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The PICTURE: Unrealities

Is the art world any realer than reality TV?

In recent months, a friend and I have found that nearly all our conversations about the goings-on in the cultural universe, whether the art world or the publishing world, conclude with one of us muttering, “You just can’t make this stuff up.” That is the first thing to be said about “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” the new show on Bravo which fits the art-world rat race into the reality-TV format, complete with judges, contestants, challenges, petty bickering, and public mortification. You just can’t make this stuff up. But of course this is reality TV, so nobody has made anything up. Does that mean I am already the victim of a game of gotcha? Who knows? Perhaps the point is that the people involved in “Work of Art” no longer have the faintest idea where irony ends and anything else begins.

With Sarah Jessica Parker as one of the producers, Bravo has managed to pluck the judges for “Work of Art” from high in the art-world food chain. The New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz and the gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn are appearing weekly, the mixed-media artist Jon Kessler was a guest judge on the second episode, and the auctioneer Simon de Pury acts as Den Daddy for the 14 contestants with whom the show begins. It is anybody’s guess what art-world worthies Bravo will come up with as surprise guests for future episodes. Saltz has written that he had some “misgivings” about the entire enterprise. But considering that paintings and sculptures amounting to little more than cartoons now regularly sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, the movers and shakers involved in “Work of Art” have reason to believe that they are in no way endangering their credibility by taking part in what amounts to a TV cartoon. In the circles where they move, I expect the campy glamour of reality TV will by and large trump any fears about making oneself look ridiculous. You can dine out for at least a season on stories about the trials and tribulations of life as a reality-TV star.

So here the judges are, doing their “Project Runway” thing or their Donald Trump on “The Apprentice” thing or whatever the hell it is. Along with Saltz and Greenberg Rohatyn, the regular judges are the gallerist Bill Powers and China Chow, who is the daughter of the restaurateur Michael Chow and doubles as the host of the show. Together, they offer critiques, spar with a not entirely docile group of contestants, and decide who will survive to make art for another week. There does not seem to be much rhyme or reason to the eliminations, at least in the first two episodes. The first week, when the challenge was for each of the 14 artists to make a portrait of a fellow contestant with whom they were paired, the judges eliminated Amanda Williams. She had committed the sin of conceiving of a portrait as a relatively mild-mannered abstract mood poem, when in fact what was wanted was something closer to the sharp-focus representational hyperbole of John Currin or Lisa Yuskavage. In week two, the contestant who was tossed after a challenge that involved making a work of art out of used appliances was Trong Nguyen, a Brooklyn-based artist born in Vietnam, who had been billed as something of an art world insider. What has so far been almost comically predictable is the enthusiasm with which the judges have embraced Miles Mendenhall, a fair-haired young man from the Midwest with a name out of a Victorian novel and a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that gives him just the right touch of hipster unpredictability. Miles is crazy like a fox. But who knows how long even the fair-haired boy will last? And on and on it will go, with the winner receiving $100,000 and a show at the Brooklyn Museum, whose director, Arnold Lehman, had already a few years ago turned one of the world’s great museums into a faux-populist box office fiasco. He is looking for a little of the reality TV magic to rub off on his benighted institution.

There was a time when I might have dismissed “Work of Art” as a case of the pop culture czars turning the art world into another one of their fiefdoms. But after I watched the first episode, I was tempted to reverse the equation. I began to wonder if the whole ludicrous phenomenon of reality TV could not be traced back to the art world, and the cult of pseudo-documentary filmmaking that began with Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls in 1966. Warhol pioneered a cinema verité that was dedicated to gossip, backbiting, boredom, and the general proposition that most people are rotten at the core and should be happy with their 15 minutes of fame, if they are lucky enough to have it. Doesn’t that more or less describe reality TV? It was Warhol who discovered the narcotic allure of cinematic literalism. By now the drug has a global appeal. Warhol’s original idea was that if you had already been bored by Mondrian and Malevich, who the cultural arbiters had been telling museum-goers were very great, then the boredom that you experienced when you watched The Chelsea Girls was proof positive of the greatness of Warhol’s own work. I realize that when it comes to the big bucks and the huge audiences that are involved with reality TV, we are a long way from the pseudo-avant-garde formlessness of The Chelsea Girls. Nevertheless, I wonder if we would have ever found ourselves subjected to the mundane ironies of reality TV had it not been that Warhol, more than a generation ago, made boredom fashionable. And if people are so starved for theatrical excitement that they can see high drama in “The Real Housewives of New York City”? Well, that thought might have made even the poker-faced Andy crack a smile. 

