Worked Over: Jaclyn Santos’ Online Reclamation of her Work of Art Narrative
August 7th, 2010
In profiling Work of Art contestant Miles Mendenhall, I highlighted how his behavioural multiplicity both serviced and undermined traditional reality show narratives and editing practices; however, at the end of the day, the fact is that even those who find fault in Miles’ behaviour have few issues with his art. The series may have portrayed him as a jerk, but the series never went so far to blur the lines between his actions and his artistic expression.
However, I think artist Jaclyn Santos has a fair case for the fact that the editors were not quite so kind, although it is fairly clear how and why this happened. For better or for worse, Santos’ use of her own image created a direct connection between her behaviour and her artwork, and while this led to some of her most successful pieces it was also a key element in the producers’ efforts to paint her into a box throughout the editing process. If Miles carefully controlled his behaviour to appeal to the basic structure of reality television, Jaclyn purposefully positioned her work as both intensely personal and as a direct subversion of the male gaze, which gave the editors plenty of opportunities to paint her into a corner.
However, Jaclyn’s true subversion has taken place after the competition came to a close: frustrated with how she was being portrayed, her personal blog has evolved from an opportunity to celebrate her appearance on the series to an effort to reclaim her personal reputation and her artistic point of view from what she sees as Bravo’s manipulative editing. Investigating that blog offers a glimpse of something we rarely see: a reality contestant confronting their depiction head on, in the process heightening the series’ clear – and likely unintended – willingness to unearth the contradictions and conflicts inherent in reality television as a whole.
While I’m sympathetic to her frustrations, I think that her post-show efforts to set the record straight has transformed her experience from lemons to lemonade, and furthered the series’ reputation as the most frustrating yet fascinating reality series in recent memory.
Admittedly, my response to Jaclyn during the competition was never particularly positive: while I thought her work came from an interesting perspective and I respect her efforts to confront the male gaze, her work lacked a clear narrative of growth or adaptation. While her work was most interesting when she made herself or the observer her subject, there came a point in the competition where you wanted Jaclyn to confront something new, something different. When she did deviate from this strategy (the childhood challenge, the final nature challenge), it seemed as if each piece lacked something of herself, which proved a stark contrast with her more personal pieces and contributed to the sense that she was an artist who was either uncomfortable or unwilling to deviate from her chosen point of view.
Now, as I noted in profiling Miles, it is impossible to know how accurate this perception is, and I certainly don’t use it to judge Jaclyn’s abilities as an artist. Instead, I’d say that I’m willing to judge Jaclyn as a contestant on this particular reality series – while other designers like Abdi seemed to throw themselves into each challenge in search of a deeper purpose of their artwork, and Peregrine and Nicole each seemed purposefully playful in each week’s designs, Jaclyn’s measured but somewhat narrow approach was intriguing but ultimately less dynamic. I don’t see this as some sort of fatal character flaw, but I do think that reality competitions like this one value a willingness to diversify. It reminds me a bit of Project Runway’s Rami, a talented designer whose love for draping eventually wore the judges thin after it was the basis for 90% of his designs. There was no question that he was extremely good at draping, and that draping is a strong aesthetic when executed properly, but there came a point where the judges wanted him to embrace the competition’s potential a bit more. I think I reached that point with Jaclyn, which is why I was satisfied with her exit in the next-to-final episode: reflective of her strong work within the show, but also reflective of her inconsistency.
However, my opinion on Jaclyn’s work has been thrown for a loop by the discovery of her own counter-narrative which she has constructed on her personal blog. If Miles is enigmatic, then Jaclyn is an open book: through her blog, we have been able to witness her transition from an artist looking to (justifiably) leverage her time on the show for professional gain to an artist desperate to rescue her reputation and the reputation of some of her fellow contestants from what she felt was an unfair depiction of their efforts. As she said before she set the record straight regarding her “Male/Female” challenge with Miles,
I’ll start out by saying I never wanted things to go down this way. While I enjoy writing, I never wanted to blog about this experience, and I certainly never wanted to take a defensive position. I’d hoped this show would reflect my character in a positive and true light and I could be proud of the show and an ambassador for it.
Watching her perspective change over time is one of the most interesting glimpses into the experience of a reality competition contestant that I’ve ever seen. At first, Jaclyn is a young and hopeful artist who believes that Work of Art could be her big break:
YouTube – Jaclyn Santos
This video, posted on the website the day Work of Art premiered, is almost tragic in hindsight: her initial excitement about the series, and her desire to tweet (more on that later) and blog about her experience, establishes her goal of creating a connection between her professional image and her time on the series. I want to make clear that this is not something I judge in any fashion, as all artists want to be able to do what they love and many contestants likely agreed (at least implicitly) to be a part of it in hopes that it would be the start of the next stage of their career. Upon her exit from the series, answering questions from her readers, Santos looked back and admits that she had thought that more people would be watching, that it would become a phenomenon rather than a fairly niche series. You can see that optimism in her video: she may know at that moment that she isn’t Work of Art’s “Next Great Artist,” but you can see how she nonetheless views the series as a huge opportunity for her future.
