Revisiting Cultural Learnings’ Work of Art Trilogy
August 11th, 2010
Tonight, Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist finishes its first season, but unfortunately I won’t be able to cover the finale as a result of some (exciting) personal events which will have me heading cross-country in the days ahead.
When the show began, I never expected I would be so concerned about not covering the finale: I don’t cover Bravo’s other series, Top Chef, on a regular basis, and I didn’t expect for Work of Art to really break that particular trend. I enjoy reality television on a weekly basis, but there are rarely series where there is reason to write about it each week.
However, what I very quickly realized is that Work of Art is a special breed: as flawed as it is fascinating, the series has endless potential which is forced to fight against a limiting structure and a reductive reality construct which is consistently subverted by the actions of the artists and the very process of art itself. And so, after catching up with the series a few episodes in, I sort of became obsessed with the show, and have turned out a lot more academic(-ish) writing about the show than I thought possible.
And so, if you’re just discovering the show now or want to see why I might be so obsessed with it, I figured I’d collect the Work of Art trilogy together in one place. The three pieces cover the conflict within the series’ application of reality competition artifice onto fine art, the complex performance art which its most recognizable contestant has used to dominate the competition, and one contestant’s decision to “go rogue” by offering her own version of events in each episode on her blog in order to reclaim her personal reputation from Bravo’s editors – I might not recommend the show as reality television for which one shuts off their brain, but I certainly recommend it for those interested in the genre as a whole, and hope these pieces capture why.
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.
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.
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.