Thursday, September 30, 2010

Work of Art

Work of Art's Jerry Saltz & Zoolander's David Bowie both acting as arbiter elegantiae

The hopefuls were lining up this past weekend outside the Brooklyn Museum to audition for season two of Bravo's long-form game-show reality-esque drama Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. According to the art critic Jerry Saltz, who participated in season one of the show as a celebrity judge, for him the program was never intended to reflect the “real art world,”  it was about opening art criticism to a wider audience:
German sculptor Joseph Beuys famously said, “Everyone is an artist.” I wondered if all of our interconnectivity and social networking also made everyone a critic. For me, criticism is a way of showing respect for art; I wanted to share that respect with a large audience and see if it would reciprocate.
I take him at his word. I am a fan of Jerry's but I didn't watch a single episode of season one, and even avoided reading articles and blog posts about the show. I did this not because the show didn't reflect the "real art world," that is after all a very tall order, I did it because at first it seemed everyone seemed to be watching the show. What's the point of being an artist if you do what everybody else is doing? But my contrarian knee-jerk turned to real discomfort as I began to hear about the show. I found the concept of challenges and elimination rounds disrespectful to my small place within the art world. I make art for a living and it bummed me out to have to a museum I love (the Brooklyn Museum has a world class collection and suffers a farm team reputation largely because of its unfortunate proximity to the Modern and the Met) and a critic I really like (Jerry is seriously one of my personal favorites) using young artists as unpaid fodder for a game-show.
I am writing this now because I'm a contrarian and everyone else is done loving and hating Work of Art - everyone but my brother-in-law, Steve Mesler, who is an art fabricator and blogs about art for Huffinton Post, and is one of my closest friends. He has repeatedly defended the show in conversation. He found the artists on the show supportive of one another and pressed me to consider how badly they were being treated not just by snarky bloggers but by Bravo. He and I have a long history of stupid bets and endless arguments, but also of pushing one another to do better. When he told me he planned to video interviews of the kids on line last weekend it got me wondering what constellation of events it would take to get me to watch season two with him. I'll do it but I have one condition: That the producers follow Jerry Saltz's suggestions and hired Christian Viveros-Faune and Bill Powhida to be on the show. Those changes guarantee more reality TV drama and fun than an open bar on the Jersey Shore.
Bill Powhida, Zoolander, Billy Zane and Christian Viveros-Faune

Strictly speaking, Jerry Saltz did not suggest that the producers of Work of Art hire Bill and Christian; and since both Bill and Christian are on the record as saying they "hate" the Work of Art that's not terribly surprising. (Bill might have said "fucking hate" - I'm not sure.) Putting them on the show is really more of my idea - but it is a very good one. And it is not an idea I pulled completely out of thin air - Jerry's critique of the show and his suggestions for how it could be improved make casting these two haters practically inevitable. So even though he didn't, he might as well have suggested them by name.
In his reflections about his participation in Work of Art Jerry makes it clear he liked the show and is proud of his involvement, but he in no way gives the show a pass. He describes nearly quiting in protest over the gruelling shooting schedule and prison-like conditions he and the other judges had to put up with on set (14 hour days, microphones never turned off and no leaving the building without a minder). But nowhere does he describe standing up in a similar fashion for the artists, who he describes as increasingly exhausted and stressed:
I later learned one was on steroids; one suffered anxiety attacks; a third said she’d been “put into pre-pre-menopause.”
I wish that was a preamble to Jerry's explanation of why he refuses to work with an organisation that treats artists this way. As Jerry himself is quick to admit "The judges didn’t experience anywhere near that level of stress." Especially because unlike the judges, film crew, producers and everyone else involved with the show the artists were working for free. As my brother-in-law pointed out to me, only the eventual winner won a cash prize, and even he wasn't allowed to retain ownership of his art work. All of the art made for the show contractually belongs to Bravo (long may they store it). So the losers walked away totally empty handed. Jerry does however recognize that the artists need an advocate, or at least better mentor than "the head of a swanky auction house." They need a guy with a solid working-class chip on his shoulder; someone unafraid to speak truth to power, and someone who will actively work with the artists to subvert the show. Bill Powhida should be hired to replace Simon de Pury as the artists' mentor.
Bill Powhida playing the role of bad boy provocateur; Zoolander playing the role of bad boy provocateur.