With reality TV, it is never clear whether things that matter are being treated as if they do not matter, or whether things that do not matter are being treated as if they do. What is certain is that there are always going to be a few winners and a great many losers. And all of them become pawns in a performance that renders their lives in some way unreal. We watch as somebody loses a friend or a lover or the chance for a high-paying job, and we are supposed to shrug and say, “Oh, it’s just a show.” But of course it is both more than a show and less than a show. It is the more and the less that give the reality TV phenomenon its creepy fascination. What we are witnessing is somebody’s life, or at least a part of somebody’s life. What is at stake—or ought to be at stake—is their skills, their goals, their hopes, their values. And yet we cannot quite believe that any of it matters. (We are not sure that the participants believe any of it matters, either.) When Jerry Saltz or Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn discuss the contestants’ work, they allude to artistic values, values of line and color and so forth that have for centuries been touchstones for anybody who cares about the visual arts. But the authenticity that those values are meant to embody is fatally compromised by the enterprise with which Saltz and Greenberg Rohatyn are involved. We cannot believe in what they are saying about the art or the artists, even if it contains a grain of truth. Reality TV is dedicated to untruths and semi-truths and a culture of disbelief. And how can anybody discuss the essentials of art in an environment that is designed to put every value in quotation marks? The format, modeled on the get-ahead-at-all-costs model of “Project Runway” and “The Apprentice” and all the other reality-TV competitions, turns artistic experience into psychobabble and corporate speak. With “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” artistic growth becomes just another twelve step program.

Forgive me for getting serious. Or perhaps the final irony of “Work of Art” is that the judges are serious about what they are doing. Could it be that they hope to teach the Bravo audience a thing or two about art and artists, sneaking in some allusions to age-old controversies about the relationship between form and content? That is Jerry Saltz’s position, in a New York magazine posting in which he explains that, whatever his misgivings, “the idea of trying to do art criticism in front of a wide audience—even if it was mangled by the format of reality TV—totally thrilled me. It thrills me still.” This is an admirable ambition, the idea of bringing elite culture to a democratic audience. I’m all for it. The problem is that Bravo is in the business of creating its own hideously distorted picture of the democratic audience. And when you sign up with an entertainment outfit that has made a virtue of dumbing down the audience, you can hardly claim to be bringing culture to the masses.

And this brings us to the other problem with “Work of Art,” a problem that has nothing much to do with reality TV. The high-end art world has been seriously unserious for so long that I doubt anybody involved can any longer recognize an artistic reality when they see one. The contestant who triumphs on “Work of Art” and is declared “The Next Great Artist” will have an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, where visitors in recent years have sometimes discovered to their horror that the extraordinary collection of nineteenth-century masterworks by Courbet, Corot, Cézanne, and Degas was not on display. What you can be sure you will see at the Brooklyn Museum right now is a large exhibition of the paintings that Andy Warhol was doing toward the end of his life. These portentous vacuities are now regarded in some artistic circles as defining a new kind of late great style, one that we are invited to discuss in relation to the final achievements of Titian, Rembrandt, Goya, and Cézanne. That is as ridiculous as discussing the dramatic trajectory of “The Real Housewives of New York City.” As I said at the outset, you can’t make this stuff up. The art world did not have to go on reality TV. The art world is reality TV.

Jed Perl is the art critic of The New Republic. 

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