Alternate Reality

Michael Wilson at a preview of Bravo’s Work of Art

New York

Left: Work of Art judges Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Jerry Saltz. Right: Work of Art producers Dan Cutforth and Sarah Jessica Parker. (All photos: Barbara Nitke/Bravo)

WITH VERY FEW EXCEPTIONS—PBS’s Art:21 and the occasional British import—contemporary art is conspicuous by its absence from mainstream American TV. To some this might seem a rank injustice, but given the obvious pitfalls, it may equally represent a lucky escape. Arriving at the Paley Center for Media for a Wednesday evening preview of Bravo’s new reality series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, I felt more trepidation than would have accompanied any insider event. How would the art world fare at the hands of producers who aimed to do for it, in the words of the cable channel’s Frances Berwick, “what we’ve done for fashion and food”? Would the featured artists (who are, of course, pitted against one another in the bankable manner of Project Runway, Top Chef, and RuPaul’s Drag Race) survive the presumed emphasis on pizzazz? And would the judges shed all credibility by association with this demotic form?

Taking a seat (the crowd was split between journos and those who I took, by their relatively well-heeled appearance, to be industry types), I settled in for a screening of the hour-long first episode. Intimacy with the subject of such a program tends to make the viewer hypersensitive to the details of its construction, and such was the case here. Editing was staccato and manipulative, competitors seemed to have been chosen entirely for their looks (though the judges later denied this), and “reality” seemed very far away indeed as the familiar struggles of most artists were displaced by a hothouse fantasy of prestocked studios and Project Runway–style accommodations designed to spark rivalry from the get-go.

The artists, competing for the mixed blessing of a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum (Artnet’s Walter Robinson later wondered how the show’s producers, Magical Elves, secured the venue—apparently they just asked), ran the gamut of stereotypes from untrained and overawed to world-weary and imperious, though most had their quirks. And while the majority were young and telegenic, there were one or two exceptions. The host was immaculate ’90s It Girl China Chow (additionally qualified for the role by having been “born into a family of collectors”); the “mentor” was auctioneer Simon de Pury (presumably Tobias Meyer had other commitments); and the judges were Jerry Saltz, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, and Bill Powers, fashion-forward proprietor of Half Gallery. Contributing a bit of real star power, executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker also made a brief appearance.

Left: Work of Art host China Chow. Right: Work of Art mentor Simon de Pury with Work of Art judge Bill Powers.

As the competition’s first challenge—the artists were paired off and asked to make portraits of each other—rattled toward its conclusion (the usual dramatic “voting-off” shenanigans), I found myself paying less and less attention to the (overwhelmingly dire) work and more to compiling a list of sententious quotes: “Wall power, that’s what you want” (de Pury); “To you, it’s a portrait, but to no one else will it ever be a portrait” (Saltz); “I’m getting falling leaves, is what I’m getting off this” (Powers), and the definitive “There’s no excuse for a bad painting” (Saltz again). Also good for a laugh were token tough guy Erik Johnson asking de Pury—to bemused reaction—if he fancied hitting a strip club after the show; senior feminist Judith Braun clashing with junior sexpot Jaclyn Santos; and Chow’s chilling dismissal of the show’s first loser: “It’s been said that good art isn’t what it looks like but what it makes us feel. Your art didn’t make us feel anything.” Ouch.

The Q&A that followed—host and judges, along with SJP and co-producer Dan Cutforth, were all present—was good-natured, perhaps because most questions came from TV folk astonished that a show about art could be anything other than “stuffy” (initially misheard by Saltz as “scuzzy”). Accessibility was stressed again and again, but while it would be po-faced indeed to ignore the show’s more amusing interactions, it was hard to avoid feeling that some valuable middle ground between fusty and trashy was being overlooked. And when the panelists were asked whether they had managed to find “the next great artist,” I think we can take that long, awkward pause—Saltz’s shit-stirring claim “I saw artists here that were better than artists in the Whitney Biennial” notwithstanding—as a probably not. Oh well. The tribe has spoken.