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Bravo's Work of Art: Wherein Highbrow Marries Lowbrow and It Lasts -- At Least 'Til Nullification

Bravo's new competitive reality show brings art into our living rooms, but do we lose some of the romance of the art world when we see it on TV?

Work of Art: The Next Great Artist

Airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm
Cast: China Chow, Simon de Pury
Subtitle: Season 1
Network: Bravo

The phrase “the art world” can conjure vague, non-specific images: galleries, standing still and speaking in hushed tones, wine, pretension, and climate controlled rooms. For many, "art" in the "high art" sense is not a part of day-to-day life, except on the rare occasions a nearby city has an interesting or controversial exhibit, or when we’re invited to a friend’s art school graduation, and on such occasions, we take the time to browse and ponder art affixed to walls, pedestals, hanging from ceilings...

Regular exposure to such "institutionalized" art requires, for many, the concentrated effort to go off the beaten path. Luckily for those whose museum attendance record is somewhat lacking, Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist brings that world into our living rooms in a recognizable, Bravo-styled format (Work of Art follows the successful Project Runway/Top Chef reality competition template). What results is an art competition that marries the highbrow world of finer things with the lowbrow world of reality television for a slightly dramatic, generally pleasant evening of television.

In the process, however, a few romantic notions about art, artists, and creation fall prey to the demands of the competitive reality show format. The hazy, idealized world of creation and inspiration is replaced with the reality of working on tight deadlines, being forced way out of one’s comfort zone, and open discussions of the commercial factors that can determine an artist’s success.

The result is a show that highlights how diverse the art world is while simultaneously simplifying it. From the fact that the artists on Work of Art share common ground in that they could categorize their careers under the general umbrella of “art” to the fact that there can be an uneasy relationship between artistic and commercial ambition, Bravo raises the issues of the diversity of the field and the marketplace while flattening them to meet the demands of producing satisfying television.

The first, and probably one of the most interesting elements of the show, is the aforementioned acknowledgment that “art” is a diverse field with multiple specialties, and therefore it features a wide variety of artists. In order to make Work of Art a workable competition, it then proceeds to fully ignore this fact. To be more specific, Work of Art features artists who work in a variety of media rather than a particular type of artist, which makes the show less a friendly competition among a group of painters and more like an obstacle course that winds around sculptures, textile displays, video installations... This "apples and oranges" approach to artists and their work is of course, is a font that can be tapped for great drama and suspense.

On Work of Art, the struggle to deal with the unknown is one of the main ways a narrative structure is produced for the audience, which comes not for the art, but for the drama. Without a real appreciation for what “works” in the contemporary art world, and, in many cases, without the ability to actually see these works in person, arguably the only way for viewers to understand the stakes of the competition is to give them a relatable story that speaks to the human experience. A good story for viewers to become invested in is one in which at least some of the protagonists are completely out of their element. Who doesn’t like a good underdog, after all?

This story is played out from week to week as different artists are asked to confront and then overcome the discrepancy between the demands of a particular challenge and their individual skill sets. For example, in episode two, “The Shape of Things to Come”, the artists were taken to an electronics graveyard and then asked to create a sculpture that re-imagined these items. The artists who worked in conceptual or three-dimensional fields were able to immediately develop a concept and determine what they needed. These same artists were also very excited and enterprising during their trip to the hardware store.

This isn’t to say that the painters, photographers, and digital artists in the group struggled with the three-dimensionality of the task, but in some cases it was clear during the actual art-making that a lack of practical skills could be a problem. While some of the two-dimensional artists were able to bring their skills into the challenge, a good example of the conflict of assigned challenge versus practical knowledge occurred when Jaclyn’s unfamiliarity with caulking prompted Ryan to put aside his own work and deliver a slightly dirty tutorial in how to make a tank watertight.

The moment was humorous and illustrative; while we laughed at the caulking lesson, we also saw the eternal struggle of an ambitious realist painter versus Bravo producers. In the end, Jaclyn’s tank couldn’t hold water and it wasn’t really clear what her piece meant to anyone, including her.

While we watch Work of Art’s contestants actively resist or struggle with challenges that are out of their depth, some idealized notions about the creative world end up flying out the window. Ideas like: creativity should trump the barriers to creation, that artists have a privileged way of seeing the world, and talent doesn’t restrict itself to a medium are effectively destroyed by the demands of the competition. Art becomes assignment, for better or worse.

On the one hand, it’s entertaining to see artists under the gun, thinking about composition and falling back on basic skills to produce something on a tight deadline. On the other hand, all the running around and time keeping can ruin the illusion that art is the child of sudden inspiration, conceived during long periods of uninterrupted contemplation.

Aside from the fact that meeting deadlines and assignments are a real part of the life of the artist, the marketplace is a central concern for both the artists and the judges on Work of Art. This is particularly clear during the critique and judging portions of the show. While on America’s Next Top Model, a serious, damning charge to be leveled against an aspiring model is that she appears too “commercial”, on Work of Art the ability of a piece to not just to "be art", but also to sell, is a sometimes stated, but always present, concern of the judges (gallerist and art advisor Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, critic Jerry Saltz, collector and “art fan” Bill Powers, and lifelong friend of artists China Chow).

Maybe it’s romantic to think of art and artists as existing on a higher plane than the rest of us – one in which being underappreciated and starving for one’s craft are standard – but it can be slightly jarring for those of us living in the "real world" to hear an open discussion of art as commodity. While art such as the kind created here is, for many, a luxury, the judges voice opinions not just as art enthusiasts but also as salespeople looking to move pieces from their gallery walls to customers’ living rooms.

Compounded with this issue of assessing work by determining how well it might do as a commercial object, the entire show tends to self-reflexively offer its own commentary on how art and commerce blend when an artist competes on TV to become “the next great artist”. This conflict was specifically addressed in episode three, “Judging a Book by its Cover”, when the contestants were asked to produce covers for well-known titles in the Penguin Classics line. This meant that the challenge was limited, assignment work, and unambiguously commercial, as their work was actually to support and help sell another product.

For the first two episodes of the series, Work of Art’s artists were far less vocal than the judges about whether or not their work would sell, but in this particular episode, the marketplace and the fact that many of these contestants want to be active players in it was explicit. In the case of Judith, who actively and vocally resisted doing commercial assignment work, her problems with this and her inability to follow the implied rules of the task (which manifested in a cover design for Pride and Prejudice that featured the title written backwards) led to her dismissal.

Of course, no matter how they resist it, by virtue of appearing on a Bravo reality show, these artists are looking to make their names known and improve their artistic -- and financial -- profiles. Who can blame them? Before the credits roll, we know that everyone is vying for the $100,000 from Prismacolor in order to further his or her career. Signing a contract with Bravo and subjecting oneself to the demands of timed art challenges is an inherently commercial enterprise, designed to create exposure for one’s work (and generate possible sales) and to create a (hopefully) lucrative persona as a celebrity artist.

Despite the ways in which it tends to dance along the line of reducing art to assignment work driven by market demands, Work of Art gives viewers a glimpse into a world that many have probably not encountered. For several people watching this show while lying on their sofas, it’s the closest they’ll ever come to art school. Ultimately, the fun of Work of Art is the way in which the show engages with the idea of the unknown, and the numerous possibilities that lay in a pile of discarded electronics.

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