Work of Art
by Wendy Vogel
As the mercury climbs higher, even the most assiduous urbanites head to the beach (or the pool) to beat the heat. The art world is not immune to the summer vacation mentality, either. Museum exhibitions generally stretch over the languid months of June, July and August, while galleries mount easy-breezy group shows in anticipation of slower sales. For the art enthusiasts in the grip of serious seasonal ennui, however, Bravo TV has stepped in to fill the void…with some guilty-pleasure eye candy. The network masterminds behind the reality competitions Project Runway and Top Chef, along with executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker, bring us Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, and with it, a heaping spoonful of snarkworthy fodder to tide us over until September.
What do we make of the Work of Art, and what does it tell us about our field from an outsider’s perspective? Mostly, that it’s a crapshoot. From the outset, the show presents a very antiquated and muddled idea of what an artist is and what he or she makes, and does. We are presented with fourteen contestants, repeatedly introduced as “aspiring” artists. Beyond the fact that this terminology is a throwback to a pre-MFA degree era where curators and critics were expected to “anoint” artists out of the midst, it is a label that is clearly not applicable to most of the contestants. Though there are a few who have no formal training (most notably, the brooding Erik Johnson—we’ll return to him later), there are others who have thriving, legitimate mainstream artistic careers. Trong Gia Nguyen, John Prato and Nao Bustamante are hardly unknowns; not coincidentally, these artists were among the first to be voted off. As for the remaining participants, many have MFAs from top institutions. According to Bravo, they’re still aspiring, though, since they all have day jobs. Got it, guys? If you don’t make your living through art sales alone, you’re not a real artist. (By that same logic, I’m an aspiring critic.)
This counterintuitive logic is also extended to the challenges. The artists are repeatedly encouraged to think outside the box and to push themselves to work in different mediums—as long as these mediums were well-accepted by 1965. Furthermore, like the designers and chefs of the other shows, they are asked to work on specific assignments, à la art school. Whether these assignments culminate in a cohesive body of work is to be seen. Beyond these restrictive parameters, we learn that the artists cannot work in video; performance, apparently, is also shaky ground. While the Midwestern insomniac heartthrob Miles Mendenhall scored big for sleeping on his piece (a concrete asshole) during the second week’s challenge, Nao Bustamante, an early favorite for her sharp wit and larger-than-life personality before and during crits, was dismissed for creating a performance for the “Shocking Work of Art” challenge. Or rather, according to my favorite judge, critic Jerry Saltz, because she was a performance artist who created (bad) performance art that reminded him of other (bad) performance art by artists such as Paul McCarthy. Such syllogisms are as commonplace as the references to other artists are infrequent. I assume they are mostly edited out for general audience appeal, because if there’s one thing general audiences hate, we learn, it’s art-school snobbery.
The revulsion toward art-school “pretension” is thinly veiled through the first few episodes, yet it is increasingly voiced by the underdog, the populist contestant Erik Johnson. In the introductory episode, chainsmoking Erik explains that art literally saved his life: painting became the primary source of recovery from a devastating brain injury he suffered in his early 20s. From then on out, Erik is positioned the Everyman: if not the narrator, then certainly as the “authentic” candidate mediating between the audience and the other artists, who Erik repeatedly calls “actors.” On Episode 6, Erik goes down in flames. He is paired with Peregrine, Miles and Jaclyn, all of whom he has lashed out on previously (especially Jaclyn, the show’s version of a contemporary Hannah Wilke, who won the previous week for a piece strikingly similar to an early conceptual work by Laurie Anderson.) Seething with rage at Miles, Erik lambasts him and the other “art school pussies” for thinking they can show him a thing or two. In his exit interview, Erik affirms that he doesn’t need art school or art history to make it. This wild ambivalence about art positioning and art history, then, is thrown into sharp relief, especially in light of the show’s structure and grand prize.
There are moments of illumination on this show, yet most are overshadowed by the Work of Art’s Baudrillardian pretense of art-world legitimation. For those who are not in the know, the winner of Work of Art receives a $100,000 prize and a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The latter prize deeply disturbs me. While we are told, at multiple intervals throughout each episode, that a Prismacolor will donate the cash prize, the museum’s interests should be responsible to more than private entertainment benefactors. Yes, Work of Art’s winners are supposedly determined by a respectable (if not academic) panel of judges, including Jerry Saltz, project space Salon 94 proprietor and art advisor Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and gallerist Bill Powers. But more importantly, during the final credits a clear scrolling disclaimer states, as in other reality shows of this type, that certain decisions of the judges can be overridden by the producers’ will. In other words, what gets shown and legitimated by an encyclopedic, world-renowned museum is not determined not through a curatorial vetting process that is beholden to historical knowledge, connoisseurship and the public interest, but through pure corporate sponsorship.
A simulacra, indeed, and one that is ripe for institutional critique. The first outraged response, surprisingly, came internally, from Brooklyn Museum trustee Martin Baumrind, who quit his post as a result of Bravo’s partnership, the last straw in what Baumrind sees as a troubling trend toward ingratiating populism at the museum. And so, while I’ll continue to watch the episodes of Work of Art posted on the Internet, it certainly won’t stand in for critical discourse. But it will certainly give me something to chew on while I wait for our regularly-scheduled fall season of gallery programming to kick off.
Wendy Vogel is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.