Monday, August 23, 2010

My Final Thoughts on "Work of Art" (Season 1, anyway)

Karen Rosenberg has already written a well-considered, non-star-struck summary of Bravo's Work of Art, so my initial decision to wait until the show had concluded to weigh in with what I hoped would be a similar fashion now seems somewhat redundant (which is not to suggest I could have done anywhere near as good a job, mind you). So let me just tie up a few loose ends about it all.

Not being much of a TV critic, I won't weigh in much more on the design of the show. To my eye it was classic reality TV competition fare (which means it's about storytelling, not the specific field used as the backdrop, and should probably only be judged as such). The only comment I'll make on how it ended is that the winner did indeed seem to me to be the "most improved" of the contestants, and so I'll offer him my sincere congratulations on winning the contest.

In fact, I'd offer sincere congratulations to all the contestants of the show. Despite what I'd call condescending and sometimes simply moronic challenges, they seemed to take it all (mostly) in stride and often still made interesting work. I will note that I consider asking artists to do such things the height of disrespect for the profession (even as I acknowledge that they freely signed up to do it).

Then there are those affiliated with the program who didn't have "desperate artist seeking any leg in the door" as their defense. This is what I promised to return to in my first post after viewing the show. Here goes...

I'll start at the top: As Tyler put it, Rosenberg "clobbered" the Brooklyn Museum for agreeing to present an exhibition of the winner's work, delivering a brutal blow with this undeniable observation:
The museum’s affiliation with Bravo’s “Work of Art” is most worrying as a symptom of something bigger: a dampening of curatorial vision under the institution’s director, Arnold Lehman. Whether or not you agree with the museum’s efforts to broaden its appeal, which leaves it open to accusations of being overly populist, you have to acknowledge that it has been importing shows of contemporary art much more often than it generates them
Karen more or less echoed my exact sentiments about the oddly chosen artists' champion in the show too:
Simon de Pury, the chairman of Phillips de Pury, was an unexpectedly fabulous “mentor,” doling out bons mots worthy of Tim Gunn from “Project Runway” with a soupçon of Swiss superiority. But the choice of a Phillips representative was peculiar; auction houses in general have long been seen as the enemies of the emerging artist, places where careers flare up and then fizzle.
I interpreted the baffled looks on the faces of the three finalists, when they were told the winner would also have a work of theirs auctioned off at Phillips, to convey "You mean you'll do that to the two of us who lose, right? That's the losers' punishment, right?"

All joking aside, I was appalled at that decision. Putting up at auction the work of an artist with no established market seems cruel to say the least. Maybe the celebrity factor will secure a good price for this one piece, but it will hardly establish a solid sense of value in the minds of anyone taking the artist's career seriously. Indeed, the whole spectacle will hardly be anything more than a prolonged publicity stunt for Phillips, which of course it seems designed to be.

China Chow was a fine host for a reality TV Show. She always looked interesting and delivered her lines (which I suspect some snickering, budding Dostoevsky on the show's staff wrote as his insidious revenge for his heretofore obscurity) with all the enthusiasm they inspired.

From my point of view (which is admittedly insidery), Jerry Saltz got the most out of the show, transcending his uphill battle to inject some standards in the judging (at least as detectable by the edited version aired) via his unforgettable recaps on New York magazine's site. The final summary he wrote was evidence that those who initially hoped the show would do some good for the art world weren't wrong...they were simply expecting it in the wrong arena. Here's a snippet:
In the middle of the street — or, once, in the Dallas airport — I’d be having animated conversations about art and art criticism. That confirmed my suspicion that many people have inner critics dying to get out. But the good I’m thinking of wasn’t about me, and it didn’t happen on the street or even TV. It happened here in these recaps. And not in my summaries of each episode. It happened in the tens of thousands of words that all of you wrote in the comment sections at the bottom of the recaps. An accidental art criticism sprang up, practiced in a new place, in a new way, on a fairly high level. Together we were crumbs and butter of a mysterious madeleine. The delivery mechanism of art criticism seemed to turn itself inside out; instead of one voice speaking to many, there were many voices speaking to one another. Coherently. All these voices became ghosts in criticism’s machine. It was a criticism of unfolding process, not dictums and law - a criticism of intimacy that pulsed with a kind of phosphorescent grandeur.
I still get chills reading that.

