Work of Art: The Next Great Artist

by by Amy Lehrburger

For a genre of mainstream entertainment, reality television is certainly large, and contains multitudes. In the last decade and a half, television producers have plumbed every corner of Real Life for watchable content. Singers, chefs, celebrities who can’t dance, cops, mothers with problem children—all have had their moment in the sun.
Bravo, a cable network owned by NBC, has demonstrated a knack for the reality TV subgenre of professional competition. Using a standard structure (pretty host, famous judges, British mentor, dramatic contestants, contrived challenges, gradual elimination, and of course: grand prizes), Bravo has produced near countless professional competition programs. This past summer, Sarah Jessica Parker’s production company Pretty Matches premiered Bravo’s newest competition series: Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. Fourteen eager contestants were pitted against each other over the course of ten episodes in competition for the grand prize: $100,000 and a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
Not surprisingly, the Art World proper took offense. Critics of the show (a drove of purists: artists, critics, and tastemakers) begged the junk culture factory of formulaic reality programs to keep its hands to itself. That art could be made under the same conditions as dresses (from recycled material!) or cakes (for vegan celebrity judges!) was seen as fundamentally preposterous.1 However, most attacks on the show were thinly veiled—and in some cases, embarrassed—yelps of self-defense. Real-life artists and critics spoke out against the show to preserve a fantasy upon which the majority of the contemporary art market relies: that art is pure, autonomous, creative expression and that there are only a few people in the world—a critical elite—who can tell whether art is good or bad.

The show itself is as enjoyable as any reality television program—you’re either the kind of person who TiVo’s it or you’re not. But the conversation that it spawned was more substantive than any surrounding Project Runway or Shear Genius.
The Work of Art Facebook page exploded with petty, but prolific, commentary throughout the course of the show, gathering momentum during the season. Users posted reactions after every episode, griping about perceived injustices to favorite contestants. Cathy Cooper wrote on August 6 at 11:04 AM, following the penultimate episode, “Jackie is a talentless climber. Miles is a shallow technician. Abdi needs to bust his cherry. Nicole got robbed. And Peregrine needs to win just cuz the weirdos need to be represented.”2
Work of Art’s first season’s judges were Bill Powers, the handsome co-owner of Half Gallery in New York, Jerry Saltz, husband to Roberta Smith and New York Magazine art critic, and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, self-proclaimed “tastemaker” and founder of Salon94.  Art World insiders blogged their damndest to excommunicate these high-profile judges who had committed the low-brown crossover. Saltz complained, “People in the art world keep pulling me aside at openings and earnestly whispering, “Jerry, please stop.”3 In response, the formerly well-respected judges all defended their right to cross the high-low divide. Powers, in an interview with W.M. Akers of the Observer hypothesized “If Andy Warhol were alive today, he’d be an executive producer of reality television.”4 This fairly mundane bickering occurred as the series unfolded. What makes any of this chatter exciting are interjections on Facebook and blogpost comments from Art World outsiders, people who wouldn’t normally be privileged to participate in the meta-critical debate.
As the episodes aired this summer, Saltz diligently related his experience filming and then re-watching Work of Art along with the general public on a New York Magazine blog. In his recaps, he offers personal insights into the dynamic of the show’s cast, sprinkling the commentary in references to the MoMA and Sol LeWitt. The reflections on have hundreds of comments. So do the hyperlinks to them on his Facebook page. Of course, some of this conversation is he-said-she-said,5 but some of it is rich critique.6 Viewers share opinions on the actual art: whether they like it, why they like it, what it’s about anyway. In one of Saltz’s last posts, he calls these mixed threads the “edge of criticism”—the outskirts of the realm of art criticism that is “serious but not sacred.”7 Bringing fine art to television calls for a familiarly casual conversation about the program, de-sacralizing artistic discourse for anyone with cable.


