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Powhida, “A Study For Sofia Coppola’s Film ‘Powhida’” (2007) (via

Since the Work of Art TV show began in the early summer, many of us in the art world have been eager for William Powhida’s perspective on what some of us like to call the biggest waste of time this summer (though others prefer the term Work of Fart). And now he delivers and OMG is it awesome. One of my favorite passages:

I watched the next three episodes with artist Jennifer Dalton and some friends at her house in Brooklyn. I drank a six-pack trying to sit through them. I mean, I wish we had been drinking whiskey for at some point the laughter died and the formulaic nature of the show, the manufactured drama, and the bad art made the extended viewing seem like a punishment for not keeping up on a weekly basis. When we had finished episode 4, I felt like it was 7 am and the coke had run out at a rather dull party. No one really wanted to talk about it, and I went home feeling disconcerted. Jen merely said something like “Well, I wanted to like it,” and frowned.

There are few people in the art world who are willing to stand up to the world of empty celebrity, promise of riches, and the sliver of hope that fame will follow both of these things (some people conflate fame with celebrity, but they are NOT the same thing) — thankfully, Powhida is one of them.

Some, including Jeffrey Deitch, have accused Powhida’s critical stance of being some sort of ploy that will help propel him to the higher rungs in the art world, but I don’t buy it. Last December, Deitch said:

“The irony is that by exposing art celebrity culture, he’s becoming a celebrity himself,” he said of Mr. Powhida. “So hats off to him.”

Deitch doesn’t know Powhida, I thankfully do, and speaking to him you can sense he feels the shame (or is it anger?) of waking up everyday and realizing that while most of us became artists, critics, curators or whatever to discover and explore great ideas in reality we are often surrounded by — and are forced to stomach — careerists who are often too happy to wallow in the hollow world of perceived celebrity. I’m well aware that the art world has been grappling with issues of celebrity since at least the time of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the culture industry of Montmartre but I don’t buy that Work of Art offers a way to be more creative, and I don’t believe it will create new audiences. I think it is simply a circus that reinforces stereotypes about art that aren’t real. I just don’t see how the show expands the conversation, it simply makes it more carnivalesque. If Powhida’s critiques propel him to the highest levels of the art world it is not because of his tactics or strategy, but because his message resonates with people who are often too scared to speak up themselves.

One of the first times I got to really sit down and speak to Powhida I asked him point blank, “What do you get out of this? Why do you care about the helpless and disadvantaged?” He acknowledged it was a fair question and he went on to tell me a little about his past, his current work with teens (he’s also an art school teacher, a great one, I’m sure), and how he didn’t get into art to make shiny things for rich people. His answer felt genuine, and I could sense there was more than one reason for him to be interested in the inequalities of the art world or the concept that shit often floats in this realm. I recognized that he had already done the type of soul searching I myself was forced to do before I created Hyperallergic as a forum for others to vent, express ideas, and discuss the world around them. I realized that this is what it will take to get me up in the morning, even if I had to maintain another job (or two). It wasn’t the promise of money that lured me (pipe dream?), but the self-honesty. I could tell Powhida had already done his own soul searching to get where he is today.

Powhida’s rant summarizes what many of us feel about the show. I agree with Powhida, the challenges offered to these d-list celebrities are not things artists would do … they don’t even make sense. I mean, design a book cover? Wouldn’t you go to an illustrator or graphic designer to do that? And btw, this is not to say that someone will not find a way to bring art to the TV masses in a MUCH better way, but this ain’t it.

Powhida deserves the last word, his rant really is that good:

Work of Art makes art appear safe, professional, and full of fucking morons talking gibberish about nothing. I’d rather sit through an hour long lecture series on Altermodernism subtitled in English every week than watch Work of Art. At least I might learn something or experience an idea that will challenge my ideas about what is possible in art. Nothing I’ve seen or heard about Work of Art suggests that possibility even exists. No, instead, I am left feeling depressed about art. It looks ugly, cheap, and I feel like we all, not just Abdi or Miles or Skelator, are jumping around like clowns for rich assholes. And it’s not just the contestants that are also experiencing some d-list celebrity status. In their temporary TV fame, I see my own shallow, ugly reflection staring back at me.

I encourage you to read the whole thing.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

16 replies on “The Take on “Work of Art” We’ve All Been Waiting For”

  1. Look if you watched the later episodes of the show you’d know that Jaclyn’s tits were real, at least she claimed them to be in that mirror piece where she reacted to the men looking at her in the Audi showroom. I was pissed that they covered up any sexually graphic images. That alone should indicate what the priorities of this TV show were.
    C’mon man, I admire your honestly I really do, but all that criticism at everything about the show and yourself gets you nowhere. There was so much wrong with it I admit, but on the positive side it gave a huge audience a window into a world it knows absolutely nothing about. It wasn’t hardcore but it attempted to show a process, however created for a TV show and unrealistic it was, a peek inside the way some very young artists minds work- or how art is an honest attempt at expressing something real in yourself. and growing from it or not. Yes there was tons wrong with it. Shit theres tons wrong with everything. I studied Fine Art as an undergraduate – art many different schools. I transferred a lot because I really wasn’t happy with anything. The best part of my education though came when i was on an independent painting program at Empire State College in NYC. We had NYC artists come and critique our work individually. It was great for an undergrad experience ( Don Judd was probably the biggest “art star” to show up. We’re talkin the ’70s here. Miriam Shapiro, Alan Hacklin, and Paul Brach among others. In one of the many discussions we had someone asked Paul Brach if the commercialization of the art world and what you have to do to get a show makes it not worth it. He said, if that makes it not worth it to you than you should not be in it. Not to be an asshole flag waving, Tony Robbins jerk, that is the way one HAS to look at it. Ad Reinhardt one of my art heroes once said that you should only paint if you have nothing better to do. In other words, if you think there is something better to do, than do it.

