Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Opposite of Love Isn't "Hate"; It's Indifference

I'm having trouble thinking of what else to write about today (might be the way the heat has fused certain cortexes within my skull into one gelatinous blob), so I figured I'd pull apart this pro-"Work of Art" piece published on Salon...you know, kind of the way on a hot summer day as a kid you'd find a dead bug in the backyard and pull apart its legs and body. Just to see what that felt like.

Indeed, it's not so much that I disagree with its author enough to really care, to be honest, as much as (whether it was his or the Salon editors' decision) that framing the piece so that the "art world" comes off as one gelantinous, like-minded blob annoys me enough to make me want to point out a few of the piece's failings. Besides, the heat makes me grumpy. So here goes.

Via Artnet.com I found Glen Helfand's article "Why the art world hates 'Work of Art.'" He cites four sources as evidence of this hate: one facebook posting by an artist friend of his; great snarky comments by critic Jenn Graves; a fairly even-handed comment by critic Regina Hackett; and a comment by judge Jerry Saltz that Helfand himself felt compelled to categorize as "ambivalence."

This totals "hate"? Only two of those examples were strong enough to qualify as "dislike."

More importantly, this qualifies as the overall opinion of "the art world?" Ignoring the number of parties held weekly in which art world insiders gather to watch and respond to the show, let alone the Twitter-fest and live Facebook responses (that might have balanced out the piece a bit too much, eh?), Helfand leaps from these comments into a totally backward conclusion, in my opinion:
Contemporary art has never quite jibed with mainstream media.
Not for lack of trying (says the art dealer who was thrilled to no end when an artist he worked with was featured on CBS Sunday Morning once).

IMHO, it is the mainstream media (like, er, Salon) that seems only interested in talking about contemporary art when they can either point out the gob-smacking prices some piece yielded at auction or mold the facts to suggest the art world is united in its disdain for the rest of the world.

Helfand does attempt to justify this assertion that contemporary art doesn't like the mainstream media:
Part of the reason art so rarely flourishes on TV is that most artists are reluctant to be represented in the mainstream media.
I don't think you can use the reluctance of many contemporary artists to appear on a reality TV show that makes a mockery of the creation process, something very important to them, to support the notion that "most artists are reluctant to be represented in the mainstream media." Indeed, despite his criticism, Helfand explains quite well why this wouldn't be an attractive vehicle for artists:
"Work of Art" attempts to offer an intimate view of the place where artistic creation happens, but it doesn't quite pull that off, in part because it sticks faithfully to the reality TV structure. Like other shows in the genre, the producers make contestants jump through hoops, in accelerated time frames, to make stuff — a format that has very little to do with real-world creative activities. Artists are as likely to make a portrait in nine hours as a chef combining Cheetos and balsamic is likely to make a great meal. In episode 3, the contestants created book covers, a challenge that ignores the distinctions between fine and commercial art. It's no wonder the results weren't very good.
Still, Salon had its editorial angle, and despite the obvious contradictions, Helfand veers right back into it:
That said, the show does seem to be getting better, and it's unclear what, exactly, the show's harshest critics are so worried about. That "Work of Art" will create the unfounded expectation that artists can produce at the snap of a finger? Or that they might actually appreciate winning that grand prize and getting some air time? Or are they just worried that the "mysteries" of the art world will be exposed to middle America?
The "mysteries"? Let me solve those for you right here. The mysteries of the art world boil down to three things: being talented, working your fucking ass off, and being in the right place at the right time. Just like any other creative field. The rest might be good fodder for a half-hour of TV that distracts you from your real-world problems, but it ain't gonna spark no life-altering epiphany for you.

But here's my ultimate problem with Helfand's piece. He spends the vast majority of the article speculating on the motivations of a wide range of professionals and enthusiasts he lumps together as if of one mind (can I use "gelatinous blob" again here? I love that phrase), but never comes around to explaining why that opinion is wrong. The closest he comes is to note "the show does seem to be getting better."

First, to "get better," the show obviously had to leave something to be desired, thereby at least potentially justifying the criticisms of those who didn't rave about it. Second, Helfand never fully explains what about it is good or now, supposedly, better.


He does seem to hint at its potential to bring about change as being worthy:
To cross over into pop culture, we need art icons who can flourish in public, the way Marina Abramovic — an artist whose power and charisma courts and can withstand the glare of the media lights — did with her MOMA retrospective. [And he hails the show's potential to] to put working artists, semi-realistically, on the cultural radar.
Surely Helfand, "a Senior Adjunct Professor at the California College of the Arts, a curator and a critic," knows that while the performance-based practices of artists like Abramovic or contestant Nao Bustamante (who was booted off) might benefit from the "glare of the media lights," that actual daylight is preferred by most painters and sculptors, and that much more controlled lighting is needed by artists working in video or photography, no? In other words, you can't lump artists together like that any more than you can the opinions of art world insiders watching the show.

