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Inside “Work of Art: America’s Next Big Artist”

Daniel Larkin (far left) attended last night’s special event at WNYC to watch the “Work of Art” premiere with other art world peeps, including (in no particular order) artists Joy Garnett, Celso and William Powhida, WNYC critic & C-Monster blogger Carolina Miranda, art blogger Brent Burket, and Art News Magazine’s Robin Cembalest (photo flickr.com/hragv) (click to enlarge)

To keep it real, a reality TV show about visual artists vying to be “at the top” is way too corporate to earn serious street cred in the art world. Nevertheless, I attended multiple shoots last fall of this Bravo project to see how it was all going to play out and to get to know the contestants personally. Although the art critic is me was not thrilled with all of the work I saw (as usual), the little anthropologist inside me scored a field day observing.

All of the artists talked about how grueling and intense the process was. Imagine being plucked from your everyday life and told that you don’t have to worry about holding down your job, trying to network, or paying your bills. Imagine being told that all you need to focus on is creating art for the entire day – from morning until the late evening. And this art will be shown on national television. This opportunity was daunting.

A wild glint danced in the eyes of every artist with which I spoke. They had that beaming smile of a kid who just got a fat envelope from a good college. There was a sense (probably misplaced to be frank) that this exposure was going to finally be their big break. I bit my tongue from rehashing the tragic careers of most American Idol winners, and hypothesizing about its parallels in the art world.

The challenge for all of these artists was that good ideas cannot always be produced in convenient 48 or 72 hour increments. Contestants only had a few days between when they first learned of the next competition’s artistic theme and when they had to submit the final product. This short-time span injured the quality of their work. Many works felt like all-nighters by an eager art student. I kept thinking works would have turned out better if they would have had more time to think. Some of our best ideas simmer on our mental stoves for months – even years – until they are finally ready to be tasted by others. The eventual champion will be the artist who thinks quickest on his or her feet.

The other side of the room during the WNYC’s “Work of Art” premiere screening. Included (in no particular order) are blogger/publisher Barry Hoggard and James Wagner, artist Jennifer Dalton, the Brooklyn Museum’s tech guru Shelley Bernstein, photographer Luna Park, and NY #artstech founder Julia Kaganskiy. (via flickr.com/hragv) (click to enlarge)

The camera had a strange effect on both the artists and the audience that was wandering around the staged openings I attended. People acted chiller off camera. But, then an uncanny shift in tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions unfolded once people felt like they were being recorded.

At one point your (notoriously argumentative) commentator picked a fight with an artist. Not to be harsh, but his work did not pass the third grader test. In order for a work to justify its own existence, art must convince me that it could not have been created by an 8 year old. Our conversation started as a pleasant and intellectual exchange of ideas. But as soon as the cameras smelled conflict, we were surrounded as though a heated playground fight just broke out. Like screaming little boys forming a ring around us, the cameras provoked and galled us into a meaner fight. The catty comments flew.

To point out the obvious, quality in art is a highly controversial concept. It will be interesting to see how this reality show approaches the quality question, given that the plot for each episode inevitably leads up to the elimination of an artist for producing bad work. Under Bravo’s current press policy, I can’t divulge any spoilers. But as I came back again and again and watched the pool of artists shrink, I found myself agreeing with many of judges’ elimination choices. Perhaps, quality is not so hopelessly subjective.

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