Prime Time Painting
By Bill Powers, June 30th, 2010
Have you been keeping up with Work of Art on Bravo? Our very own art columnist Bill Powers is one of the show’s judges. Check out his article for CITY on the contestants, his fellow judges, and what it takes to be the “Next Great Artist.”
In between challenges, Work of Art contestant Peregrine Honig drew this sketch of the show’s judges Bill Powers, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, Jerry Saltz, and host China Chow.
Americans are exposed to more contemporary art daily than they might imagine—whether it’s Lady Gaga collaborating with Terence Koh, Ryan McGinley shooting a Levi’s campaign, Jeff Koons customizing a BMW or Richard Phillips’ guest spot on Gossip Girl. By and large though, art is woefully underrepresented on television, relegated to deep cable reruns of Sister Wendy (who? exactly!) or public television programming like Art 21.
Premiering on Bravo this summer, however, a new competition reality show will shine a Klieg light on the industry brighter than ever before. In conjunction with Sarah Jessica Parker’s production company, Pretty Matches, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist is created by the same talent behind Top Chef and the original Project Runway. If the format feels familiar—and it does—I think that’s because the subject matter can be foreign to so many viewers, so there’s a necessary comfort level built into setting up weekly challenges. Judging by initial reaction from the art press, I’m fully prepared for them to hate on it, but this TV show wasn’t made for art insiders any more than Project Runway was conceived to give Oscar de la Renta something to DVR for his night off.
Work of Art is for the kids going to CalArts or RISD, for that cousin of yours who likes to paint in the garage on the weekends. It’s for the seven million people who visited The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. last year, but have probably never placed a bid at a Christie’s or Sotheby’s auction. In regards to the specific challenges the 14 contestants face each week, I was surprised at how relevant the themes were, tackling everything from sex to mortality to the eternal struggle between art and commerce. Technically speaking, expert auctioneer Simon de Pury is the show’s mentor, but I may have learned more than any of the competing artists, especially from my fellow judges: Salon 94 gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I love Jerry’s definition of an artist as someone with the ability to embed thought in material.
For me, the whole experience of critiquing art on TV was very much akin to doing studio visits with painters I’m considering exhibiting at my gallery, taking into consideration not only the person’s narrative and execution, but also their work’s commercial viability and overall wall power. The winner of Work of Art will receive $100,000 and a solo show at The Brooklyn Museum, which has hosted legendary landmark retrospectives for Jean Michel Basquiat, Takashi Murakami and Annie Leibovitz, among many others. To say that we’ve found America’s next great artist, I feel, is putting too much pressure on whomever ultimately walks away with the title, but no one can deny that this institutional platform provides a huge opportunity for an unknown to expose their artwork to a massive audience. It’s an opportunity, a calling card, just as one’s inclusion in Greater New York or The Whitney Biennial is never a golden ticket to a lifetime of praise and financial success.
The truth is, we all start off in life as artists and musicians, only most of us abandon it somewhere in grade school or junior high. As Simon de Pury commented, the art world used to be a place fuelled exclusively by nepotism, where you had to know the right people to get a leg up. These days artists like Shepard Fairey are propelled to international fame through their street art while YouTube gives video artists the potential for millions of hits, and now with Work of Art, television can launch a fledgling artist’s career into the next dimension. Plus, I can assure you that it will be a lot more fun to watch than paint drying. Really, it’s impossible to know if America is ready to embrace contemporary art and ultimately the ratings will be the loudest critic of all. I remember Andy Warhol once saying that watching television—which he loved to do—was an act of extreme loneliness. I’m betting there are a lot more lonely people out there than we think.