“Kitsch Me If You Can”
October 12th, 2011
As we drew closer to the season premiere of Bravo’s Work of Art, I began to get very nervous.
Last summer, I wrote a number of pieces that I think accurately capture my general obsession with this show, a complex and enormously flawed exercise that revealed things about the artifice of reality programming, the perils of reality editing, and the challenge of combining reality competition structure with something as purely subjective as fine art. However, while these difficulties may make it problematic within the fine art community, as a television critic I found Work of Art to be one of the most truly satisfying reality series I had ever seen. Each episode showed us something new about the artist, and their personal narratives were constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed numerous times over the course of the season. So whether I was writing about the show at large, or about two of its contestants (Miles Mendenhall and Jaclyn Santos), I had a lot to say.
Sadly, I will not have time to say as much this fall simply due to time constraints, but going into tonight’s premiere I wondered if I was going to have anything to say at all. For some reason I became profoundly worried as of late that the show wouldn’t be able to catch lightning in a bottle twice, especially since it didn’t seem like the show did so on purpose last time around. The tension that once sat at the center of the show could easily be diffused with a production staff now aware of the series’ flaws, and a set of contestants who fully understand what it is that the show is trying to accomplish.
While I have not seen beyond tonight’s premiere, I feel as though I can state with some authority that all has not been lost. “Kitsch Me If You Can” is an extremely strong opener, managing to introduce the artists while simultaneously focusing almost exclusively on their process rather than their personalities. Although “The Sucklord” may be larger than life, for the most part the cast seems to consist of artists with points of view who will be tested and tested again over the course of the competition.
And the results, at least in tonight’s finale, were pretty fantastic.
August 4th, 2010
New York Magazine’s Art Critic Jerry Saltz is aware that Work of Art is less than revered within the art community, a response which Carolina A. Miranda nicely captured at TIME this week. In his review of last night’s final episode before the finale, Saltz reflected on the experience as he saw it, partly out of an effort to convince his critics that he wasn’t sullying his name through his participation and partly to convince himself of the same:
I know that much of the art world is appalled that an art critic would even be on a reality show. I feel this way sometimes, too. Yet, leaving after this episode I felt more as I do when I’m teaching, and get totally involved with students whose names I will not remember in 24 months. Only, I was pouring everything I had into this TV show and these artists…I began to see that with only one week to go that this whole experience, weirdness, wildness and all, was forming into some sort of larger whole.
I’ve written a great deal about how the show has been a mess of contradictions, so tonight’s episode was a key test of whether or not it would reach some form of cohesive conclusion; as Saltz notes, “involvement” is a key factor in any reality show, wherein we get caught up in each character’s journey and it becomes less about the general premise (finding the next great artist, or the top chef, or the next great fashion designer) and more about choosing which of the final contestants deserves their shot at stardom. It’s a key difference, and I think that Saltz nicely captures what I’ve witnessed from the comfort of my couch: through all of its contradictions, Work of Art is a competition which intensely focuses on the creative process, which makes its conclusion seem like far more of a personal journey than other reality series.
Or, at least it does for the artists who embraced the idea as Saltz did.
Getting Some Feedback: A Top Chef Failure and a Work of Art Worry
July 8th, 2010
I have yet to blog about this year’s season of Top Chef’s seventh season, and I really wish that I wasn’t doing so under these particular circumstances, but “Room Service” was such a failure that I have a few thoughts on where precisely it went wrong (although Scott Tobias has a more complete rundown of the episode at The A.V. Club). The notion of introducing a tournament-style competition in order to send two chefs home isn’t the worst idea, as they’re trying to create competition between the chefs (especially after the hyper-competitive elements last season) and this forces Kenny and Angelo’s rivalry to the forefront and draws further tension from the various chefs. However, the way in which that competition was actually executed failed to actually highlight the weakest chefs, instead punishing good chefs for small mistakes while rewarding weaker chefs for a single quality dish in what was an otherwise disastrous performance.
And while I want to highlight a few problems, one thing I want to focus on specifically is a lack of feedback within the process, which was also central to part of last night’s episode of Work of Art, which I want to discuss briefly as well.
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.