TV or Not TV: Work of Reality TV

Author: Christine Becker

Christine Becker

My previous essay for Notre Dame Magazine addressed two of the most respected, critically acclaimed dramas on television (Mad Men and Breaking Bad), yet the piece generated a few comments dismissive of the mere idea of taking television seriously. Are only the “legitimate arts” worth our analytical attention? What about a TV show about art? What about a reality TV show about art? Now I’ve certainly lost even more of you.

The show I’m referring to is Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, a reality TV competition program that finished up its first season on Bravo a few weeks ago and whose winner, Abdi Farah, is currently enjoying his prize, a showing at the Brooklyn Museum. Across 10 episodes, the 14 contestants painted, sculpted and assembled their way through time-limited challenges, such as creating a piece of outdoor art for a New York City park and constructing an artwork from broken electronics equipment. The finished work was assessed by a panel of judges that included art critic Jerry Saltz and gallery owner Bill Powers. Each week the artist deemed to have created the least effective piece was eliminated, sent off by host China Chow with a signature line: “Your work of art did not work for us.”

More generally, Work of Art was a collision between two vastly different cultural worlds, one usually dismissed as driven by crass commercialism, exploitative voyeurism and abject manipulation, and the other usually praised as embodying the best of humanity, beholden to no force other than an individual’s muse (reality TV is the former, in case you weren’t certain). The artistic ideal is in nearly every way the antithesis of what reality TV strives for, so the very idea of bringing these worlds together seems misguided at best.

Accordingly, art mavens were mostly scornful of Work of Art because of the contrivances inherent to reality TV: the imposition of strict rules, simplistic trials and time limits on the artistic process. Also the perversion of turning the subjective appreciation of art into a facile elimination process; overt commercialism (one challenge involved creating a work inspired by driving an Audi); stereotyping reinforcing clichés about pretentious artists; false drama, underscored by an absurd promotional slogan (“In the war of art, there can be only one winner.” The war of art?!); and the inevitable manipulations of actuality through editing and overdubbing. More concisely, L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight described the show as “vacant television piddle.”

Conversely, supporters of Work of Art viewed it as an intriguing experiment that exposed art to a wider audience and in turn challenged the art world’s insularity. The winner, Farah, pointed out that art has its own contrived pressures and conventions, some of which were productively overturned here by introducing the foreignness of reality TV: “To me it was all so fresh and alive and new and exciting because it was nothing that we would ever have made in our own studios, given all of our crutches that we lean upon, all of the comforts we have around us, the time to do whatever we want. With some of those challenges, I don’t even know what I was thinking, but something subconscious spit out onto the canvas, and sometimes it was good and sometimes it was bad, but it was always really revelatory.”

More than one million viewers a week watched this revelatory process, the likes of which the masses are rarely exposed to. Along those lines, Saltz, who defended his involvement in the show via weekly blog entries, stated in his final recap, “For me the deep content of being on Work of Art was to see if art criticism could find new ways to expose itself to the world so that more of the world might expose itself to it.”

Indeed, perhaps even more so than on television, the real productivity of Work of Art was online, as art and TV blogs alike exploded with discussion of the show, either decrying or justifying the intrusion of reality TV cameras into the art world.

In the end, I believe Work of Art’s scorners and supporters were both right: Work of Art was both abominable and admirable. Art shouldn’t be produced in such a way, and yet if art is about truly exploring the creativity within us regardless of external circumstances, there’s no reason for television to be automatically discounted from that pursuit.

In that sense, Work of Art did work for me in one primary way: it forced observers to think about how we categorize and define concepts like art and popular culture, high culture and low culture, good objects and bad objects. The assumption that art is always pure and TV is always trash is itself a crutch that we could stand to have kicked out from under us every now and then.

Christine Becker, an associate professor of film, television and theatre at Notre Dame, was recently named by The Wrap as one of 25 TV superfans to follow on Twitter, where she can be found @crsbecker.