Thursday, August 12, 2010

Work of Art & #workoFart & "work of art"

My fascination with reality TV dates back to 1998, when I saw the first Gran Hermano (Big Brother) on Spanish television. I have written here before about the ways in which I believe such programming naturalizes the state of being under surveillance. Indeed in some cases, it can glamorize it, or at least bring the promise of wealth and celebrity even at the cost of over-share and humiliation. It is precisely the latter aspect that for me posed the greatest danger because the format of these shows seems designed to foster a collective bonding experience that is most often based on mutual loathing for a scapegoat. Brute competition, ruthlessness, and lack of empathy are particularly useful in shows like Big Brother, Bad Girls Club, and Real Housewives.

In some cases, such as the latter, the participants are supposed to act as aspirational figures for our own longings, but at the same time, this provokes resentment and schadenfreude (see the gleeful reactions to the recent 11 million dollar bankruptcy filing by barely literate lavish spender Teresa Guidice from the New Jersey version of Bravo's franchise). The aspirational aspect now extends to the mysterious artworld which according to breathless media reports brings in a lot of money. Curators are also glamorous jet setting, designer clothes rocking stars, taking the protagonism away from the artists who should be the subject of our interest. The prestige now represented by formerly nerdy curators was discussed in recent New York Times article that pointed out examples of the appropriation of the term curate to apply to everything from window displays to DJing.

In any event, my response to the launch of a reality TV show designed to select "the next great artist" was skeptical to say the least. Although there are exceptions to the Social Darwinist Panopticon created by this newish televisual genre, by and large it is our baser instincts that prevail. I for one experience mixed feelings whenever a group that I identify with to some extent is represented in one of these fictional passing as real programs. This was particularly true of Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. At the same time, I think I was secretly thrilled to see part of my life allegedly reflected on the screen. Of course by now people who participate and viewers are for the most part aware that editors and producers are writing these shows, intervening to create "characters" that in some ways are as fake as those in regular acted sitcoms, dramas, and soap operas. (eg. Nao as the arrogant bitch, Miles as the hot hipster, Abdi as the naive generous youngster untainted by the cynicism of the artworld, etc.) And it is the self-consciousness of the characters, encouraged by telling asides during scenes (see RHONY's and Bethenny's Getting Married? Bethenny Frankel) or by the by now hackneyed "Confessional" scenes where participants de-brief with producers (sometimes seemingly ignorant of the fact that their bitchy comments will be aired, which only adds to the thrill of listening in to them) that enhances the voyeuristic thrill of watching.

Twitter may exacerbate this phenomenon, when some of us, hiding under the virtual veil of anonymity, make snarky comments under #workofart or most often #workoFart (I speak about myself here, obviously) and feel a web of connection with other members of the "artworld" who are equally skeptical about the incorporation of our area of interest/practice/study into this now ubiquitous genre.

This notwithstanding, and despite the 140-character limitations, in addition to hours of laughter [for fun recaps see the Artlog and Hyperallergic blogs at ] I gained insights into the functioning of the artworld [for this see especially this tweet from the awesome c-monstah at and ArtF ag city here as well as those mentioned above ], the role of critics and critical reception [see judge Jerry Salz's posts on New York Magazine's Vulture blog, in particular his de-brief at the end of the show here and Christopher Knight's rather venomous rebuttal here], and the new types of interaction made possible by digital communication.

In relation to the latter debate about criticism, I would tend to agree with Knight, that the power dynamics at work in terms of critical reception as a tool of artistic legitimation have not changed. Saltz's utopian claim that the dialogue has somehow expanded as a result of viewers' reactions to the show seems implausible. Did we get to vote like spectators of American Idol? No. Were smart bloggers or artists who make work analyizing artworld dynamics, such as William Powhida [see his blog here] represented in the jury? No. This was a superficial and distorted view of artistic production and reception. Not to mention the fact that it was based on the provincial New York vantage point.

The show allowed me to indulge my nerdolicious academentia/alleged scholarly interest in the internet and reality TV (let's keep it real, a pretext to indulge my love of Bravo's reality TV franchise) to a new level by attending the finale of the show at Soda Bar. Here, friendly groups of artnerds gathered on comfy couches, crackberries, Androids, and iPhones in hand, to chat, live tweet, and watch the show on a large projection screen. To the right, a cascade of Work of Art hashtag tweets was visible. In a charmingly low-fi manner, however, we could vote for who would be eliminated from each episode by checking a piece of paper with glued on photos of contestants.

One of Abdi's sculptures at the Brooklyn Museum

Although I am not adept at this type of simultaneous digital/analog/visual/verbal interaction/reception, I found myself fascinated by the new type of experience it generates. At one point, I found myself retweeting smart comments made by my friend as we were seated next to each other, watching, reading the #workofart feed, and chatting. This kind of disassociated consciousness is heightened when you are tweeting under a pseudonym (which for professional reasons I must employ). At the same time, it is odd to feel like there are multiple "versions" of me operating simultaneously. My inner-monologue, exterior dialogue, and digital monologue/dialogue happening all at once. And just like the "reality" show contestants are performing roles predicated on realness, immediacy and accessiblity, I was performing the role of droll commentator on twitter, accessible to all, yet in fact removed.

