Who is Miles Mendenhall? Confronting Work of Art‘s Enigmatic Antihero
August 4th, 2010
To take a page out of Mad Men’s book, “Who is Miles Mendenhall?”
In basic terms, Miles Mendenhall is one of the artists on Bravo’s Work of Art, simultaneously the summer’s most problematic and most fascinating reality series. The series is a total contradiction, emphasizing the value of art by subjecting artists to challenges which seem designed to dilute their work and maximize reality television drama, and yet the resulting pressure placed on artists gives us a front row seat to their creative process which would otherwise be impenetrable (I wrote more about this earlier this summer).
Miles sits at the heart of this contradiction, in that he seems to be the most talented artist amongst those remaining but is also the one contestant who is unquestionably “playing the game.” Never before has there been a reality television contestant whose behaviour revealed so clearly the slippery notion of “reality” within these series, and without him I strongly believe that Work of Art wouldn’t be half the series it is. Regardless of your opinion of the way he is playing the game, the fact remains that he has managed to be one of the first reality contestants in history who panders to the cameras while simultaneously subverting the artifice of the reality show he’s taking part of.
Love him or hate him, you’ve got to admit that’s a work of art.
In his New York Magazine piece on last week’s episode, judge Jerry Saltz commented on Miles’ persona, as he has perceived it:
For weeks, viewers have complained that Miles is “playing the judges.” I never noticed this in person — until this week. Just after guest judge Ryan McGinness was introduced, Miles lurched forward and cooed, “I adore your black-light installations, man.” I immediately realized that if he was ingratiating himself to McGinness, he was probably doing this with us all along. Look very closely at this scene and you’ll see me grimacing and turning away in total disgust.
However, is Miles’ behaviour that disgusting? Every week, contestants are asked to talk about how much they respect the guest judge’s work in a behind-the-scenes interview package so that the show can contextualize his or her importance in the art world, and all Miles is doing is taking that artifice and building it into the gallery sequence itself. On the one hand, Miles is trying to (as Saltz notes) ingratiate himself with the guest judge, but doing so also draws out the conflict between the serious nature of the gallery setting (which Saltz feels is violated by his disgusting brownnosing) and the way the series builds up the guest judge for the sake of television production.
It isn’t entirely clear what Miles’ final intention was, but I’d argue it doesn’t matter. Reality television’s editing process is so notoriously misleading that no contestant’s true identity can be definitively understood, as Charlie Brooker captures so wonderfully in this piece from his Screenwipe series:
What makes Miles so fascinating is that his motivations remain completely unclear even when the producers have every ability to present a definitive (if manufactured) image of his character. There are moments when Miles is given a clear villain edit, like this past week when he blatantly manipulated Jaclyn into posing nude for his own juvenile enjoyment, but there are other weeks when the series will focus on his quiet flirtations with Nicole or his personal struggles with OCD. While he is off in a corner struggling with his social awkwardness during the challenge itself, during the critique he may suddenly seem quite comfortable calling out another artist on their lack of creativity. I have no doubt that the editors could have created a one-sided portrait of Miles which made him either the villain or the tortured artist, and so it is incredibly meaningful that they chose not to offer such a definitive image.
I will agree with his fellow contestants that Miles is engaging in a form of performance art, but that performance is constantly changing. It is true that in some ways Miles gives the cameras everything they could want: his penchant for hiding himself in dark corners, using unorthodox methods, and sleeping to find inspiration represents the kind of obscure behaviour which the producers are looking to capture in creating the series. However, Miles isn’t content to play the role of the quiet, nervous, OCD-addled artist at all times; when asked to reflect on a childhood experience with art, Miles throws out the challenge entirely, choosing instead to blatantly recreate a previous work with no connection to his childhood. Suddenly, Miles’ motivations aren’t obscure at all: he doesn’t like the challenge, and so he phones it in. What fascinated me was that he claimed he wasn’t comfortable revisiting his childhood, and yet just a few weeks earlier he had used his first childhood erection watching The Little Mermaid as the inspiration for his “Shocking” piece. It’s yet another in a long list of contradictions, but I think that’s the point: he didn’t recreate a previous piece because he didn’t want to create something original, he did it because he wanted to see what he could get away with (it turns out quite a bit – his piece was comfortably in the middle).
However, let’s raise the question: what would have happened if he had gone to the critique for that piece, whether in the bottom or the top of the judges’ opinions? The nonchalant disregard for the challenge which we saw in his interview packages would have likely disappeared, replaced with a likely substantial explanation of how the duct tape pattern reflected the obscure landscape of his childhood and how the three rubber band balls represented his ways of using creation (in a very OCD-like fashion) to make sense of it. And the judges would have lapped it up, largely because it comfortably fits in with what they had seen of Miles to that point in the competition. His multiplicity drives his fellow contestants crazy – Ryan, in an exit interview, complained that
“when he would be in the studio, if he noticed he wasn’t getting any attention from the camera, he’d start throwing shit around and making a bunch of noise just to get attention…[H]e had this way of being either the cocky guy in the studio, slash asshole, and then when he was in front of the judges, he would sit there and almost break down into tears, and he’d start making his body shake, and all that sorts of stuff.”
And yet, while I understand where Ryan is coming from, I can’t get past the fact that Miles’ strategy is working: at this stage in the competition, he’s the frontrunner by a wide margin. I don’t know whether Miles planned it, but his performance has thrown the other contestants for a loop, to the point where Erik was largely eliminated as a result of his inability to reconcile Miles’ various personalities rather than any artistic deficiency (although Erik had plenty of those, as well).
