Thursday, June 24, 2010

"Work of Art": The Greatest Television Show Since Salvador Dali Appeared on "What's My Line?"

Art is about commoditification. I think I just made up that word, but I mean the turning of ideas into commodities. The process by which art is created is so shrouded in mystery to the layperson (and there is an entire industry that's been built up that has a vested financial interest in promoting that mystery shroud) that even the very word "art" conjures images of the lone figure struggling in the dark recesses of his own mind to create something, anything to give some kind of tangible substance to the roiling emotions he feels. Also, artists are a little bit nutty. Because, you know, they see the world differently than the rest of us.

Except, of course, the art world is just like every other entertainment field. It is about salesmanship and self-promotion. It always has been. And artists understand that. They always have.

Have you ever been to the Louvre? It's a museum in Paris, France. Maybe you read about it in The DaVinci Code. They have a lot of art there. Almost all of it was created by very talented artists. And almost all of those artists were talented in many areas, be they painting, sculpture, drawing, or self-promotion.

Typical Louvre painting.

There is an art to self-promotion.

For every one of those artists at the Louvre, there are an unknown number who were just as talented at painting or sculpture, perhaps even moreso, who toiled away in obscurity because they lacked the shamanstro of the carnival barker.

Take, for instance, Salvador Dali. Talented painter? Yes. Talented self-promoter? Yes, with an exclamation point! Some might argue that he was an even better self-promoter than painter. That his eccentric persona was actually a carefully cultivated pose, designed to capitalize (i.e., make money) off the layperson's idea of what an artist should be.

Check out this video from when Mr. Dali appeared on the television show "What's My Line?" in oh some time in the 1950s.



What separates the artist from the reality show contestant is the specific talent of the artist. The artist must be more well-rounded, because s/he must have created something. Then s/he can promote himself. The reality show contestant skips the creation of artifacts and goes straight into the self-creation/self promotion.

In other words, the reality show contestant is more efficient. But the artist hopefully is creating something that will last, long after the personality has faded from memory. People still visit the Louvre, and they examine the artwork there. Maybe they have no idea who created what, or what those artists did to ensure their place in the world of art.

Which brings me to the new Bravo reality competition "Work of Art." The idea of using a competitive reality show format to find "The Next Great Artist" has been widely criticized by people who have a vested financial interest in maintaining the illusions about the art world.

These people are snobs. They think they're above the very game they're playing. "Art" cannot be created on a deadline! It is much too personal, the muse is too fickle, to be subject to the rules of reality television shows!

This attitude was exemplified by one of the contestants on the show, the smug elitist installation artist Trong. In last week's episode, the artists had to create something using discarded televisions, radios, computers, and other electronic devices and equipment. Trong's artwork showed three small televisions arranged around one larger television (and for some unexplained reason painted white) -- as if the TVs were watching TV! -- and on the screens of each television were witticisms such as "UP NEXT... WWTFD?" (Which, as Troug informed the judges, stood for "What Would Tom Friedman Do?") and "I HATE REALITY TV!"

 Smug and boring.

Trong -- were you kidnapped and forced to submit your artwork and audition tape for consideration to appear on the show? Were you then forced to audition for the show? Then were you forced to go through the casting and background check process? Did someone have a gun to your head when you did all the promotional material? Why did you submit yourself to two challenges, if you hate reality TV?

Art is personal, after all. It's a reflection of the artist's true feelings. Which means that Trong is a hypocrite.

But he's an artist!

The best part of the show was when sleep-deprived installation artist Miles called Trong out, calling his WWTFD piece "boring." He was right, of course. Self-loathing really is boring, especially if it's someone else's.

If you're going to be on a reality show, commit. Miles has committed. Two weeks in a row, he was declared the winner, and both times he deserved it. His "death portrait" of Nao in the first week was actually far more interesting than the subject matter, and his "uncomfortable bed" in week two was like a desperate cry for help. It really was personal, and created on a deadline, with immunity at stake.

The only problem I had with last week's judging was when one of the judges, gallery co-owner Bill Powers, complained that Miles' use of two sculpted assholes was overkill. You can never have too many assholes in art. If anything, Miles should have lined the "bed" with a ring of assholes, but that's just my personal opinion.

 Those are concrete assholes on either side of the bed. Is two one too many? No! Not enough, I say!

I may not know art, but I know assholes when I see them.

Anyway, I was glad to see Trong sent packing. Pussy-lover Judith probably deserved to go home just based on the lack of technique and focus (Trong's piece at least had a recognizable point of view, even if that point of view was smugness), but there is no place for hypocrisy in art. Right?

China Chow knows a lot about art, which is why she got her job hosting "Work of Art."

This week, the almost impossibly attractive host China Chow invited the artists to draw paint tubes on which were written abstract concepts like "love" and "good vs. evil." The artists are then told they will have to create covers for classic books featuring those concepts as themes -- "monster" turns out to be Frankenstein, "love" is for Pride and Prejudice, "time travel" is for The Time Machine, "adventure" for Alice in Wonderland, "good vs. evil" is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and "immortal" is Dracula.

Kathryn Court from Penguin Books comes out to explain the importance of book covers.

Wait a second -- was Trong right? Do we really need someone to tell us about how important book covers are, after watching the contestants draw paint tubes with words on them?

The winning design will get published as the cover of an actual Penguin Book. That is a pretty good prize, and I think that most artist would welcome such a thing.

Artists are in competition with one another anyway. There are only so many book covers -- many more artists than book covers -- so why not give this as a prize on a reality show?

In his interview, Ryan states, truthfully, that "as an artist, it's about visibility. That's the most important thing." He then blows it by offering some trite observations about "the duality of man" (he has to do a cover for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), a phrase I don't think I've used since, well, probably since I was Ryan's age (he's 26).

