The Work of Art in the Age of the MFA

Three weeks ago, Bravo’s Work of Art: Search for the Next Great Artist has came back for round two.

Freshly graduated with my BA in Art, I remember I was instantly intrigued when promos for the premiere of Bravo’s latest endeavor began airing last summer. With ads informing me this mysterious program was backed by Sarah Jessica Parker (I know, I didn’t know she was that into art either), and purporting to be in search of greatness? … well, how could I possibly say no?

Sarcasm aside, I was for obvious reasons both excited by, and skeptical of, the capabilities of a reality TV show about producing works of art.

To a degree, the reality TV formula prevailed. The challenges were necessarily contrived, the “edited for TV” artist critiques never did justice to the pieces (which were appropriately hung in the show’s made for TV gallery). Outlandish elimination lines (“ art is about what works, (and) your work of art didn’t work for us”) were only outdone by the cookie-cutter artist personalities, selected with exacting precision. This season’s week one elimination went to a character named Ugo. He filled the, shall we say, “attractive male with an accent” box. He was French, and he apparently got (I quote) “inspiration from women.”

China Chow and Judge/Artist mentor Simon de Pury. Image BravoTV.com

Obvious tropes aside, it was, and is, as amusing a show as any. Something worked. Despite the unadulterated joy I receive from China Chow’s painfully “artsy” outfits, and well-placed dramatic music, my total fascination lies in Work of Art judge Jerry Saltz post-show commentary. Published online in the New York Times Vulture, it is Saltz blatantly honest weekly musings which, for me, gives the questions implicated by the show their punch. In a world where everyone is afraid to have a sense of humor about the thing it loves so dearly, Saltz manages the intricate balance of taking art seriously when it needs to be, and calling out the things that are just plain ridiculous. For I think that we can and must be critical of art, without always turning the criticism toward the piece itself per say. Finding something farce (this season’s contestant Sucklord?) is not automatically diss to art as a practice; is not always automatically irreverent.

Particularly resonating, was Saltz week one comment about the show’s crits:

“My fellow-judge Bill Powers rightfully calls the show Work of Art: The Next Great Grad School. We often spend 45 minutes reviewing a single piece. These crits are as intricate and intense as any I’ve been in at Yale or Columbia…. If I were creating the show for myself, I’d make each episode three hours of crits, but TV is not grad school.”

Season Two contestants. Image BravoTV.com.

And Saltz is right, TV is not grad school. Though, if there were a camera in my Senior Studio course, I’m fairly certain similar moments could be captured without too much trouble. Saltz writes of the show, “it doesn’t feel destructive, vile, or annoying like these other things do. Okay, maybe it’s annoying sometimes.”  I would add, is the show any more destructive or contrived an environment than that which circulates in so many art schools? Frankfurt School writers such as Walther Benjamin, and his essay Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction mention in past posts by Katerina, would certainly be weary of assigning any innocence to the camera or the culture machine, but I think there is something to be said about the insular nature of the two environments.

In the art world, when you “gain admission,” an unwritten contract has to been signed. In its fine print, it delineates that given the proper requirements (established name, established venue), when art is presented in that space it is to be taken seriously: you must abide by these rules. Work of Art has the conditions, the established names, but the platform of reality TV? Many of you might say, where to begin?

But I would counter, that while the art world is so ready to point out perceived falseness, it is often too afraid to do it in the places that matter most. For the sake of keeping the idea of “art” intact, sarcasm is called out as pure mockery; an affront to the value of all art. Living in the world of the contemporary art market, one often feels as through they are swimming against a tide of a perpetual sea of insincerity.

So despite what you may think of Work of Art, sometimes I feel like, especially in the art world, we could all do with a little more self-reflexivity and little less… you fill in the blank.

Alicia Dillon

Alicia is a former CCT Graduate Student.