Having raptly watched the entire season of “WORK OF ART: THE NEXT GREAT ARTIST”, I couldn’t get the program out of my mind. I began to reflect upon the program and its concept. While this show broke new ground with its art and artists theme, the format was a TV staple- the reality game show.
Reality television shows of this type first crossed the Americans consciousness with the broadcast of CBS’ Survivor. That show introduced television viewers to a cast of 16 men and women who competed with each other in a succession of physical and strategic challenges over 13 weekly episodes. Every week, the host Jeff Probes would portentously brief the players (organized into two ‘tribes’) about the new game, its rules and conditions. Taking place on a remote tropical island, the play would begin with scenes of the contestants struggling to complete physical tasks that were later cut and edited and amped up by an emotional soundtrack. At episode’s end, the host would reappear at a tiki lit fire circle meeting of the tribes to review the challenge results. Building suspense with lingering pauses and shimmering music, one cast member would then be eliminated from the game. Survivor captured the attention of an astonishingly large television audience and was one of these American cultural moments where the show was endlessly promoted and discussed in most media, including the serious press. As the show’s cast diminished, who the final winner might be became a national obsession. Anyone residing in the US would have had to be well insulated from any media to have remained unaware of the show.
Following the tremendous success of that seminal show, “challenges” were the common denominator of all reality game shows. In Survivor, each episode had a race of some sort or other game of physical skill, and contestants were competing against each other with the outcome being both measurable and defined. In the similarly hyped and popular reality show, the Apprentice, contestants had to cooperate and perform tasks with definable business goals set to a bombastic musical score and judged at show’s end by the equally bombastic Donald Trump.
With my fellow Americans, I watched every episode of the original Survivor, but after the initial novelty wore off, I paid scant attention to the reality shows (including subsequent Survivors) that were broadcast since the conclusion of that first program. After being subjected to an impressive amount of hype, I, like many in the art community was sucked into viewing Work of Art, a reality show that seems to have been made just for us. From the many comments on Jerry Saltz’s Facebook page, the show certainly seems to have captivated a large audience of artists. Of the general viewing public, the ratings were 1.48 million viewers for the last episode of Work of Art- impressive, I guess, until you learn that the ratings for the finale of the original Survivor were 51.69 million. It would be interesting to know how many artists saw the program.
What stuck in my mind after the conclusion of Work of Art was the notion of giving challenges to artists for which they must compete to win. Art, not being measurable in the way that physical exertions or business plans can be, doesn’t seem to something that should be subjected to the specific thematic competitions that define the reality game shows genre.
Unless artists compete by, say, making clay pots of a certain design with the winner being the maker of the best pot in the shortest time, it is difficult to imagine how creating works of art can be done competitively. While artists often compete for commissions to make an artwork for a particular location or in observation of a particular issue, they do this on their own volition. The entrants study the Competition guidelines and decide what proposal if any they might submit and a panel of jurors usually chooses the winning proposal. The design of the world renowned Vietnam War Memorial in D.C. was the result of such a competition.
Yet art making challenges were the structure for Work of Art. After learning of the new task, the contestants variously expressed their pleasure or consternation over the assignment. To the tunes of an anxious sound track and under tight time constraints each artist set about completing the project. The cameras would follow each contestant showing their process and allowing for a short monologue where they expressed their ideas and feelings about their efforts and their fellow artists.
The challenges of Work of Art were probably invented with the idea that they might inspire the contestants to “be bold and be original,” but it seemed as if many of the contestants struggled with finding inspiration under the matrices of each challenge.
Specific assignments for making of a work of art might be appropriate in an academic environment, but to design a competition that 14 individual adult artists who have already developed their aesthetic presents a problem. The contestants were forced to deal with themes that were unrelated to their own aesthetic, and in many cases their results seemed forced.
The art produced for each challenge varied from satisfactory to unsatisfactory, and from the appearance of the work as seen on HD TV, most seemed to lack consistent inspiration. This also appeared to present a problem for the judges and their criteria seemed variable at best. In some episodes, Miles won challenges with works that arguably did not completely adhere to the strictures of the challenge. Despite this discrepancy, the jury chose Miles’ individuated vision and inventiveness over the other artists whose work more closely addressed the challenge.
In Survivor, the proceedings were hosted and adjudicated by Jeff Probst; in Work of Art the results were decided by a jury of “….art enthusiast China Chow…. art luminaries Bill Powers, a New York Gallery owner and literary art contributor, Jerry Saltz, current art critic for New York Magazine, and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, esteemed curator and owner of Salon94 gallery.- a critic Jerry Saltz.” To help present the challenges to the artists at show’s beginning and to give mid project evaluation was the distinguished European aesthete Simon De Pury of Phillips Auction House.
In the last segment of each episode, scored with a propulsive synthesizer soundtrack, the finished artworks were displayed in a gallery to be judged by the experts. Selected artists were asked questions by the jurors and then dismissed so that the winning artwork could be decided in private. The discussions of the panel were thoughtful and considered, if at times a bit too heavily imbued with contemporary artspeak. Once the decision had been made, the show went to commercial. After the break, the sequence went something like this: Facing the standing artists, China Chow would call out the name of a contestant, wait a few beats as the music grew even more ominous, then pronounce the jury’s decision, ‘ your art did not work’ or ‘you made a great work of art’.
Whereas reality show winners are decided by quantifiable and comparative evaluations, in Work of Art, the jury made subjective evaluations (the only kind that can be made about art) to decide which work won each challenge. The jury discussed the works of the three finalists, and, as in their reviews in previous episodes, the comments for each artist were both praiseful and questioning. Finally the show’s master of ceremonies, China Chow asked, “so have we found our winner.
“Absolutely” was their reply. Giving nothing away until after the break, the viewers were not privy to the logic of the judges coming to their absolute decision.
In other reality shows, the winning score is provable, but in Work of Art the scoring seemed vague and indistinct. Back from commercials the three artists stand in front of the jury. China Chow dismisses Miles, “you are a great artist but you aren’t the winner,..you can leave the gallery.” The judges then give glowing praise to the remaining contestants, Peregrine and Abdi, after which Chow solemnly concludes with “Congratulations- pause (ten seconds of electric piano, strings, and tympani) Abdi, you are the winner.”Bringing the process of making art back to television- (it’s been a long time since the 1950’s TV show “You are an Artist with John Gnagy”) is a wonderful idea, especially when there is a $100,000.00 grant to be awarded. If only a TV show would show the ideas, aesthetics and techniques of the featured artists flourishing in an organic way rather than setting artists against each other in the challenges that make up reality game shows. Pitting artists against artist in a reality show may make great TV, but this TV show didn’t made great art.
Like the slogan “As seen on TV” states, we will be able to see for ourselves the work of the Next Great Artist “ at the Brooklyn Museum.