However, the optimism begins to fade away almost immediately. It begins with a simple clarification regarding whether she was offended by Judith’s portrait in the season premiere, but the following week you can see her realize that details which she felt were important to her process were entirely absent (like how her failure to construct a tank capable of holding water was a result of budgetary constraints along with technical difficulties). Up to this point, she uses the blog in order to add to the narrative as it was depicted, filling in more on her process in order to extend the series’ interest in capturing how artists make art. There is some slight tension with the way in which she is being portrayed, but ultimately her hopefulness seems to be largely intact.
Following the third episode, though, she comes directly into conflict with reality television as a genre when she discusses what she terms “Frankenbiting,” the common practice of stringing together bits and pieces from different interviews. She laments that
I was represented to look as though I really put no thought into the concept of the work, and that for some bizarre, inexplicable reason I simply desired to pose seductively for the camera and make that into a book cover.
When trying to reconcile Jaclyn’s point of view throughout the competition, this week was always the most problematic for me: while her self-portraiture seemed conceptually deployed in other challenges, there was nothing about her cover which seemed to relate to the central themes of Pride & Prejudice (which the editors made sure to point out that she hadn’t read). It turns out that Jaclyn’s imagery was quite purposeful, if perhaps a bit too vague to connect with even those who have read the book, but the editors saw something they were more interested in capturing: by putting herself into her artwork, something which she does a great deal in her body of work, Jaclyn inadvertently became the poster child for artists who use their work as self-reflection.
With that challenge in particular, this undermined her legitimacy in that it seemed almost vain to use her own emotions and her body as opposed to trying to capture the book for which she is designing a cover – however, Santos claims that this was entirely fabricated from thin air, and that at no point was the cover meant to reflect herself. The problem is that the producers want it to be a reflection of her so that they can craft a season-long narrative of self-discovery (albeit one which never reaches its potential, as far as the edit was concerned): isn’t it more powerful to see Jaclyn putting herself on display for the gallery visitors to deface in the following episode if we saw her struggle to capture her identity the previous week? Because Jaclyn made a habit out of using her own image in her pieces, the producers wanted to establish this as soon as possible, which resulted in a situation where Santos using a photo of herself as a point of reference for a generic image becomes part of that larger narrative.
Over the weeks, Santos has worked to rescue her personal and professional reputations from this narrative through her blog: rather than simply offering her own perspective on the story which the producers chose to depict, she has taken to constructing entirely separate narratives in opposition to those which appeared on television. She has an elaborate discussion of how she feels that producers actually manipulated Erik during the competition in order to guarantee his meltdown and subsequent elimination, and more recently she offered completely contradictory perspectives on the origin of her Male/Female collaboration with Miles and the piece which led to her own elimination.
On the surface, her desire is to set the record straight, whether it’s in regards to the real rules behind being able to use photos taken outside of studio time (and which other contestants took advantage of them and yet refused to allow her to do the same in the finale) or to simply contextualize her work in a way which the producers either weren’t interested in or didn’t have time for. However, the posts are intensely personal, a diary of sorts of how she has personally coped with being portrayed in a way which she feels does not reflect her character, and so there remains an element of self-justification: she wants to know that her time on the show wasn’t a waste, and that her experience will become, at the very least, a cautionary tale for any future contestants. While Miles worked to subvert the artifice of reality television by playing into their expectations within the competition, Jaclyn has chosen to subvert the genre by directly contradicting its version of reality as the series airs.
However, while Miles’ performance was celebrated by Bravo producers, Jaclyn’s performance has been shunned: according to Santos, Bravo blocked her from doing an exit interview with ArtInfo.com (which has been doing interviews with the other eliminated contestants), which suggests that they do not want to give Santos any public opportunities to share her side of the story. In this, we see that her blog is Santos’ most substantial contribution to this competition: it is not only that she went so far as to elucidate Bravo’s editing decisions and how she feels they manipulated reality, but she also forced Bravo to take a specific stand regarding whether or not they were willing to endorse her take on the season’s events. As it turns out, Bravo seems willing to allow her narrative of the events to stand, but her claim that they blocked her from doing an exit interview has subsequently disappeared from her blog(although a Twitterfeed auto-tweet and a reply to a fan confirm its existence, and Art Info actually talked to Jaclyn’s mother and was unable to get Bravo to comment on the issue). However, regardless of what went on in any official capacity, that there is any controversy at all indicates that there has been conflict created by Jaclyn’s blogging, which indicates the presence of real tension.