Getting back to what the show was supposedly "about" the work of art, as smart twitterer and media phenomenon @MuseumNerd observed, this distancing also affected our ability to evaluate the merits of the works produced each week. Because aside from the obvious drawback of the format - you cannot apply the Top Chef, Project Runway etc. temporality to the making of art work, nor is it fair to artists to impose a "challenge" that forces them to make work based on pre-determined subjects or working with limited media, since this may not respond to their concerns and practices -- how can you judge an artwork by fleeting glimpses of it on television? This is something I remind my students about repeatedly - go to a museum! Go to galleries! Go to studios! Don't read Gardner's, look at Powerpoint slides, or do Google image searches to understand works of art.

Work of Art fans tweeting and watching the show (from the Brooklyn Museum's Flkr feed)

I was underwhelmed by the works when I saw them at the opening yesterday (for a nice photographic tour of the show see @MuseumNerd's Flkr series here My so-called documentary contribution has to do with my obsession with fashion, and here is the extremely petite and thin Jaclyn Santos' shandisimo of an ensemble, skin tight flesh colored lycra dress that was perilously on the verge of exposing her rear end, worn with a striped bra (partially peeking out from the back and shoulders) and matching thong. Beige stilettos punctuated by a rather sinister row of straps moving up her tiny ankle and matching Chanel bag.

Joan Rivers' Red Carpet pseudo-coverage aside, the work seemed to me to be quite well-executed, the drawings in particular, but the theme seemed heavy-handed and the sculptures seemed fragile (I remember him having trouble keeping them intact because of problems with his materials). I worry that such immediate potential fame at such a young age might hinder his artistic development. But that is not what the TV show was about. It was geared towards narrative flow, instant gratification, and fake insight into a trendy, glamorous, and for many, remote, elusive and cliquey world. That much of the recent glamour ascribed to the so-called artworld is due to mass media coverage of astronomical and inflated prices particularly for contemporary art was reinforced by the "honor" offered to the contestant: inclusion of in one of the charming Simon de Pury's auctions. This type of straight to the sale room marketing cutting out the gallerist, critic, and museum curator as practiced by Damien Hirst had been the subject of much criticism and raise ethical questions for many. But for the presumably broad TV audience, such nuance and context was omitted.

Also not acknowledged was the problem of curatorial independence, expertise and art historical judgement that side-stepped when the Brooklyn Museum agreed to (presumably sight-unseen) grant a one-person show to the winner, akin to the one year contract as a Cover Girl spokesperson granted to the victor in America's Next Top Model. For some, this manouver suggested a PR gambit on the part of the much-criticized museum. I for one am, despite my dismay at the Director's re-organization of the curatorial departments, which are no longer led by specialists in areas represented in their fantastic collection, a fan of the museum. I appreciate the diverse audiences they attract, and one could argue that this TV tie-in is part of these populist efforts.

Respected curator Eugenie Tsai's introductory text attempted to frame the show in historical terms, reminding viewers of the long artistic tradition of juried exhibitions. This may well be the case, but it elides important differences. First, the competition was extremely limited in number and not directed by the Brooklyn Museum. Second, the judges were not curators but rather gallerists/collectors, critics and artists. Third, although the genres were limited in Salon exhibitions, I don't think you can analogize this to the show's "challenges." Indeed, such genre-specificity has nothing whatsoever to do with contemporary art practices.

Ironically a more recent development and artistic precedent for instant artistic celebrity and the incursions of the artworld into the media, the work and practice of Andy Warhol, were ommitted. This was particularly odd given the fact that immediately across from the fifth floor gallery where Abdi's work was shown was the second part of the late Warhol exhibition at the museum.


Hrag said...

Re: "Second, the judges were not curators but rather gallerists/collectors, critics and artists."

Actually, the show's producers had a bigger hand in selections than you might think. The illusion they wanted to create was that the judges were making the decisions but we don't have proof that is, in fact, true.

Also, the show was more opaque than the real art world. We had no access to the art, everything was edited by people we never see or hear about, and the media access to previews, etc. was very limited. When I tried to get access as a media source, I was denied. They controlled access more tightly than Gagosian.

Petite Maoiste said...

Thanks for reading, and for the information. You are right about the opacity!

Katarina Wong said...

Fair and insightful take on the show. I do hope each of the artists will continue to mature, & in this time of slashed arts funding, I can't really blame the Brooklyn Museum for trying something that will bring in a larger audience, tho I'm sure I probably wasn't an easy decision. (I first started watching to see how the mysterious process of making work would be translated to a popular audience, but instead quickly realized it'd be my weekly expression of Schadenfreude. Which of course is fun especially when shared via twitter feeds, but is also besides the point. Or actually, maybe it's EXACTLY the point.)

Petite Maoiste said...

thank you for reading! at the very least, and despite all of the questionable aspects, let's hope the show does draw more attention to the arts and more visitors to the museum