As it happens Bill was asked to audition as a contestant for the first season of the show - he considered sending an actor in his place (which I love), but didn't have enough time to pull off the stunt. I know Bill from grad school, and besides being included on one of his enemy lists (along side Darth Vader) we have always been friendly. (Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Christian as well, but in his case I am am better described as an adoring fan than a friend.) In person Bill is a quiet personable guy, but as an artist he has made a place for himself within the art world as a smart firebrand; being mad as hell, and expressing his outrage with virtuoso draftsmanship. I like his work and am always interested to see what he is up to (I will always regret not buying the enemy list Vader and I are on). I knew that he had written a "Rant" about Work of Art but I avoided reading it - I didn't want to get worked up it. As it was every time I recalled that the Brooklyn Museum had lent (rent) their name to the show I flashed on the scene in Zoolander where the photographer commands Ben Stiller to "Dance Monkey! Dance!" (In this case it was the museum itself that was made to dance.)

I broke my media blackout to read Jerry's explanation not entirely because of my brother-in-law chiding, but also because like a lot of people I was genuinely confused by Jerry's participation in Work of Art. I wanted to know why he did it. I found his explanation for his involvement as a critic satisfying and even laudable. popularizing art criticism is a great goal. But even though he likes the show, as Jerry himself discribes it, the artists were being treated in ways that made my blood boil. No wonder he got flipped off by one of the contestants.
Now I had to read Bill's rant. As it turned out it was something of a relief. He articulated the rage I was feeling. Bill's righteous indignation - his experience of Work of Art as a "humiliation" for artists echoed what I was feeling. There was no way to project yourself into the role of an artist as a game-show contestant and not share Bill's disgust:
That Bravo reduced art to series of BFA level challenges was arguably the most artificial and insulting part of the show for me... it’s the central challenge for an artist. “What the fuck do I do?” ... I am fucking insulted that the producers of Work of Art... couldn’t come up with some format for the show where the artists had to do their own fucking thing, and let the judges… actually engage in some critical analysis and consider every aspect of the work, not just if it met some absurd pre-existing conditions... artists don’t get fucking challenges. We call that illustration, commercial work, or being an artist’s assistant...
This is why Bill should be the mentor this season. He's right, the whole concept of "challenges" is flawed and degrading. I would only add that the value of undergraduate work is not the quality of work it produces, but the setting within which the work is produced: it is a safe private place where you can risk failure in front of a small group of peers (and that is why it costs money). The work done on Work of Art is far more closely related to eating worms, or sucking from a goat teet on network TV, but neither the show or the challenges (which jerry describes as "inane") are going away. And there is no reason hope that the challenges will be any less inane for season two. The best way to improve the institution of the show is for the producers to open it up to an institutional critique. Its a time tested stratagy within the "real art world." As curators now know, it is not an actually dangerous - if it was actually dangerous museums wouldn't do it. It just looks dangerous. Nothing says edge and conviction like a little self-deprecating programing. Let them bring a yatch sponsor in there with Bill as the mentor and Jerry would have some art he could really sink his critical teeth into.
Brooklyn Museum and Zoolander dogding bananas.

Additionally I cannot imagine Bill standing by while the contestants are being mistreated. This doesn't require the artists receive outlandish stipends - that's not how the "real art world" works for young artists. Jerry Saltz is a veteran of the "real art world" (I just like the quotes) and he himself admits to being paid only about $500.00 per episode. The artists should be paid an equivalent per-episode honorarium. Considering the fact that they are putting in many more hours of work on each episode than the judges, and most will only last a few episodes this amounts to a truly token additional sum for the producers. But it is meaningful. No one should feel good about being involved in a show about making art the screws artists. Respecting the artists honors Jerry's definition of art criticism: "a way of showing respect for art." I want him to succeed in his goal of sharing that respect with a large audience:
The show appealed to my belief that art only got better once the boundaries between high and low culture were relaxed, most famously by Andy Warhol, then by countless others. It also satisfied my hunger to try new things; my demons that demand I dance naked in public; and my desire to see if art criticism is supple and porous enough to be practiced on a wider stage—even if this stage distorted that practice.
But for art criticism to be respected the art it is aimed at has to be worthy of respect. Without ever having watched a single episode of the show I am certain that Jerry is right when he says that the a lot of art shown in New York galleries “isn’t much better or worse than the stuff on Work of Art.” But I am also aware that is meaningless. For anyone well acquainted with the galleries here quickly realizes that the New York art world has no bottom.
Dash Snow and Dan Colen’s Hampster's Nest (2007); Zoolander gas fight

