I didn't watch Work of Art because I don't have cable, I have never seen a reality TV show and the pictures that I did see of some of the works on the show made it pretty obvious that nothing but junk was produced. All this in spite of the fact that a close friend of mine, Bill Powers, a respected colleague, Jerry Saltz, and a longtime social acquaintance, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, were among the stars of the show.
What fascinated me most about Work of Art was the Pavlovian attention the show received from art worldies -- although the real big shots from Cindy Sherman to Larry Gagosian seemed to be otherwise occupied -- and the reminder that manipulated reality under the guise of competition is as American as apple pie. During the Depression, for example, the most popular radio call-in show featured a man named John J. Anthony. Callers would compete for cash prizes by delineating their woes and hardships, to which Mr. Anthony would respond with his signature line, "Madame, that is not your problem!" Then he would explain what was really wrong with a given wretch before giving out the prizes.
As a boy watching the old Zenith during the ‘50s, I would cringe at Queen for a Day, during which housewives and unemployed husbands who had been beset by death and disaster would compete on the misery index for an afternoon's worth of sponsors' booty. (Of course, they never tell you about taxes on these bonanza shows, so presumably the IRS has already descended on the $100,000 awarded to the Work of Art winner).
The common threads running through all these minor media spectacles include a joy in the desperation of others ("that's not me!"), now including the choice and elitist "desperation" of bad artists and the identification with the bullying behavior of those standing in judgment after a series of arbitrary and idiotic contests. Needless to say, these are the basest of human responses and, when translated into the larger political realm, become simply the seeds of fascism. The art world, supposedly a haven of eccentric exceptionalism, proved just as subservient to the debased conformity of turning art-making into one more crappy relay race.
Nowadays you can dance, seduce, eat worms, make a dress, double date and, now, paint and sculpt, in the realm of cheap competition. For culture at large in our dumbdowned society the laurels of the Greeks have become not a crown of thorns, but one of candy wrappers and rusted tin cans. Nothing good can come of it.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).