Point of View: Bravo’s Work of Art a (Fascinating) Piece of Work
July 7th, 2010
In the second episode of Bravo’s newest reality series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, a contestant created a sculpture which derided reality television, a sculpture which led to him being sent home.
Mind you, he wasn’t sent home just because he had little love for the form of television in which he was taking part: the sculpture was lifeless and uninteresting, and relied on an inside baseball art joke that not even the contestants/judges (yet alone the home audience) understood. But the fact remains that he wasn’t here to play a game of any sort, unwilling to engage in any sort of drama and, more importantly, not in a position where he would be willing to step outside of his comfort zone in order to compete in what most would consider a competition. Another contestant, eliminated the following week, went home because she refused to take a challenge seriously because it was a commercial “job,” and she doesn’t make art to appease clients; she, too, ended up making something of limited value (and hadn’t done much interesting previous to that piece), but the fact remains that it was her refusal to “play along” which separated her from other failures.
Reality Competition series require participation, not only in terms of creating strong personalities (and the conflict which arises from them) but also in terms of creating compelling narratives for viewers to follow. What I find so fascinating about Work of Art is that it is both a tremendous success and an absolute failure, a series which is flawed by traditional reality competition standards and yet offers ancillary, and unique, opportunities for viewer connection which the show’s structure isn’t built to really capture. While many contestants aren’t participating in the reality series they’ve been cast on, they are participating in a larger quest for creative fulfillment, and at moments the show successfully invites us into their own little worlds and gives us a legitimately fascinating glimpse into their creative process which overshadows the tired machinations of the Magical Elves.
And allows us to find our own point of view on the competition at hand, even if Bravo isn’t willing to fully embrace this sort of potential.
When Nao went home during last week’s episode, it was one of those moments where you realize just how impossible it is to judge this show consistently. John’s departure made sense, in that he took a potentially shocking image (a man fellating himself) and turned it into a cartoon, but Nao did something which was inherently more interesting than many of the other contestants (and certainly more “artistic” than Erik’s vague poster about child abuse in the Catholic church). Her performance art was shocking in its inaccessibility, perhaps, but what I found interesting was how the judges seemed so upset that she didn’t fully understand her own concept: she had a weird looking house, a bizarre costume, and a bag of excrement which wasn’t intended to be excrement, but it felt more like a piece of art than what many of her fellow contestants put forward despite not having a clear motive.
I think Nao was ultimately let go because her creative process, more than her art, was impenetrable: while a contestant like Abdi struggles with time and execution in a way which makes good television, Nao closed herself off in a back room and randomly cut up cardboard for 24 hours, not getting stressed or even that concerned when things aren’t quite coming together. Upon her exit, which she took more graciously than her villain edit in the premiere foreshadowed, she simply suggests that no great art is created without some element of failure, a perspective which is very reasonable for an artist but entirely wrong for reality competition where everyone should be desperate to stay another week. In fact, many have done well on Project Runway or Top Chef by simply playing it safe until the very end, when the competition allows them the time and freedom to better express their skill. Here, though, artists aren’t wired that way, and instead of panicking or attacking other contestants they simply do what they can, accept the critique they receive, and move onto their next opportunity.
You can see how the show is trying (quite desperately) to stir up drama amongst the contestants, encouraging them to participate in other artists’ critiques and even designing the Penguin Books challenge so that contestants were implicitly competing against the other contestant with the same book (which never really resulted in any substantial drama, but did help the series relate the contestants to one another). However, there was a moment in one of the episodes where Ryan was sitting around in the apartments and basically said that he doesn’t care about winning the competition: all he cares about is being in this creative environment and learning more about himself as an artist through his own work and the work of those around him. I was surprised, to be honest, that it got through editing, as it means that Ryan is less fighting for his life and more enjoying the ride.
Ryan’s comment pushes us to consider the series less as a competition and more as a framework for individual artists to express themselves, a documentary about artists creating in a collective environment rather than a cutthroat competition; mind you, the series remains a competition and there are quite a few artists who fit into archetypes (like Jaclyn, struggling with her self-confidence), but when we start to consider the artists individually we get a far more interesting series. Mark’s photography (and the Photoshop work which he relies on) is interesting, but how will it translate into other mediums (his found item sculpture was pretty generic); Erik’s work isn’t particularly great as a whole, but the notion of an untrained artist stretching himself for the first time is compelling as an individual journey. Rather than holding the artists to a single standard of competitiveness or skill, the series sort of requires a sliding scale: there are no “basic skills” an artist needs to be successful, so while the “Judges” are holding them to a general criteria we as an audience create our own perspective on each artist and judge them accordingly.
No reality show is able to take complete control of its narratives: while editing allows for producers to try to create villains or fan favourites, the fact remains that people will view every situation differently. For example, The Amazing Race seemed to think that I would find Margie and her deaf son, Luke, an inspiring team, but I never warmed to their style of running the race or the ways in which they seemed to over-emphasize (through editing, of course) Luke’s disability as opposed to simply running a good race in spite of it. This didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the season, but it did sort of keep me at arm’s length, drawing attention to the role the editors were playing in attempting to construct my experience – I could tell I was being forced in one direction, and while I don’t kid myself about reality television’s “reality” it does take you out of the moment.
