Saturday, July 17, 2010

Work of Art: The Next Great Artist - 1x03 "Judging A Book By Its Cover", 1x04 "A Shock to the System"

I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying Work of Art as reality television even as a couple of my judgments of the show seem to be panning out -- namely that far from a majority of the contestants really have the attributes of artists (a game I like to play is "How big a poser is this guy?" And by "this guy," I mean Ryan, whose work on the show is cut from the blandest Realist mediocrity and whose idea of a shocking detail about himself is that he's read Ulysses three times, which really bothers me because that's about how many times I've read it (actually four times) and I don't want to be associated with this paragon of art-school hipster douchebagginess; oh wait, he mentions the male gaze once so I guess he is... an art-school hipster douchebag). Also, the overall quality of the art Work of Art leaves a lot to be desired.

For instance, I had high hopes for "A Shock to the System," which featured Andres Serrano as a guest judge and his work as an exemplar of controversial art. In the end, of course, none of the pieces were shocking, a lapse in potential that was summed up by how Jaime Lynn explained "Piss Christ" as simply how Jesus is treated in modern society. (I've had the pleasure of reading much less superficial, much more stirring interpretations that intimately re-connect Christ with the body and reinfuse Jesus with a sense of radical danger (even if only a cultural, aesthetic danger), interpretations that I can't do justice, so let's just say for a photograph of a cheap little plastic crucifix submerged in urine, it looks beautiful.) (An aside: while I mitigated my initial prejudice against Jaime Lynn when she decided to take on the hypocrisy among right-wing Evangelicals, her bland, literal reading of "Piss Christ" and her inordinately tame piece combined to permanently situate her in "doesn't deserve to be here," especially considering the contestants who were eliminated before her (John = *sniff*).)

Granting that the whole of the cast has limited artistic scope, this very limitation illuminates one of the principles of reality casting, that is, you'll rarely ever see an assemblage of contestants with unmistakable talent from top to bottom, which I alluded to in my previous post on Work of Art. I doubt that the disparate skill level is accidental, or if it is, it's still something that the show can use productively. In other words, casting someone who doesn't exhibit the obvious talent of their more experienced competitors usually ties in with the producers hoping to find a diamond in the rough who can fulfill a heartwarming coming-of-age narrative. If the diamonds in the rough fail to deliver on their potential, though, no worries -- they can produce tension and conflict on the show if they manage to outlast other contestants deemed worthier than they are and thus become resented figures who flout notions of fairness, justice, desert, what have you. (In addition to the contestants bickering with each other about this very subject, reality programs can get a lot of mileage out of fans arguing endlessly about who doesn't deserve to stay and who was eliminated before their time.)

Of course, Work of Art has teased an upcoming argument concerning Erik and how he's out of his depth on the show -- pretty standard stuff, to be honest. However, the way that Jaclyn has been edited seems to suggest a similar variant of the underdog coming-of-age story, namely, of the poseur whose acclaim is built on (or stolen from) the unacknowledged work of others. Jaclyn has been pointedly depicted as being conceptually unsure of herself and reliant on the feedback of her fellow competitors, and a big row is sparked in "A Shock to the System" when Erik says that the turning point in her well-received piece was his idea -- and she didn't credit him with the idea to the judges. The same editing occurs again in the next episode ("Art That Moves You") where she solicits advice on how to make her "gotcha!" photographs of men leering at her really pop.

Here, I'm wary of buying into how she is depicted, mainly because she embodies, literally, a kind of femaleness that precludes authenticity and depth. Jaclyn's body is presented and talked about as a sexualized object (she is a small, thin wisp of a girl with fairly obvious implants) though just as often she situates herself directly into such discourse (she's no stranger to dressing witha low neckline, her self-portrait is a tabloid-style upskirt sans panties picture, several of her challenge pieces involve her in various states of undress). But since reality editing historically deprecates the worthiness of female contestants, much less one who inhabits an explicitly sexualized space, I have to remain skeptical about how Work of Art portrays Jaclyn as an unserious dilettante. I mean, she works with Jeff Koons, which has to count for something, right?

Anyway, Miles seems a prohibitive favorite to reach the final however-many-contestants if not to win the whole thing, though having watched a few more episodes, Abdi seems bound to join him. He may not have the fine art bonafides that Miles can claim, but Abdi brings a lot of vitality in his works (even the ones that are relative failures), plus, from a meta-standpoint, Work of Art is giving him a lot of camera time for someone who isn't well-versed in art history and doesn't talk in art-speak or even ersatz art-speak (cough cough Ryan).

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