Piece of Work / Work of Art

All things considered Work of Art: The Next Great Artist was not nearly as bad as it could have been. In fact, the descriptor benign springs to my mind. I’m not going to lie, though – it was touch and go at the beginning. The first time I heard that a reality television show along the lines of “America’s Next Top Artist” was in the works, my stomach clenched a little. Of course the art world is predominantly a fickle, market-driven star system – but a reality television show? Will we so easily surrender all semblance of substance? Should we not maintain at least the veneer of scruples? I quickly dismissed the whole thing but several months later, I received an email from a curator friend announcing the premier of the show. In the subject heading she had typed simply, “It’s here.”

After watching all the episodes, however, I can honestly say I cringed not once. Not unlike Sarah Jessica Parker’s other little project you may have heard of, the most interesting aspect of the whole situation has been the fervor of criticism surrounding it. Regarding the critical hysteria surrounding Sex and the City 2, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian noted, “a new army of bloggers has challenged and reinvigorated movie writing.” Similarly, the weekly examinations of Work of Art featured on various Web sites, including those of the participants themselves, and the ensuing conversations that have played out in the comment sections have been far more interesting that the actual show.

My personal favorite instance of this occurred around the second to last episode, “Natural Talents”. It began with Caroline A. Miranda’s Time article, “Bravo’s Work of Art Riles Up the Art World”, which describes a weekly viewing party hosted by a Brooklyn watering hole. In attendance are “artists and art aficionados”, one of whom cries out “This construct is so false!” Responding to this in his weekly post on AV Club, is John Teti. In a great display of critic-on-critic snark, he writes, “There are many places to find fault in Work Of Art, but the ‘it’s all so contrived’ complaint is awfully unpersuasive, because what isn’t contrived? Show me an artist who believes that their corner of the art world is free from contrivance, and I will show you a naïve asshole yelling at the TV in the back room of a Brooklyn bar.”

An even more high profile, though finer worded, critic-on-critic spat is at present developing between Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine and Christopher Knight for the L.A. Times. Under debate is the very issue of criticism, namely the proliferation of critical opinions surrounding Work of Art. Saltz is positive about the situation noting that “people who would otherwise have no access to art-world opinion, criticism, or power were given voice [and] those voices were sometimes sharp as tacks.” Knight, however, poo-poos these perspectives based on the axiom that you should “never pass judgment on the merits of art you haven’t actually seen.” While in principle I agree with his “be there or be square” argument, the problem is that the pieces created on Work of Art are fundamentally “as seen on TV.” The work may be judged based on the criteria and experience of those who have physically been in its presence but in the end this whole situation has been set up for those us who are not actually there.

Indeed, the creators of Work of Art have made it abundantly clear that the show is not targeted towards “in the know” viewers, but to the larger audience provided by popular television. I suspect this is why it is completely devoid of any discussion of art history or context. The television audience may not know, nor care to know, that Miles’s piece in Episode 2 is so insipidly derivative of Tracy Emin’s My Bed (1999) and Chu Yun This is Lacy (2009) that it come off more like an unwitting version of Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972). Moreover, I can’t imagine that the majority of the 1.2 million viewers of Work of Art are bothered by the fact that Andres Serrano and the rest of the guest judges are less brought to bear in the critiques than they are trotted out like person-shaped credits. It was striking when Jeanne Greenburg Rohatyn contributed the only historically informed perspective, by expressing distaste for the 1960s minimalist aesthetic invoked by one of the site-specific projects in Episode 6.

China Chow does not commence the elimination at the end of every episode by quoting Donald Judd or Robert Smithson (although, how great would that be). Instead she declares, “It has been said that art is not about how it looks, but how it makes you feel.” And that is exactly why Work of Art is both successful and extremely boring. Both its target audience and the professionally interested can neither see, nor feel, what is simultaneously right in front of them and completely inaccessible. Thus, we are left to speculate in bars and on blogs, and while every good PR manager knows that speculation is good for business, it is also inherently self-serving. Work of Art has opened up the field of art criticism by feeding material to a public predisposed to publishing their opinions. What should concern us is not the legitimacy of these opinions, but rather how easily and yet unintentionally, they contributed to art criticism as the production of publicity rather than insight.