As much sh*t as Jerry got for being on the show (not all of it entirely undeserved, imho), I can't think of anyone else who could have transformed his experience there into the incredible online dialog that he did. He's an alchemist with words, that guy, and somehow so damned interesting to watch. Bravo should just give him his own show. Seriously. I'd tune in every week.

There were two other judges rumored to have been on the show, and a few "celebrity" artists (see: "famous accountants") kind enough to lend their credibility to the venture. I kept wishing they'd just hurry up and let Jerry talk again. Mind you, I recognize that my feelings about that are conflicted by the other two judges also being dealers and the dialog that Jerry represents being the one I'm personally most interested in. But then I'm not offering you someone else's take on the show here.

Expectations that the show potentially set for aspiring artists out there about what it takes to "make it" is where I feel it failed the most. In fact, I'd call it all but unforgivable. In particular (and while admittedly, "making it" can have different meanings to different artists), the grad-school mindset that drove the creation (and drama) of the challenges is exactly what an artist hoping to get into the gallery system needs to shake off. The skills it takes to win a TV contest are all but irrelevant in that context. I assume most aspiring artists know that, but just in case some got confused... No one in the gallery system gives a rat's ass what you'd do with a warehouse of broken electronics if you're not compelled to use them as raw material, and we sure as f*ck don't want you purposely setting out to create "shock" art (whatever the hell that means). We are only interested in seeing you make the work you need to make to best express your personal vision. And we want it to be better than excellent. We want it to change the course of human understanding.

In short, focus on that, and forget whether you're too much or not enough of an "art pussy" for this industry.
Despite what the show might have suggested, it's not about's about your art.

Labels: art reality tv show, Work of Art


Anonymous Tricia said...

well done summation. I looked forward to the show every week and wish it went on longer and feel bummed that it probably won't get a second season but hope that if it dosn't it somehow comes back reincarnated into a show that one; dosn't make me suck my teeth so hard and two, becomes a somewhat more authentic vehicle for artists and art life.

I have to say, that the first thing I did after every show was go straight to Jerry's recaps, so good and Jerry's responses, tirelessly generous to people's commentaries which became increasingly gratuitous and lengthy. For the most part, I truely enjoyed the banter after the show more than the show itself, felt like I was back in art school seminars. The fact that the show did generate so much discussion afterward, somewhat redeemed it from so many absurdities. Just having a place to vent about those absurdities (I especially hated the big ole Audi commercial episode) added a whole nother dimension.

okay, off to read the other review you linked.

8/23/2010 07:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

All day and zero comments? Wow. Away for a week and the crowd is gone. Or, maybe its just the weather.
Anyway. Hope you had a nice time off.
Are you afraid to be critical of someone who you'd love to review art in your gallery? I thought Jerry did well, and I suppose the recaps covered his ass from seeming too much this or that. The term I've heard that I would most agree with in a review of the show would be "relational esthetics" from Walter Robinson (

The art world is NOT at all like a game show, but is as arbitrary in its own way.

8/23/2010 07:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Randall Anderson said...

On a steamy day not long ago, while performing my annual house and cat sit in Brooklyn, I watched all 10 episodes in one day, thank you trusty downloads. Then I walked straight over to the Brooklyn Museum and saw the winning work. It was, in a word, "terrible." But I expected that. The whole premise of the show and how it was set up with the silly challenges couldn't have produced anything but a show that was on the level of a solid BFA exhibition. It should of been called "Work of Art: The Next Great Art Student." I remember being in school and getting a t-shirt printed that said, "DON"T GET BETER, GET DIFFERENT." That's what art school at any level seems to be about these days. And that's probably okay. But all of this aside I found the show to be simply fun TV. TV FOLKS! That's all it was. But as Ed said, some of the work was in fact interesting, and that says a lot about the contestants as just artists, not TV performers. I think Jerry did a stellar job (OF COURSE HE DID ONCE SAY ON FACEBOOK THAT HE LOVED ME) of trying to bring a little criticism to the table but when you have judges tearing up, over bad painting, clearly he was facing an overwhelming challenge. It was good during one of those crazy dog days in Brooklyn when the air conditioning was my best friend and the half sack of Brooklyn Lager was like the nectar of the gods, but let's not think it had anything to do with being an artist and making a life of it.

8/23/2010 10:14:00 PM  
Blogger jami said...