However, I don’t think that Work of Art has any control over viewer narratives, much as it has no control over an objective definition of art – the judges have credibility in the sense that they’re experienced, but the subjectivity of art means that their decisions are inevitably going to clash with a fairly substantial portion of the viewing audience (who may not have had a different opinion of that piece, but may have felt that other pieces were worse). Until the final critique, the viewer is their own narrator, able to focus on the evolution of a particular artist (like Peregrine, whose pieces were quite good last week but were entirely ignored) independent of the competition at hand – in the end, the judges take over and decide who was in the top and who was in the bottom, but the fact is that the viewers have already made that determination long before the judges, and I don’t think the show’s judges have enough credibility to supersede one’s opinion of something so subjective. I trust Michael Kors or Nina Garcia because there are things about fashion design which I know are rigid and structural and that I simply don’t understand well enough to comment on; however, outside of failed execution and poor craftsmanship, I’m not willing to say the same about art, so I’m less willing to turn over that sort of control over my response to each week’s pieces.
This tension between the viewer and the judges could signal that the series is a failure (in that it won’t truly find the “Next Great Artist,” a ridiculous title that completely ignores the reality of the art world), but I’d argue that it’s a rather wonderful result of Bravo’s attempt to turn art into a competition. It may not be entirely intentional, but the flaws in the series’ design (the forced competition, the highly subjective judging) are what force the viewer to engage in their own critical faculties as opposed to accepting what they’re being told by the production team. It makes us engage in the act of judgment in our own personal fashion, and while it may mean that we check out early (in that our personal favourites could be eliminated before the competition comes to an end) it also means that we connected with the series at a level beyond pure entertainment. It’s not dissimilar to how Ryan approaches the competition, in a sense: he’s there to learn, and to some degree I feel like the audience is watching in order to learn about how artists work, and how that work is altered, bastardized, or maybe even helped by the experience of competing in a highly creative environment.
There are contestants who manage to quite successfully bridge the two worlds: Nicole, for example, has defined herself as a competitive person and is clearly in the competition to win it, but her work is compelling and she seems to be more naturally competitive than reality television competitive. Miles, meanwhile, manages to encompass the central duality of the series. On the one hand, we get a glimpse of an intensely internal process, an artist with extreme OCD and anxiety troubles whose work is high concept and involves weird techniques; however, on the other hand, he’s often the first to criticize the work of others, and he’s perhaps the most talkative out of anyone in terms of describing his experience. He’s the missing link, if you will, between the art world and reality television, compelling in both mediums and worth following both as an artist and as a character; it’s only fitting that he would put himself into his piece during the second week, as he is the one artist who feels comfortable (despite being entirely uncomfortable) in both worlds.
This is not a serious show about art or a cutthroat reality series, and it will never successfully be either of those two things so long as it remains in its current form. But accepting it as a strange amalgam of artistic freedom and the restrictions of reality competition programming, it’s compelling in a fashion I wasn’t expecting. Simon de Pury seemed like he was going to be overly serious, but he has ended up being wonderfully wry, able to take things seriously while acknowledging that he’s part of a competition which isn’t particularly serious (a balance which Tim Gunn, frankly, has lost over the years on Project Runway). And while I don’t particularly like the host or the judges, that’s only assisting my creation of an alternate narrative where the artists are oppressed, creating work which reflects both the demands of the thought police and their personal expression. And really, that’s what every reality competition series is about, finding people who are able to express themselves in unique ways within the confines of clear instructions (whether they be designing an outfit, cooking a meal, or creating a work of art).
That it’s particularly counter-intuitive in this instance makes Work of Art a strange exercise, but I’d argue that the result is more fascinating than facetious. There’s a chance that Magical Elves will seek to eliminate points of tension by eliminating those contestants who aren’t playing along, and that the duality I find so compelling will fade with time, but for now the series is flawed in just the right way to have me captivated.
- I watched the show based on some recommendations on Twitter as well as a thought I had last week while watching So You Think You Can Dance? about the relationship between reality competition and commercial (rather than artistic) potential. That hasn’t become a huge turning point thus far, but Mark’s work is highly commercial and it hasn’t been devalued compared to his artistic competitors, and the Book Cover challenge did a nice job of capturing the way in which commercial work supports artists (and how someone like Judith is resistant to those sorts of developments). Consider that an essay for another day, as there’s too much else to talk about with the show to really get into it.
- I get that Magical Elves loves having contestants pick trade-related items in choosing teams or picking different subjects, but I think paint tubes rank pretty far below drawing knives or even the button bag. They’re awkward, unattractive, and it just looks weird – they could have at least gone with paintbrushes.
- I enjoyed that they allowed Andres Serrano (who was pretty great overall, really) to more or less say that the “shocking” challenge was insane: the notion of being able to shock on demand, without much time to prepare, is the definitive example of rushing the creative process. While Abdi is struggling with time management in a very Project Runway fashion (having a good idea and being forced to compromise due to time), the other contestants seem to be struggling more with not thinking big enough, likely because they have so little time to finish a work that they don’t want to get in over their heads, an environment which isn’t likely to create truly shocking work.
- I raised this point on Twitter, but the fact that John’s winning book cover (which I quite liked) for The Time Machine is on store shelves marred by a banner at the top of the page marketing it as being from the series is so backwards I don’t know where to begin: the point was to create a “fine art” cover for the cook to increase its artistic value, and then they slap a logo on it and ruin any artistic merit it might have had? So much for being an honour.
- The artists don’t have any issues criticizing one another’s work, but they’re also willing to acknowledge when they’re feeling intimidated by another artist, so I think the show has thus far shown a pretty balance glimpse into artistic egos (which aren’t running rampant, by any means).