Miles really is the Don Draper of reality television, balancing these different personalities with seemingly little difficulty: while Ryan seems to indicate that his act is “wrong” in some fashion, and not without some merit, I think there is plenty of evidence to indicate why Miles is incredibly smart to control his image as he does. Considering the fact that the judges are valuing intensely personal art above more abstract pieces, it is entirely in the contestants’ best interests to begin to merge their artistic expressions with the persona they present to the judges. Look at what happened to Abdi, for example: he started out as a young and confident artist with a vision, despite the fact that his artistic process was a last-minute rush to the finish line featuring numerous revisions, and so the judges expected that kind of work to continue. However, Abdi’s creative juices began to fade, and in recent weeks he has struggled mightily – in fact, Jerry Saltz actually suggested a few weeks back that Abdi’s recent work and his attitude towards that work (actually asking for feedback on how to improve) were making him reconsider the value of his earlier pieces. In fact, the only thing that saved Abdi last week was how much absent judge Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn liked his work before her trip to Europe, as she never got to see his confidence fade before her eyes.
Miles’ careful maintenance of his image with the judges is why he is in such a dominant position in the competition, but some would also argue that it’s why he has become the series’ villain. I see how some of his behaviour could be interpreted in that context, but I don’t think that anything about Miles (other than his artwork) is black and white. What fascinates me is that on the one hand he is living proof that you can make a compelling competition reality series about the artistic process, successfully balancing pandering for the cameras with a fascinating glimpse into how he creates some pretty impressive art. However, on the other hand, the fact that he is so capable of manipulating the competition to serve his needs indicates that the blind subjectivity of art makes this “competition” alarmingly malleable. He is the lifeblood of the series’ concept, willing to snipe at his fellow contestants when prompted by the producers, while simultaneously undermining their efforts to reconcile the reality television constructs with an honest appraisal of artistic value. He is the competition’s most serious contestant and also evidence for why we can in no way, shape or form take this competition seriously.
He reminds me, at least on the surface, of Russell Hantz, the recent Survivor contestant who made it his personal mission to play the game of Survivor like no one before him. He found immunity idols without clues, he burned people’s socks, and he manipulated his fellow contestants to within an inch of their life. However, in the game of Survivor this is to be expected: the game is all about “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast,” and so all Russell was doing was playing the game of Survivor to the extremes. Miles may be playing the game more than his fellow competitors, but I wouldn’t say that he is taking anything to the extreme: while some have argued that Miles purposefully manipulated Erik’s exit, for example, I don’t think Miles did anything but allow Erik’s self-destruction to continue unimpeded (or at least we didn’t see him do anything beyond that). Rather, it seems as if Miles has been labeled a Russell-esque villain largely because he’s the only person who’s bothering to play the game at all: if we are conditioned to search for a villain within our reality programs (as the recent Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains seems to indicate), then Miles is the only person who fits the bill if we consider “playing the game” to be the surest sign of villainy. And while I understand that some may consider “playing the game” to be especially egregious in a competition which surrounds the creation of art, all Miles is doing is taking advantage of the opportunity which the producers chose to give him in creating the series.
However, personally, I’m far too fascinated by Miles to possibly dislike him. There’s a wit to Miles’ actions, a twinkle in his eye, which separates him from reality “characters” like Russell whose one-dimensional villain shtick read as unpleasant rather than subversive; this doesn’t mean I condone all of his behaviour, but as a reality television viewer I’d rather have someone who self-awarely pushes the envelope in every direction than someone who consciously chooses to play a single role (say, as villain). There may be no way to truly know Miles’ true motivations within the highly manipulated reality of a series like Work of Art, but the sheer diversity of his behaviour over the course of the season is evidence that he is many things for many people, and that’s a rather cunning bit of performance art.
In the end, regardless of whether that makes him reality television’s biggest douchebag or a triumphant reality television antihero in your eyes, you can’t deny that the show would be more or less nothing without him – which, if I had to put money down, is likely what he set out to accomplish.
- I really recommend checking out Jerry Saltz’s blogs about the show at New York Magazine, as they are extremely insightful – for example, he revealed (as I alluded to above) that they actually took Jeanne’s previous opinion of Abdi into account before eliminating Mark. After the uproar over some of the eliminations in Project Runway’s sixth season, where normal judges Nina Garcia and Michael Kors were absent, it’s fascinating to hear that absent judges’ views became part of the decision process.
- What’s interesting is that the “Critics” here are much more like Survivor’s jury than they are, say, Top Chef or Project Runway’s panel of judges – the lack of pure objective markers, present in cooking and sewing, means that the judges are heavily influenced by their brief interactions with the contestants, and so a good critique can save a bad piece of art and a poor critique can stifle a potentially successful one (see: Nao’s performance work early in the season). It’s why I really can’t blame Miles for treating those critiques as performance space, as the judges seem to expect it (see: this week’s guest judge asking Jaclyn if she’s ever masturbated standing up, which was ridiculous).
- In terms of the competition at this point, I would argue that Nicole is the only person who could be able to challenge Miles – she’s been only occasionally spectacular (her electronics graveyard piece, for example), but she’s been pretty consistently interesting conceptually, so she could really come together at this late stage in the competition. Jaclyn has been in the top more, but I think that she lacks the ability to properly contextualize the evolution of her self-image within her work, which will keep her from defending its one-dimensionality in the same way that Miles can defend his.