What began a year ago as a rumor of an unnamed TV program about art became Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. By far the most insipid reality show ever, it features four judges (socialite China Chow, dilettante Bill Powers, critic Jerry Saltz, and Peggy Guggenheim–impersonator Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn), a mentor (Mickey Mouse–voiced auctioneer Simon de Pury), and 14 artist-contestants, each shoehorned into a stereotype.
Among others, there’s the hick, the exhibitionist, the religious wing nut, the hipster, the crazy crone, the disadvantaged black kid, the flower child, the looker, and what one contestant bull’s-eyed as the “stuck-up art pussy.” All mostly talentless, dull as beige and mediocre in the human decency department, these are largely the kind of toadies that give Art a bad name. But with $100,000 at stake, plus a solo show at what Bravo flunkies refer to as “The World-Famous Brooklyn Museum,” three Village Voice art critics—R.C. Baker, Martha Schwendener, and myself—got together to consider art, TV, and this latest wince-inducing spawn as its season enters its final episodes. (The views in the intemperate introduction are attributable to me only, while my colleagues’ more measured opinions appear exclusively in the conversation that follows.)
Viveros-Fauné: So let’s address why we’re talking about this show in the first place.
Schwendener: Well, I think, in the most basic sense, the circus came to town. Our town. TV has done cooking, fashion, models, music. We’re basically the last shore to colonize. What’s next? A competition for poets? Art critics?
Viveros-Fauné: We have 12 minutes to turn in 1,200 words.
Baker: I’m enjoying this show, in a bread-and-circus kind of way. Like everything else in our Internet age, it’s not thought out. It’s built for TV speed. It’s prurient, it’s voyeuristic, it’s sensational. But for all that, it’s entertaining. There’s certainly no great art on the program. The art is in the conceptualizing, editing, and cutting of the show.
Schwendener: And China Chow’s dresses, which I think are the show’s only viable art, even if Christian doesn’t like them.
Viveros-Fauné: She looks like a pug in taffeta.
Baker: Project Runway works much better—there’s also Top Chef—but these are shows where the proof is in the pudding. Even I can tell when a dress drapes properly.
Schwendener: Because there’s craft involved, whereas this program asks you to make a work of art in 24 hours.
Viveros-Fauné: And art is weirdly useless and unquantifiable. It’s not like dresses and food or whatever else can be lassoed into a TV competition. Having said that, the other thing that strikes me about this show is its total inevitability. Work of Art has burrowed into the reptilian art brain like Warhol’s piss paintings and his late portraits. These are things we know are bad, yet enough suckers are taken in that they become part of the landscape.
Schwendener: It’s like political scientists who have to watch Oliver Stone movies. They do it because they have a professional obligation to see the inaccuracies perpetrated on behalf of their subject. R.C., you think the program is written for the hinterlands?
Baker: It presents art at a college level. You’re assigned themes. The shock-art episode was by far the worst case of a theme being manufactured for the show. It was totally caca, poo-poo, and none of the judges hammered the contestants on the obvious. There are two wars on, the economy is in the toilet, the planet is melting. Instead of finding that shocking, we get this prurient, juvenile crap that is weirdly magnified by the small screen.
Schwendener: I teach, and I get asked, “What do you say to your students about this show?” And I say, it’s not about art, it’s about TV. It’s about characters that are clearly delineated. Here’s the tortured artist guy. . . .
Viveros-Fauné: There’s the overfed Photoshop dude. . . .
Schwendener: The black kid raised by a single mom. Even within TV, the show has its own referentiality. The judges relate to other judges on other shows. So Jerry Saltz plays Simon Cowell from American Idol, Jeanne Greenberg is Paula Abdul, Bill Powers is Randy Jackson, and so on. In terms of art, the show is at a very low level. I know the contestants have been to art school from their “discourse,” but these are not the best students in any program. And the writing is like nails on a chalkboard: “Your work of art doesn’t work for us.” Somebody actually wrote that!
Viveros-Fauné: “The only rule in art is what works.”
Schwendener: “Your work didn’t make us feel anything.”
Viveros-Fauné: I don’t see how this show is intended for flyover country, unless it’s the guilty-pleasure corn silo in our hearts. My guess is that people on both coasts are more glued to this thing than people in Peoria. For our time, this is the Pollock Life magazine cover, Schnabel’s Basquiat biopic, both of which I insist sell better in New York and San Francisco than they do elsewhere. But what I really want to know is this: Forget the show being a fair portrait of the art world. As so-called “experts,” do we like it? Do we think it’s worthwhile?
Schwendener: Why don’t you answer the question? Do you think it’s worthwhile?
Viveros-Fauné: I was once partial to the idea. I love meetings between art and life and am also charmed by the idea of art gaining a greater public. But for those very reasons, I really hate this show.
Baker: You hate it? Why?
Viveros-Fauné: Because with the exception of Jerry Saltz—who represents himself well—this show proves the ultimate hair-gellification of art with the added insult that the art world is, once again, helping tart up its own portrait.
Baker: But here’s a question: Bravo calls you and says, “Christian, you know the art world—help me put together this show.” What do you do?
Schwendener: Let’s back up, because I thought the question you were going to ask was: “Would you go on?”
Viveros-Fauné: And the answer is, yes, I would have. The real reason I hate the show is that I think they cocked it up.
Baker: Well, one thing you can say is that TV and art are pretty much antithetical. The contemplation, the time you need, the nimbus that is art doesn’t play on TV.
Schwendener: Not with this format. Again, Christian, remind me what you hate about the show?
Viveros-Fauné: I hate wasted opportunities.
Schwendener: Got it.