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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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