    For me personally I learned that I did not have what I thought it took to be happy as a fine artist so I. like many morphed into graphic design.
    A different animal altogether for sure.

    Keep working and creating if you can. It is the best thing to be doing however hard it is. That is the most important thing of all. Your 95% ahead of the rest of the world

  2. and by the way I jst took a look at your work. Fantastic. You are way to out there for a TV show. Thank God for you , and that. Also dont know if you saw the ‘Haunted” Show at the Guggenheimn now. I don’t know maybe you hated it, but I thought it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. I come from a less is more point of view- now you really hate me- born from time on this planet and trying to get rid of as much noise as possible, and listening to the sound.
    This show dealt with real human issues in the context of time. Using photography in a great way. It closes on the 6th.

  3. The show is hilarious if you don’t take it seriously. Everything about it is so sad and contrived, but then that’s why I love reality TV. Now if only they’d do a mash-up episode with Jersey Shore.

      1. Seriously, I don’t understand why it isn’t way more of a carnival. How great would it be if it was John Waters instead of Simon de Pury and Tim and Eric instead of those other boring judges? And while I’m shooting for the moon: G.G. Allin (god rest his soul) is involved somehow. Now THAT would be a show!

  4. How about a little more heft (ok Saltz is worth reading, but nothing I’ve heard about this show makes me want to watch it) for those of us who don’t spend our lives talking or creating in sound bites.

    Everything gets reduced in these reality shows; the script, the production quality, the talent and the subject matter. And that’s at the core of why the show doesn’t work.

    1. So true, Victoria. Some people are trying to paint everyone who dislikes this show as anti-populist when in reality is we want everyone to see more art but we don’t want to sacrifice the possibility at the altar of a bad reality TV program.

  5. The take on WANGA I’ve been waiting for is the one I’m writing. I recently met one of the artists, who is a friend of a friend, and I liked her very much. I won’t criticize them for accepting this weird gig, but I’m glad it wasn’t offered to me (why would it be?). A truer name for the show would be Work of Corporate Art: The Next Exploited Art Workers. I think the artists in the show still have an opportunity to do something interesting with their post-WANGA careers. I can’t say the same for the panel of judges.

  6. Hrag as your name implies, you are a major stuff shirt. Your “Hyper Hrag” piece, you are writing about yourself not the concept of having a TV show about the visual arts. “Work of Art”, the TV program is a new program format in progress. The reason we have no television of the visual arts (on major stations) is because of stuff shirts like yourself. The other arts of music, dance, writers have programming, but not the visual arts! Thank you for your self absorbed comments (and followers) for killing off any programing of the visual arts. Thank god you were not around in the beginning of the movie age, you would of thumped on that idea too.

    1. Did you even read the piece? I mention that someone will probably find a way to marry mainstream TV and art but this isn’t it. It’s crappy. There are art programs on TV, including Art21, but no one has cracked the code yet. You might like crappy TV, your choice (I prefer trashy TV).

      And btw, the article is in our Reactor section which is about personal opinion, you may not be a regular reader so you may not have been aware of that.

      If this show is your idea of good TV, enjoy! I think the program sucks.

      Btw, what are you talking about “as your name implies”?

  7. Ms. Ava, the reason we have no good arts programming is the same reason we have no good political programming on mainstream television. I was directly involved in broadcast and news for over 25 years. The entities who own the networks do not want actual controversy either in their politics or their culture. It’s too dangerous.
    Perhaps you recall the term ‘opiate of the people’. That’s television now, with the exception of alternative channels like FreespeechTV or LinkTV. Send them money if you want to do something constructive.

    The network execs will take easily contrived conflict over anything requiring more than a :30 scan, which is all that you’ll see now in almost every genre. The exceptions are HBO, AMC and some of the other cable channels who can afford to produce expensive programming with real live writers and known talent. Any topical subject matter is folded into a (safe) fictional narrative and reality TV is usually guaranteed to prevent critical thinking. Hello opiated masses.

    There HAVE been interesting arts channels, like LabTV or Voom on Rainbow Media – I have friends who’ve produced for them – but those could hardly be called mainstream.

    And this blog’s premise is not killing anything. In fact, it’s advocating for response, either way. Democracy is all about differences of opinion.

  8. I’m actually quite amazed by how much this program has succeeded in creating discomfort for me and for many of my artist friends. I’ve read lots of blogs and responses to the show, and I just keep nodding my head, yes. Yes to “it sucks.” Yes to “maybe it lifted the veil a little and did some public good.” Yes to “it gives the public all the wrong impressions.” Yes to “shouldn’t we try to find a way to close the gap between art maker and art viewer?”

    I have taken the personal position of just detaching and watching from the cheap seats. There is so much that is wrong with the world of art making and artist promotion already, I suppose I took that stepped back position some time ago as the only feasible option for me. There are, after all, lots of people for whom art making is profoundly serious and the most important thing in life. Navigating a world that finds that viewpoint naive and crazy is, in my view, a full time commitment.

    Thanks for this. As always I am very interested in your point of view.

  9. Hrag, if you want to talk about the celebrity mindset why not talk about specific art bloggers who tend to stick to one pack and often avoid working with other writers outside of the pack? I could drop names, but it does not take much digging to find out who those stuffy art bloggers are. I follow these bloggers and if you went by their words it would appear that their blogs are the end all be all of art blogging. The scope of art blogging does not stop at the city limits of New York.

  10. You can tell who is in the pack because they write about each other constantly. There is nothing wrong with bloggers working together, but it would be nice if some of these art blogging stars would invite other art bloggers who are doing great things into their little circle. Instead this pack only tips the hat to their own.

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