When I first moved to the city I was stunned to see that the worst art on view in New York galleries was as bad as the worst art I had ever seen. I mean it - no state fair corn crib full of pipe cleaners and lapidary dioramas has anything on some of the shit people try to pass off here. As it turns out, this is something I have become quite proud of. It is wisdom I share with my out of town friends when I give them  gallery tours. I am not being cynical, its true it just isn't the whole story.
The reason New York was the location Bravo chose for their show and not some corn crib in Chimacum Washington is because while the New York art world has no bottom, it also had no ceiling. The highest quality art regularly on view in New York is some of the best art in the world. The Work of Art should be measured in terms of how well it stands up in comparison to the best of New York, that is a real (if unachievable) goal. If the show is really going to be is a game-show platform for popularizing art criticism, it should be done in a way that allows the artists a fighting chance to make something worth talking about. In his rant Bill talks about the need for additional production time, as a sculptor I would add heftier budgets that allow the contestants to produce professional quality work. If your going to title the show The Next Great Artist, own it. Finally all of the artists should should be allowed to keep all the work they produce. This is not just fair, it is a strong incentive to make great work. (Evidently the producers have already realized they have a storage issue building - they are learning the hard way why so many emerging art institutions commission art but don't maintain permeant collections.)
 The Village Voice's Christian Viveros-Faune and Zoolander's J.P.Prewitt salute you.

Jerry's other suggestion, that the judges choose the artist contestants, is as important as safe guarding the well being of the artists. No amount of mentoring Bill might provide or skill and wit a particular artist might bring to a challenge is going to make any difference if the producers muddy the field with knuckle-heads. Additionally it will put the judges on the spot as well. Their own choices will be on the line: if the artists suck the judges will then be at least partly to blame. The problem is Jerry makes it very clear that he is ready to return for season two without precondition. He clearly loves being on the show. He shows no sign of being prepared to sacrifice his place on it with another ultimatum. An why should he? of all the people involved with Work of Art he has the least to lose. We're not going to start unfriending him on facebook if the show sucks again. The producers on the other hand have everything to lose. Evidently the rating were solid for season one. But it is a well wore fact-like truthiness that sequels always have to be bigger, better and have more villains and drama than the original. If the producers hold to the status quoe they will, by their own complacency, kill the golden goose. They have to change it up. The simplest (and cheapest) thing for them to do is to hire a couple of haters. It is a clear way to show Jerry and everyone else that season two is about making great art.
Christian isn't really a hater (Bill really is), but in the Voice's round table he did stand out when he said that, "Because with the exception of Jerry Saltz—who represents himself well—this show proves the ultimate hair-gellification of art with the added insult that the art world is, once again, helping tart up its own portrait." To be honest I have no idea what exactly Christian means by "ultimate hair-gellification," but the quote nicely introduces him as a man who should now put his money where his mouth is and demand to be on the show. He should insist! And if the producers know what's good for them they should hire him.  By hiring Bill producers would kick things up a notch by showing that they have integrity and care about the artists. And by hiring Christian they will signal that they care to make the show itself something substantive - but still fun. Christian is a fun guy.
I met Christian over ten years ago. No mater how many years pass between our meetings sinse he always remembers my name. I find that ability in other people uncanny (I call some members of my family "man"). I am a fan of his writing because he is a great wordsmith and never formulaic. And like Jerry he shoots to kill. If one "hard-ass" is good for the show how great would two be? But that is not why I think he should be there. The real reason is not even that he hates the show,  its why he hates the show: "The real reason I hate the show is that I think they cocked it up... I hate wasted opportunities." Here is an opportunity. Hire him and call him on his bluff. He can't demand lots of money or changes that would ruin the show by making it academic and boring. He has already said he wishes he was on it, and he said that knowing its a game-show. He will almost certainly ask for the exact same thing Jerry did - to choose the contestants at the start. Just the drama of his demand for concessions would make for great "buzz" - and if that is the only concession he gets the show would still be shit tons better for it. It could be better than MAD MEN! Bigger than LOST!
I honestly cannot imagine a constellation of events that would lead to Bill Powhida demanding to be on Work of Art's second season (just writing that sentence made me laugh), but he should as well. Bill's first instinct was right (and hilarious - how funny if he had managed to get a Belgium actor to audition in his place); the only way this show could possibly produce great art for TV is to open itself up to the possibility of subversion. I totally trust Jerry to be a "hard-ass" on the show. But Sarah Jessica Parker and the other producers need to earn their stripes. Adding Christian and Bill to the shows cast is the only way I can imagine getting art out of that sow's ear.
Evan Dorkin, Milk and Cheese (1994); Bill Powhida, ABMB Hooverville (2010)


  1. thanks for this article; I had no idea that the artists were not paid and that the production company kept the art work made in the course of production -- 2 idiotic moves; if I had known, I probably would not have traveled 250 miles to stand in line in Brooklyn last week, which I did; saw your bro-in-law doing the interviews; thanks

  2. Drag Ed. Sorry to hear it. Were any of the judges at the audition? Like maybe Jerry?

  3. I was on the lookout for judges as I heard Simon (mentor) was in L.A. but I saw no personalities from the show.

  4. Great article, and a great read.