-greatness.

Another episode of Work of Art was inspired by "the subversion of street art"—maybe even by subversive street art. Pairs of artists were given two days and a night to create "masterpieces" on outdoor brick walls several stories high.

Our wild and crazy artists visited the art supply store with the wad of cash each was handed. They returned to the studio where, like most rebel artists, they labored with their vast treasure trove of tools. Finally, they transferred their designs to the walls for the judges' scrutiny. The winning work of subversive street art had the shock appeal of a public service announcement. Our contestants could make good money as commercial artists designing billboard campaigns in an advertising firm, so lacking any subversive element were their productions. But why should this be otherwise? The judges didn't seem to mind that everything was bland and tame. The challenge was completely outside the interest of artists for whom high monetary stakes insure tremulous work. Remember: great artists make money for everyone. If Van Gogh and Eva Hesse had only known!

As the season progresses, the artists' number is reduced when the weekly loser is sent home. The loser more than once has been someone who failed to get with the fantasy program and behaved as if they were making something that mattered to them, or something consonant with their extra-Bravo artistic agenda.

This show unfortunately corroborates a fantasy about the way real artists work that lingers from the common experience of public school art classes. Instead of working like serious artists strive to do, in private studios stocked with the materials they value and love to use, everyone here works together in one enormous work/class room with facilities shared by all. It's sort of like 6th or 7th grade art class at a very well-equipped school. Because it's a competition, there's no emphasis on providing a personal work environment for anyone.

Television cameras track the artists as they work, recording them as they chatter and gossip, build friendly alliances, and fuel resentments. They are not often shown to be concentrated on their work. The camera also focuses on artists' moments of struggle with materials and processes they are the least familiar with. In short: artists are shown vying for career-altering prizes in circumstances few self-respecting artists would themselves tolerate--a noisy, gossipy gang studio; a weekly format that urges them not to excel in the use of preferred materials but to struggle as often as possible with new ones; and to have virtually no control over the content of their work.

I exaggerate, of course, because there are plenty of artists who do all those things happily and who are  successful in their work. They are called art students. In fact, the competing artists on Work of Art—mostly achievers with credentials—are the best students ever! They behave in front of the judges, do as they're told, and they're hyper-alert to any signals about the prevailing standards. They are exquisitely thin-skinned and determined to be the best, so their self-blame and auto-correction are deliciously punishing and extreme. "Next time, it's A+ or nothing!" If you get enough A+s, then you're valedictorian, and that's the number one, and that's the greatest—right? That's what you want to be when the people doing the judging are handing out money and exposure in place of report cards.

Ultimately, by the standards of Work of Art, you'll be a great artist if people with money and influence say you are, no matter what you do. On Work of Art, you can achieve greatness simply by responding conscientiously to assignments and keeping your focus on the prize. You nudge tissue paper envelopes fashioned by judges who are no more interested than the artists--or than traffic cops would be--in exciting or provoking anyone. All they have to do is choose a winner from the pool, however dry it may be, and to send someone home for a stated reason, even if it really amounts to that person's being a less than compelling TV personality. It's up to the film editors, anyway, to get an hour's story out of whatever reality happened.

It's tempting to blame for its disingenuousness those in the adult roles who conspire in producing and judging this terrible show. For New York Magazine's critic, Jerry Saltz, especially, to descend to delivering uppity crits of this hastily-conceived work is demeaning to everyone involved since the circumstances of  the art's making doom it to be little else than conservative drek. The best there is, is good only by comparison with the worst. Saltz is well-paid to pronounce even something of no value a winner. That's a job beneath any self-respecting critic, let alone one of his influence. But, as this show makes sparklingly clear, self-respect isn't what Work of Art is all about.

The contestants—the student-children—deserve just as much blame as the judges do, however, for participating at all, for allowing themselves to accept hasty and useless comments from Famous Authorities. They cannot be given any credit for having reversed course into a novice curriculum, once they have already proclaimed themselves to be mature artists in order to get on the show. The dissonance between their ambition to be rich and famous and the smallness of this show as the defining enterprise en route to the goal of artistic "greatness" bespeaks some fundamental inability to align goals with means.

Which brings us to the final prize that defines the Next Great Artist, the show at the Brooklyn Museum. I can complain high-mindedly about this show's misrepresentation of thoughtful artistic goals and processes; and no matter how I dislike its emphasis on the venal, there's no disputing that Work of Art represents certain realities of the art world.

But the Brooklyn Museum should reconsider its participation. Saltz, Powers, de Pury, and any guest judges from "the industry," can be as casual about their financial connections to art or to the program as they wish. They do not have to care.

The Brooklyn Museum is presumably connected to this program through Sarah Jessica Parker, who is a patron. Last year she was co-chair, with Liv Tyler, of the Museum's glamorous springtime fundraiser, The Brooklyn Artists Ball. When it comes to cultural institutions, I will tip my hat and honor anyone in the position to do as much good as Parker does for the Brooklyn Museum.

The Brooklyn Museum describes itself thus:

"The Museum's collections were initially developed, in the early decades of the twentieth century, by such outstanding curators as Stewart Culin, Herbert Spinden, and William Henry Goodyear, with the generous support of collectors and donors from Brooklyn and around the country. Continuing to build upon their pioneering work, the Brooklyn Museum has amassed one of the largest and most diverse collections in the United States. Its vast holdings range from the ancient to the contemporary and encompass virtually all the world's principal cultures, reflecting the institution's long history of acquiring Western and non-Western art."

It is one of the great art museums, supported by considerable private wealth flowing from generous individuals, foundations and trust funds. It is also funded by the City of New York, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and so by taxpayers at several levels.

What I'm getting at is the question of authority. Work of Art proves itself in nearly every way to be devoid of artistic authority. The winner of the season is the person who has managed not to be eliminated, to be the most malleable, to display a wide range of skills when this is not a necessary good, and to figure out how to negotiate the system. That person may also make comely work with some feeling or ideas. But nothing about the show will allow "greatness" to emerge from any contestant, however persistent or pumped. To have the Brooklyn Museum take what's handed them through a pre-arranged contract; to give a show to someone who is not chosen through a jury process with any integrity to begin with; to have that person presented as "The Next Great Artist," actively deceives the public into believing that this person is  meritorious, comparable to others in the Museum or, judged similarly by similar standards. Compare any of these contestants to Brooklyn artist Lorna Simpson ( and you too will wonder how the work they present on Work of Art could ever merit serious consideration by a major museum.

Oh heck, why do I get so excited about this? Put a few of these guys' works up at Phillips de Pury. The market will figure it out faster and much more clearly than we who exercise ourselves in words for no pay.

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