I could only bring myself to watch the first show on line, but I had a great summer reading the web reviews and banter. I would second the idea of Jerry having his own show, but then I’m sure the powers that be would find a way to bastardize it.

8/24/2010 09:41:00 AM  
Anonymous T said...

From a UK perspective this show seems to have generated a huge amount of noise, judging by the blogs, tweets, press etc I've witnessed from over here. The UK equivalent,the School of Saatchi earlier this year got nowhere near the amount of attention, save a couple of articles in the broadsheets, and nothing like the amount of running commentary Work of Art had. What was is about Work of Art generated such fascination? Or is it just that contemporary art has a broader audience in the US?

8/24/2010 12:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

I have WOA fatigue. Everything about it was tacky, tasteless and pointless except that I had some fun and made some friends while making fun of it.

Some good discussions came out of it, but what everyone engaged in that got Jerry (and apparently Ed) all choked up was not "art criticism". It was talk about a tv game show, which occasionally branched out to other topics, including the art world. That is not "art criticism".

8/24/2010 03:12:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

well....I'd note two things. If we're going to be absolutist about it, I didn't write "art criticism" in my appreciation, but rather called it "the incredible online dialog."

If you consider "art criticism" in more populist terms (as Jerry clearly meant to), it is amazing how this Art Critic who, because of the power he wields, had once been so intimidating but has used Facebook, his NYMag blog, and the TV show to encourage previously intimidated insiders and non-insiders alike to feel their non-formal opinion about art (the lower-case "criticism" they're able to offer) matters as well. The discomfort is the number one reason contemporary art is as maligned in the US as it is. It's a small step for art criticism, but possibly one giant leap for the US.

I wouldn't underestimate the significance of that.

8/24/2010 05:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

I think Jerry being so active on Facebook has been very significant and has changed the dynamic between critics and artists. From my perspective, I'm not sure how big a part WOA played in that change, but that could be because I already knew Jerry before the show. You may be right that the show brought a whole new demographic into the equation, in which case it was an important part of it.

I hope you had a good vacation! Welcome back!

8/24/2010 07:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

Oriane wrote a few weeks ago: "It has just a pinch of sincerity, mostly embodied in some of the artists themselves, so it doesn't quite have that complete train wreck abandon."

That's a good point. All the fun of reality shows comes from seeing people make total fools of themselves in exchange for a shot at some big money. If there aren't any major confrontations (many of which, I've heard, are staged for the camera), then there's nothing for the reality-show audience to hang on to. But there was no character here who's sufficiently villainous or sociopathic to ignite a spark. Except for crotchety Judith and weird Nao, already gone, they're mostly nice people who get along and make fair-to-middling pieces of art, though nothing I would consider collecting.

Apparently they tried to cast Miles in the villain role, and he managed to be both cute and creepy at the same time and for largely the same reasons. But he was too lightweight to be cut out for the part. As for Simon de Pury, he seems (understandably) embarrassed to be part of the whole enterprise, which is more than I can say for the judges.

I saw the winner's show at the Brooklyn and, yes, it wasn't very good. There was one piece I liked, a small painting of four figures with their backs to the viewer, waiting for something undetermined. But by contrast the rest of the show was pretentious and heavy-handed.

I'll check out Miles's show at 1/2 Gallery in a few weeks, but the images on the gallery's website don't impress me too much. I thought the most talented of the artists was Ryan Schultz, who noted in his exit interview that he works very slowly. A piece of his is being shown at Marisa Sage's Like the Spice gallery this month.

As for the show, this was just Top Chef all over again, except the medium was painting or sculpture rather than food. I imagine next year we'll get "Piece of Music," then "The Play's the Thing," then "You're a Poet but Don't Know It," and perhaps "Top Blog!" (in case EW wants to try out) etc., etc.

I will agree that the show has stimulated a good deal of interesting Internet comments.

8/24/2010 10:52:00 PM  
Anonymous PK Steffen said...

Despite a limited income and small black and white TV, there was a time when I subscribed to cable simply because of the content that Bravo provided such as the incredible German mini series HEIMAT. Fast forward to 2010 and Work of Art…

I must admit that I have yet to make it past episode five on my DVR, but so far it has been enjoyable as pure TV. It amazes me that art is actually produced as a result of this experiment. Despite the orgiastic mix of Audi ads, reality show production, ridiculous "assignments", China's outfits (ok they are fun), the cat fights, and the awful mix of novices and insiders, art somehow seems to emerge.

