Cast of the new reality show/Reuters/Bravo TV
Forget summer returns. Art is now being turned into the next reality show. "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist", which debuts on cable channel Bravo on Wednesday, June 9, pits 14 very different artists against each other in weekly challenges and awards the winner a $100,000 prize and a solo exhibition.
The question is, can highly personal, visual art be judged like a gourmet dish or a ready-to-wear collection? And is the rarefied world of art ready for a reality TV make-over? Another question the producers dodge is how the "artists" REALLY were chosen. Can we trust their judgment on art when, when, judging by the above photo, the artists are all young, attractive and quite photogenic. What - there are no good artists over, say, 50? No older men or women? Louise Bourgeois would have never made it through the first round; neither would most of the artists whose works now grace our museums and whom we value - the list is endless.
"The whole point of the show is that there is no right opinion. Everyone has their own subjective view. But it is amazing every week that there is a consensus about the quality of the work, and what's good and what's not," said Dan Cutforth, one of the executive producers. So, does this means that the show has already been taped and the "contest" already decided?
"Good art really moves people and inspires a reaction. You know it when you see it. The old chestnut 'I don't know much about art, but I know what I like' is true," he told Reuters. How about some..oh, I don't know.. .smidgen of art history or background as to why people like what they do. How do you define good art - by only a reaction? Whose reaction? And what kind of reaction?
"Work of Art" comes from the same Magical Elves production company that blended personality and the process of fashion design in "Project Runway", and helped lift the lid on how food goes from good to great in "Top Chef."
In the first challenge, contestants ranging from 23 to 62 years-old are randomly paired off and asked to produce a visual work that captures the essence of their partner. A three-person panel of judges decides who has responded best to the challenge, and who will go home. In future episodes, the contestants must create unique pieces in mediums such as sculpture, photography, collage and industrial design.
"When we started reaching out to the art community, we were worried that people would be against the idea of a reality show. What we found was that people were pretty receptive," said Cutforth.
Or maybe they were desperate for a way to make a living; let's face it - if a contestant "wins" one of these shows, he or she has a shot at sales, a gallery and a huge step up in the competitive art scene. Artists don't live in an ivory tower, or, at least, those who have to pay the rent and put food on the table don't. I don't blame them for participating in this but it certainly can lead to a further degradation of any method of judging what's good and what's not. Far too often now, we judge solely by price; if a piece of art sells for a lot of money, it must be good. No sales equals bad art. By that standard, Van Gogh was a failure as were many artists whom we now value.
More than 2,000 people from oil painters to conceptual artists and silk-screen experimenters applied to take part, reflecting the hunger for a larger public canvas for an often misunderstood form of expression. But will the show encourage more people to seek out art or simply be satisfied with what may be a visual version of McDonald's?
"One of our goals for this show is for people to realize that art is all around them. It shouldn't frighten people to have opinions," said Jane Lipsitz, Cutforth's Magical Elves business partner.
"People perceive art as being possibly elitist and a rarefied world. So it would be amazing if we were to bring art more into the mainstream," she said. Unfortunately for this laudable goal, the artists presented in the PR photo look, for the most part, young, attractive and today's version of hip. They don't look unique but more of the glossy, standardized model that we get on every other TV channel. Maybe the show will prove me wrong. I was appalled by the idea when I first read about it and I haven't seen anything that makes me feel otherwise. Or at least, not yet.
The TV show has been embraced by some professionals. Mixed-media artist Jon Kessler and photographer Andres Serrano are among the guest judges, while the permanent panel is made up of New York gallery owners Bill Powers and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, and New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz. What? No 800-dial-in-your-choice-for-this-evening's-contestant? Any bests as to whether they will have a text messaging option set up by the end of the first week?
Art auctioneer Simon de Pury acts as mentor to the contestants, and the series winner gets a prestigious solo show at the Brooklyn Museum, the second-largest art museum in New York City.
"I think the art world is definitely risky. It would be very easy for people to think this show is not for them. But I think people who actually watch will be sucked in," said Cutforth.
I will watch. After all, it's summer and the TV pickings are slim. But I'm withholding judgment, which one does anyway with a new show. It just seems wrong that something that can be as life-affirming and soul satisfying as art is turned into a spectator sport in this fashion.
One wonders what Louise would say.