Miles, who has or claims to have OCD, times how long it will take him to read his book (Frankenstein), and decides to spend four of the eight hours allotted him reading the book.

That is dedication. None of the other artists bother to read their books, nor have they ever read their books (Except for Erik, who has read Alice in Wonderland, which is a very entertaining book by the way). Moreover, Frankenstein is a mind-bendingly dull novel. At least the version that Mary Shelley wrote. Percy Shelley's original version is full of really wonderful poetic language and vivid descriptions.*

But Jaclyn does him one better, deciding to do a semi-nude photoshoot for her cover. You can tell that she's never read Pride and Prejudice before. No one gets naked in that book; I know, I skimmed it. It's most just people misunderstanding each other and conforming to rigid social mores.

Jaclyn, however, is quite physically attractive, so a semi-nude photoshoot for the cover of Pride and Prejudice makes total sense in this context.

Jaclyn, the artist who isn't afraid to get semi-nude for the cover of a book she hasn't read.

Judith, who says "I'm a fine artist" (a debatable point based on what we've seen so far), thinks that this assignment feels too much "like a job," and doesn't like it. She decides to rebel against it by creating something typical of her (no) style. This is the woman who does pussy pictures, remember. Cute little cats with the word "pussy" somewhere in the picture.

These she sells. For money.

Having finished reading Frankenstein, Miles returns from his makeshift darkroom raving about how great it is. He can't believe it is so good. And she wrote it when she was nineteen!* Tbe scene that made the greatest impression on him? A description of lightning striking a log. Miles decides to burn a piece of wood by starting an electrical fire.

At this point, Work of Art's Tim Gunn, Simon De Pury, comes in to offer the wisdom gathered from his oh I don't know 40 years as an art dealer and collector. He's actually kind of a charming man with a European accent ("I aum veeree veeree keen to see ow yeou are attackeen yoeu sird schalleeng!") and I'd probably like him more if he weren't such a blatant rip-off of the greatest reality show personality ever, the gracious and intelligent Tim Gunn.

John's Time Machine piece is too abstract, he says. Of Peregrine's Time Machine cover, he gently, in that subtle manner that so many Europeans claim to have, tries to get her to admit her cover is too cluttered. He asks Jaclyn if she's read Pride and Prejudice. No, but she read a synopsis. He seems at a loss regarding her rather provocative semi-nude picture and asks her what kind of font she's thinking of using for the title. Really; that is his big insight. Anyway, the bizarre question flusters Jaclyn, who says she will use something "modern classic." "Well, keep eet ooup," Simon says. Jaclyn interviews about wanting to capture "the relationship between Elizabeth and Darby."

"Darby"? Really? I didn't think there was a woman alive, anywhere in the world, that didn't know that Pride and Prejudice was about the complicated relationship between Elizabeth and Colin Firth.

Of photoshop master Mark's Dracula cover he says, "You have somseeng eentreegeen. My feeleen ees yoeu ar haffweay sere, actuaallee." And of the covers we've seen so far, his is far and away the best.

Judith, also doing Pride and Prejudice, can't really explain how her fingerprint floral design relates to the contents of the book. She mutters something vague about gardens, or something, then says she's thinking about making the title difficult to read by reversing the letters, or something.

If it's not about pussy, Judith just seems lost. That, and she's talking to herself. And the cover she creates consists of the words "pride" and "prejudice" spelled backwards (curiously, "and" is spelled properly), and at the bottom the words "Jane" and "Austen."

 A bad idea poorly executed! Fine artist Judith is two-for-two.

After the gallery show, China Chow asks Judith what language her painting is in. Ms. Chow is good-looking I mean intelligent enough to know that those words were spelled backward, she's just being withering.

"I'm a fine artist," Judith says. "I don't design on assignment." Borrowing from Trong's playbook. It's interesting that Judith, the oldest of the artists, and Trong, who was I believe the second oldest of the artists, are the ones with the out-dated attitudes toward "art" and "culture."

This is the way the world is. The artist needs to be nimble of mind. The artist needs to be willing to adapt. Unless Judith's attitude is performance art (she hasn't really demonstrated that she's capable of such subtlety or skill), then it makes no sense.

But at least Judith spelled Jane Austen's name correctly. Jaclyn spelled it "Austin," like the city in Texas. Also, she took a semi-hot semi-nude photo of herself and turned into a dull as dishwater wash.

Peregrine's Time Machine cover was the other to make the bottom. Guest judge Jonathan Santlofer called it "wallpaper," while Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn demonstrated her lack of understanding of speculative fiction by saying Peregrine's work "doesn't read as sci-fi." That is an illiterate statement -- The Time Machine is speculative fiction, or science fiction. It is most definitely not "sci-fi." Star Wars and Star Trek are "sci-fi."

You see? I can be a smug snob, too, about some things.

Surprisingly, John's Time Machine cover is declared the winner. That image looks like it came from a "sci-fi" paperback novel from 1974. I suppose that could be considered appropriate for a novel about time travel. Or it might be considered out-dated.

The cover itself is sort of like a "time machine" back to the 1970s. It's very meta.

Anyway, which is worse -- misspelling the name of the author, or printing the title of the novel backwards? Title backwards! Pussy lover Judith is sent home.

"Maybe I didn't belong in this situation, you know, away from my own process," she interviews.

Yes, by all means, get back to your process. It's so difficult for the hoi polloi to understand. We'll get back to our reality television, and forget you ever existed.


*Ha, ha!

Gabrielle d'Estrees and one of her sisters in the bath painting pic source.
China Chow pic source.
Jaclyn Santos pic source.
Work of Art art pic source.

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