If the discussion of art this show has engendered is important, it is equally important that such a broad audience has been exposed to the "hot mental event" of the process of making art and the "cold residue" of the object, even if it is in such a sensational and amateur manner.

I'm not sure what more we can expect from Bravo or TV at the moment. There is no way you could get any artist except for students or beginners to go on such a show. I suppose that we shouldn't expect anything more from either them or the production crew. That a critic of Jerry's stature would agree to participate is surprising but thank goodness he did. His comments and the subsequent discussion will hopefully lead to something else, hopefully more substantive.

Thinking now that maybe I should delete the remaining episodes and head back to the studio.

Ed - Thanks for the great summation and all the work you put into your blog...

8/25/2010 02:04:00 AM  
Blogger Saskia said...

It is interesting what Randall said about watching all 10 episodes then running down to check out the show--
kind of the opposite scenario of Ed's idea of an
anonymous art show. I wonder what the reaction to the Brooklyn Museum show would be without that connection to the show, the personalities, the tv drama, etc?

Of course, that seems to be most of what the debate around the TV show is about: is it art, or is it celebrity branding? Not that it hasn't been a debate in the art world for some time already... maybe it's pointless to try separate the two, I wonder if there is another way to frame that topic that would be more useful to art, artists, and the artworld?

8/25/2010 10:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

welcome back from the sounds of the falling water Ed and "Bambino"
(- sure don't like using other peoples nicknames)

non-formal opinion about art

this particular case of how the new media are allowing "public" access to data and so opening a gate once surveilled by an expert always spins me about. How to keep the "non-formal opinion" from being confabulated with a conclusion derived from the formal expert logic?
How to let that opinion of the streets (mine) develop and be filtered by the depth of perception of expertise and not simply be a spouting of in my opinion ... I can't judge the "merit" of the latest group of Dance America -or whatever, I could have an opinion, but how does one move that opinion into a judgment of merit?

I like dialogue and the new media certainly does encourage access to that, but it is so easy to assume that access to data equates knowledge.

How to recognize the insights of the gallerist or curator isn't summed up in the artists webpage or statement. Certainly you're right Ed that that's a paradigm shift (the accessibility of data)that is significant for our futures

8/25/2010 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

This morning I had a thought (yeah, I have them now and then):

Jerry Saltz is sort of the anti-Greenberg, or better yet the Bizzaro-Greenberg. Whereas Clement Greenberg was intimidating (or, so I heard) Jerry is very approachable. Where Greenberg seemed exclusive Jerry is embracesive. Greenberg preferring abstraction and nonrepresentational Jerry preferring literal narrative and body-referential. I would say Jerry's power over the art world is at least on a par as Greenberg in his heyday.

8/25/2010 11:10:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

@Bernard re:power


8/25/2010 11:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I don't watch television as a rule, and didn't make an exception for this. I did however see the ensuing discussion - this exchange that Saltz is characterizing as a new practice of art criticism, to your applause. It did not take place "on a fairly high level" at all, but a solidly idiotic one, dictated by the bogus terms of reality television and the entourage of sycophants that surround Saltz's digital presence like flies around a starving child. Saltz's own comments confirm my observation that he was doing his best work ten years ago. Since then his judgment has become muddled and slack, and his prose mannered and hollow, dropping Schjeldahl-style poetic invocations without Schjeldahl's poetic authority. Worst of all, this nonsense about defying the "art world gate-keepers" (as if he isn't one of them) reveals that he has misunderstood the difference between an elitist exercise and an elite one. The latter is open to all with the talent to enter and the drive to ascend. The former makes a display of exclusion for its own sake. Saltz has taken part in a maximally elitist process, and has fooled himself into thinking that it was populist all along. He comes out of this episode of his career looking like a much less interesting critic than he did going into it.

8/25/2010 07:33:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

You realize, of course, that my applause for his mastery in generating the online dialog he has is simply appreciation for his doing so better than either you or I have ever managed.

8/26/2010 08:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

...doing so better than either you or I have ever managed.

See, I disagree with that. I won't speak for myself but the quality of dialog is much higher on this blog than anything Saltz has generated. Saltz has done so on a larger scale than either of us ever managed, but the results are diluted.