This conflict raises some really interesting questions about whether Work of Art is more manipulated than other reality series: while there are few reality contestants who go to this length to offer their own side of the story (I’ve certainly never seen one), is this because artists like Santos are particularly concerned about their public image or rather because her experience was vastly different from that of other reality contestants? For example, contestants on Top Chef should also be intensely concerned about their representation, in that their work on the show is potentially viewed as a symbol of their abilities (which doesn’t take into account the pressures of the challenge versus one’s normal working environment, a context which contestants hope future employers will understand), and yet we rarely see such direct efforts to fight back against certain editing jobs. The difference, I believe, comes in the fact that you can ultimately separate the chef from their food in Top Chef: Angelo may be portrayed as a pompous cad, but so long as his food is good his reputation is most clearly defined by what’s on the plate rather than the drama which takes place beforehand.
What I think happened with Jaclyn is that the line between art and persona were blurred through her use of her own image to the point where Bravo’s editing began to manipulate the viewer’s perception of both. It’s one thing for a reality series to misrepresent someone’s personality, as we accept that forty-four minutes won’t be enough to give us a glimpse of each individual contestant to the point where we have an accurate depiction of their character; however, it’s another for a series to misrepresent their artistic perspective, especially when that artistic perspective is as personal as it was for Jaclyn. While Miles reveled in this connection, using it to his advantage in order to perform well in the competition, Jaclyn was simply continuing to explore an issue she had explored in the past, creating a connection with her work which made it that much easier, and that much more damaging, for the editors to construct their own version of both her persona and her artistic perspective.
As a critical observer of reality television, I will admit that the notion of a reality television contestant having their actions manipulated doesn’t really bother me: I sympathize with Santos, but she has been able to offer her own side of the story, and ultimately that we’re even having this discussion sort of makes the whole process worth it, a point which Santos made herself:
As I’m writing this I find myself in an ironic situation: the artist who makes a piece about objectification ends up feeling violated and objectified. While I may detest my portrayal on this reality show thus far and balk at the dishonesty of the producers, it actually serves to validate my commitment to such issues.
This is par for the course for reality television, and I do think that Jaclyn’s idealistic hope that the series would live up to her lofty expectations was a pipe dream which has little to no basis in reality. However, what does bother me is that Ryan, whose work was similarly grounded in self-portraiture, was not treated with the same brush. If Jaclyn made herself more vulnerable to the editing process by placing so much of herself in her pieces, then Ryan should have been just as vulnerable, and yet his reliance on self-image was depicted as playful narcissism compared with Jaclyn’s brooding self-interest. Yes, Ryan generally seemed more playful than Jaclyn and had no clear artistic purpose for self-portrait beyond a sort of vanity, but all that proves is that Ryan is the yang to Jaclyn’s ying: while the judges used Jaclyn’s art in order to construct her persona, they used Ryan’s persona in order to construct our view of his art. Also, while I think that the issue was more complicated than this, I can’t help but note that the male self-image becomes playful and narcissistic while the female self-image becomes vulnerable, fragile – in both cases, the nuances of their perspective are lost in editing, and suddenly the reduction of their artistic points of view becomes an issue of gender and sexuality rather than simply an issue of “reality” and reality television.
I ultimately don’t feel comfortable wading into those issues of gender and sexuality in my role as a television critic, which is largely how I’ve been watching Work of Art. However, what fascinates me about Jaclyn’s post-show participation with the series’ narrative is how it has evolved from a primarily artistic discourse (offering further information on how and why her piece was created) into a discourse which surrounds reality television in general. While I think the show could potentially show us something about art, I think that it is more interesting when considered as a microcosm for numerous challenges facing reality competition series, and Santos’ blog is an invaluable glimpse at how the series changes in her own estimation and how viewers’ expectations have been similarly conflicted along the way. She began with brief tidbits about the behind the scenes goings-on of the process, and eventually she became so caught up in managing the series’ impact on her career that her blog becomes as much performance art as Miles’ multiplicity within the competition itself.
This isn’t likely to do much for her relationship with Bravo, but her blog certainly makes me reconsider her depiction on the show, which helps foster the critical gaze with which we should all view constructed television realities of this nature.
- I suggest checking out Jaclyn’s Twitter account for more interesting dialogue: her initial responses to the episode were little bits of commentary, some of which were actually quite positive and playful. However, over time her dialogue becomes an instant reaction to the editing of each episode, angry exclamations of frustration. If the blog posts are a measured statement on editing in reality television, the Twitter account offers a more immediate reflection of how she responded to the series’ choices. I’m also intrigued by her decision to Retweet various positive comments about her and critical comments about her depiction, which in some ways supports her argument and in other ways makes her efforts seem less analytical and more self-motivated.
- While I think that it would unfairly reduce her analysis of the experience, I do think that there is a noted increase in frustration in the blog posts as the judges seemed to start turning on Jaclyn and her creative vision – while the fact that these blogs are Jaclyn’s subjective perspective makes them fallible in a way not dissimilar from the series’ narrative itself, their entire value is built around their subjectivity, and so that her frustration with how the competition played out would become part of her discourse is only natural, and to my mind does not undermine her efforts.