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16 Comments:

Anonymous Greg said...

I think the producers really missed the mark when they decided to model the show after Top Chef and Project Runway where the contestants are given challenges that somewhat reflect the potential challenges of working in the restaurant or fashion world... if Work of Art had more practical challenges that reflected the actual careers of young artists, like how to eat cheaply, promote yourself most effectively, etc. then it would work better... and maybe over the course of the entire season the artists could be producing a body of work that would be presented at a gallery in the last episode or two... and maybe then they could pick a winner...

As it's formatted now, the show does not accurately reflect any aspects of what it means to be a working artist... it's very close to art school, but not the real world... this would be another option, just to have actual art students on and keep the framework as it is...

7/07/2010 10:25:00 AM  
Blogger Hrag said...

Your article is more entertaining than the show and the Salon post. I just want to go on record to say that I am proud to be part of the "gelatinous blob." Though I do think part of the problem with the show's concept is that contemporary art isn't a mass market commodity, unlike fashion, music …

All an artist needs is 12 devoted collectors, a few critics, a gallery owner, and a few curators to like them and not a million adoring fans.

7/07/2010 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

As counter point to the Salon article, I offer this Manifesto by Damian Crisp who points the dagger into the heart of the real problem in the artworld.

"Slave" A 54 page manifesto by Damian Crisp.
"Slave" [pdf] (direct link to file)

7/07/2010 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

The real problem with the show (besides the asinine assignments and the 12 hours allotted to whip out those masterpieces) is the selection process. I read the prospectus carefully and concluded that very few real working artists would be able to realistically participate. In order to apply, you would have to be willing to give up your entire life (day job, any financial or family responsibilities, any shows or commissions you might have lined up) to spend 6 weeks (or something like that) sequestered in a dorm, with no financial compensation, and you give up the rights to anything you make during that time. How many working artists do you know who can afford to do that? You would have to have a sponsor, a financial backer, to stake you. And since most of the contestants are in their early 20s, I'm guessing family money made it possible in most cases. I was actually surprised that a few real artists made it on the show.

I agree with Ed that the lack of "love" expressed for the show reflects more of an indifference, or an unwillingness to take the whole premise seriously, than a "hate".

p.s. Gelatinous blob! That should have been the title of the show. "I'm sorry. Your gelatinous blob didn't gel for us."

7/07/2010 12:51:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Oriane's "hardship" point is irrelevant. How many young people, and their parents, shell out thousands of dollars for a college degree in art? There is less than one chance in ten that any art school graduate will hit the jackpot, collect $100,000, and show in Brooklyn. This is why they call it "reality TV" you have to show up to even have a chance of playing, and if you make excuses there, why not in the rest of your career.

What WoA does is provide high schoolers a neatly packaged, dressed up set of cliches about what a career as an artist might be like. It is not much different than the 50's beatnik artist in his beret.

What many are failing to perceive is that WoA represents a bifurcation in the lifestream of an artist. I am sure we are already aware of the different strata that exist in the artworld, certainly not everyone can be a Jeff Koons.

WoA uses highly visible artworld participants to validate "entertainment art" as an acceptable artworld lifestream. This is a long ways past Dali or Warhol.

It represents a new theoretical and intellectual path where the artist quest is targeted directly at the box office by giving the audience what they want. Unfortunately, while WoA provides a framework, it is one riddled with artworld clichés and it remains to be seen whether or not the contestants posess that "star quality" mixed with enough smarts to get the job done. In the end it is ALL ABOUT THE MONEY.

7/07/2010 01:24:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

I am wondering if the producers misgauged the demographic. I get the impression that the core fan base of WOA is mostly over 35. If this is right, then throwing out all the older and wiser/crazier contestants early on was not a good move. It wouldn’t surprise me if they end up with a final three that are so young and bland that nobody will even care who wins, much less go over to the BM to look at their “show”.

It will be interesting to see if Nao actually manages to get a TV deal of her own. I kinda doubt it but you never know.

7/07/2010 02:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Edward,

Like the rest of your readers, I adore you; but I think you missed the point on this one:

"Contemporary art has never quite jibed with mainstream media."

Too true, no matter how many artists you have on CBS. The reason for this is that, on one hand---like anyone else---artists can't trust the MSM to accurately represent what they are trying to do. Quotes will be taken out of context, entire scenes montaged to look like something twee, or nefarious, or asinine. You simply can't rely on your hard work and good intentions to make it through the grist mill of the MSM, and so most contemporary artists stay far away. That mistrust doesn't keep them from feeling jealous when the occasional media-savvy painter makes it through without breaking a sweat; but most of us are too terrified of being manipulated. On the other hand, you have a machine that exists only to make a profit, and is cavalier about standards, content, intent, and hard work---all things that are dear to a lot of artists. It's not just Work of Art, this goes for all TV and related ephemera. It exists for ratings and advertising dollars, all else be damned.