8/26/2010 08:24:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The results are frenetic and mostly uncensored, making it a mixed bag (whereas because fewer people comment on your blog [which sets a very high standard for initial post quality...even if I find some of the comments too echo-chambery...which of course can be expected to be the position from any point of view one happens to disagree with] and my blog, it's easier to judge the overall quality).

But the democracy of Jerry's dialog is significant as well, in my opinion, precisely because it's inviting people who have not (yet) perhaps reached their potential in discussing art as intelligently as they can, but they're actively working toward it. I believe in the corrective process of online dialogs...the way being mercilessly shot down encourages you to be more careful and thorough before you write the next time. It's amazing training. I think Jerry's approach is contributing to people feeling free to jump in at any level of awareness or finesse in discussing art and will most likely raise those "idiotic" commenters' awareness much more than it discourages anyone already well-versed from tuning in. The fact that you yourself have read them confirms that for me.

8/26/2010 08:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

A couple of clarifications. My blog is a completed project as of early April, and its successor doesn't take any comments at all. There are many reasons for that, but one of them is my opinion of the net utility of online conversations circa 2010. And your apt phrasing, that Saltz's approach "discourages anyone already well-versed from tuning in," is exactly what happened in my case. I had been following Saltz on Facebook. Two weeks into WoA I withdrew my friend request to remove my view of his worsening commentary, magnified by his dedicated followers. After the fourth WoA post by Paddy Johnson I stopped reading her as well.

It's not just WoA - I stopped reading Tyler Green a few weeks into his America's Favorite Museum tourney. When a museum I won't name came up for its turn, it implored its press contacts to vote for it, and I came an inch away from telling its communications office to conduct itself in a manner befitting a serious public institution. My objection to all this is that it isn't democratization of anything - it's popularization by incorporating a participatory element into a dumbass conflict. Saltz has accomplished the critical equivalent of MoMA's Tim Burton exhibition. You could argue that having a silly reason to try the art world on for size is better than no reason at all, but it's at best arguable.

8/26/2010 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I actually knew you switched gears (should have used past tense), but the way you're phrasing it here one might read that to conclude you've traded in a dialog for a series of online essays.

Where do you encourage people to engage in dialog now?

8/26/2010 10:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I have traded in a dialog for a series of essays, and in general I don't encourage anyone to do anything. More dialog is not better than less dialog. Rather, smart dialog is better than dumb dialog. And silence is often underrated.

8/26/2010 02:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did not watch any of the episodes because the whole set up felt distasteful and the art was questionable, but it is even more comical that the biggest winners of Work Of Art are the bloggers who ranted about the show, particularly Powhida. You don't even have to go on a contest - having your best known writing be a response to Work of Art is enough to give you a shot at the next Brooklyn Museum show.

8/26/2010 07:29:00 PM  
Anonymous PK said...

I didn't delete the remaining episodes. Instead I worked my way through them slowly. In the end, I think the game show format is what kills the possibility of anything wonderful coming out of the show. The focus on short assignments and the eliminations after crits doesn't work. As a professor of many years, the first thing I would look at if my students failed was not what they did wrong, it was how I structured the assignment. If the objectives were unclear or unobtainable then the students consistently failed. That was the hardest but most rewarding lesson for me as I grew as a teacher.

Clearly the "assignments" and the structure of the process in many of the episodes was flawed. I think the TV producers are quite content with failure because it produces drama. The focus of all the assignments is purely on the object and really not on the process (I take back what I said before).

As they are now casting for season 2, I hope Sarah Jessica Parker, Simon De Pury, China Chow, Jerry Saltz, Bill Powers and the others are learning from the feedback. The show will never be a true success in its current format. By success, I mean a positive influence on the young artists whom they honestly seem to care about. IMHO, they need to ditch the project Runway style format. The show should be about studio visits which encourage a strong studio practice and conceptual development towards a final exhibition through of a couple of smaller exhibits. The last episode of the artists in the their spaces shows what it means to be an artist, staring at the wall, working, developing and ultimately sharing your ideas. The rest is nonsense.

No one is ever going to be happy with the judges final decisions, but lets at least have a process which everyone can agree is more natural and the way it should be! I hope they are listening and learning from the online crit we are all giving them.

8/28/2010 01:33:00 PM  

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