For almost a decade, reality television programs have been experimenting with how to draw viewers into immersive multimedia experiences. American Idol relies heavily on audience voting; web-exclusive video clips lure audiences to show websites. The online discussion surrounding Work of Art is evidence of its audience’s more active use of the internet to enhance their television habit. It speaks to the fact that professional competition television is addictive for two reasons, regardless of whether or not contestants produce anything ‘good.’ First, it’s informative. Work of Art educates its audience with content: technique, vocabulary, and materials. Second, it’s a platform for viewers to experiment with opinions. All reality television amplifies the audience’s critical power. Work of Art invites couch criticism from a demographic that would never walk into Gagosian Gallery and say, “That doesn’t work for me.”8 The online exchange demonstrates a ‘conversation for the sake of conversation’ without thought as to whether one’s vote counts in the ultimate outcome of the program. It’s an experimentation with personal opinions liberated by the semi-anonymous, semi-intelligent space of the internet.
Rather than an accurate reflection of real life, reality television is the collective imagining of an alternate, less rational world. It’s a creative hypothesis of what sort of art and what sort of conversation about that art—a culture would have if artists all lived together in a fancy loft and had only two days and two hundred dollars to make shocking art.9 It’s a watch-and-see experiment about what happens when husbands trade wives, when strangers go Lord-of-The-Flies on a desert isle, when neighbors redecorate each others’ living rooms. Reality television is a guess at what dinner would be like if every night, home cooks opened up a basket with a secret ingredient inside.10 It begs viewers to form opinions on these potential realities, and those attitudes affect their taste and behavior.

Following harsh criticism, Jerry Saltz posted a Facebook note offering seven reasons as justification for his role on Work of Art.11 The first one speaks to this fantasy dimension/dementia of reality television. “For me, the show was an interesting thing to try.”12 For the producer, the network, the contestants and the viewers alike the show was exactly that, and interesting enough to try again. Work of Art has been renewed for a second season. This past Monday, Jerry Saltz posted the news on his Facebook wall: “The prod. co. called me but not Bravo which ‘reserves rights to alter format/ participants.’ I ran afoul of their legal dept. last season for all my writing on the show. Anyway, I plan to say YES if...asked. If you HONESTLY think I should say NO - tell me WHY, seriously.”13 This vague allusion to legal restrictions on public commentary raises suspicions as to whether the Art World could ever democratize in the capitalist realm of cable television. Regardless, within 24 hours, there were 233 comments answering Saltz with a resounding YES. The plugged-in public wants more positing of artistic prestige on reality game shows, whether or not it erodes the much-loved ideology of artistic genius and critical elite.

Amy Lehrburger B’10.5 is awaiting friend confirmation from Jerry Saltz.


1 Art critic Linda Yablonsky writes: “It’s just that I didn’t much like seeing my profession represented as a self-important and superficial practice.
4, The What Would Warhol Do argument might stand; In 1966, Warhol produced what might arguably be the first piece of “reality TV.” Chelsea Girls, a whopping 3 ½ hour long film, is a split-screen documentary of women and various acquaintances living in the Chelsea Hotel.
5 Juliar87 on 07/15/2010 at 12:29am “as much as i am glad Eri”k” is gone...I couldn’t agree more with what he said about MILES. Someone needs to make a mixed media piece of miles sucking from an art world teet. yeah, i said it.”
6 Elias Nebula on 07/28/2010 at 11:26pm “Miles’s idea of maleness as a punched hole in a wall was almost as obvious as the heaven/hell diptych if you ask me.”
8 Work of Art’s tag exit phrase is: “Your work of art didn’t work for us.”
9 Episode 4 is titled “A Shock to the System:” No joke. “The artists are challenged to create a piece that is shocking and memorable, and speaks to issues that are important to them personally”
10 I’m thinking Wife Swap, Survivor, Trading Spaces, and Chopped, respectively.
11 145 people like this. 282 people commented on this.
12 Other reasons Saltz outlined included: “The show is not the main thing I do” and “Each of us uses what we have, hopefully for rightous [sic] purposes.”!/notes/jerry-saltz/we-contain-multitudes-a-few-words-about-work-of-art/285101609966