I think you're too hard on the writer, who was clearly trying to parse his own ambivalence while working within an editorial directive.

7/07/2010 02:57:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

It exists for ratings and advertising dollars, all else be damned.

True. It's a new paradigm that is being validated by the WoA art world players.

7/07/2010 03:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

For several years George has been telling the blogosphere that we're at a nodal point in history, on the cusp of something completely different than all that has come before. I'm tickled to learn that the "new theoretical and intellectual path," the "new paradigm," is this ridiculous show, derivative and trifling even by the standards of television. Well, maybe George is right this time. I'll start giving it some thought in the unlikely event that WoA sees a second season.

The Helfand piece is asinine. It was rich when he projected worry onto the show's critics. I'm no more worried about this show than the prospect of a meteor landing in my oatmeal.

7/07/2010 11:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

The fact young people, and their families, pay too much to go to art school with very little chance of a return on their investment doesn't make my point irrelevant. I don't care very much about this show, or this argument, but if you're going to say my point is irrelevant, you should at least offer some evidence. I'm sort of embarrassed to be taking the show seriously enough to even be having this discussion. It's just lowest-common-denominator mass entertainment. It has nothing to do with the art world and doesn't have anything to tell us about being an artist.

I'm with Franklin on this. This show is as reflective of the art world as the tv show "House" reflects our health care system. Yeah, when I get sick, 4 or 5 doctors sit in a room and discuss all the possible things that could be wrong with me, try all the different possible treatments, do a bunch of surgeries and tests, cut my brain open and tinker around, go to my apartment and search for toxins or other possible causes, don't stop til they solve the puzzle, and never ask about my insurance.

7/08/2010 12:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

Oh, and also, did you see tonight's episode? One big Audi commercial.

7/08/2010 12:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hrag: "All an artist needs is 12 devoted collectors, a few critics, a gallery owner, and a few curators to like them and not a million adoring fans."

Heavy Sigh.

HuskyQuaker

(word verification: monni)

7/08/2010 03:52:00 AM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

I may have counted WOA out too soon. Seems like Jaclyn’s win has breathed new life into the show. The new dynamic seems to be, I don’t care who wins, as long as it’s not her. Talented maybe, but self-obsessed, disingenuous, breast-enlarged, lost, all those things for sure.

Who knows, maybe the whole show is an allegory about the current state of the art world, and Jaclyn is Art herself. I am picturing a photographic re-do of Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le peuple with her and her boobs in the title role and a band of befuddled judges following her lead as she surmounts the heap of her fallen competitors. Annie Leibovitz could do a nice job of it. Blow it up huge and hang it in the BM and I'm sure a lot of people would come to look at it.

7/08/2010 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger C. L. DeMedeiros said...

Edward,

They most go nuts to produce the whole shit, no pun intended... to ad besides commercial breaks a giant audi commercial, Art is "soul-d"out in bravo's reality show.
I disregard the last episode, was a big disgusting blob. I don't drive, I don't care about car.
I use mass transportation.

I'm having deja vu on the "original" approach in critics:" if you trying to play music, I cannot heard your notes"
There's a How to make critics for dummies, out there ?

The show it's fascinating,
there's a pressure to create original art work in a very limited time and space, those kids are heroes and martyrs at the same time.

Carlos

7/08/2010 01:24:00 PM  
Blogger enda o'donoghue said...

I'd be really interested to hear how people compare "Work of Art" to its British counterpart "School Of Saatchi" which was shown earlier this year.

And related to that here is an article which came out before the Saatchi show:

Reality TV has nothing to offer the art world
http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2009/jan/26/saatchi-best-of-british

7/10/2010 09:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Tricia said...

It seems like people either embrace it or hate it. If one takes it seriously, as the vehicle for representing art and the artists life, there will be a whole lot of teeth sucking and "WTF" !!. But, if seen for what it is, entertaining comedy, well, then, there are many laugh out loud moments, hilarity even.

If Andy Warhol were alive today I am certain he would think it wonderful and delight in all the inanity, not only that I suspect he would want to be a part of it in some way, ANY way that he could. The show itself is a kind of a Work of Art with its wonderful product placement from which an art challenge is derived wow, brilliant! (eye rolllllllll) I'll be looking for when the artists while working in the studio will all be seen refreshing themselves with icy cold bottles of pepsi as they smile into the camera and break out into dance or song ala American Idol.

7/10/2010 11:47:00 AM  

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