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Work of Art
by Walter Robinson

On Wednesday night, when I tweeted that "Abdi, the sweet 28yo Penna art student who says 'dang' and 'shoot'" had won Bravo's Work of Art game show, netting $100,000 and a solo exhibition at the "Brooklyn Museum of Art" (as Abdi called it), little did I know that I'd reap lots of hate on Twitter for "spoiling" the climax for West Coast watchers, who are of course an hour behind New York.

My sincere apologies to my fellow fans -- being behind is such a drag -- but my faux pas brings up one of the many annoying things about Work of Art, this idea that the entire audience must pretend that the winner wasn't picked months ago. According to our shared Bravo experience, not only is art one big game, but it's also a model for the paranoid vision of how the world really works -- insiders have the answers way ahead of the rest of us.

As a reporter and critic, shouldn't I be uncovering this truth, rather than apologizing for inadvertently revealing it? Besides, I'm pissed that they had this big party at Phillips de Pury & Co., and I wasn't invited.

In the end, Work of Art made me think of two things. First, that art criticism is a bunch of nonsense, at least in its vulgar form as a thumbs-up, thumbs-down judgment, and second, that quality in art is socially constructed, in the absence of something really marvelous, anyway.

The artworks in the final episode were, dare I say it, esthetically immature (and why not, since the artists are all so young), but as a part of a crescendoing social dynamic that culminated in the Phillips show, they ended up looking good. Accident (paging John Cage) played a part, as in Peregrine's wax bust, which took its evocative shape because of gravity, as did maudlin sentiment, which was a factor in all three finalists' entries, e.g. Miles' expired homeless man, Abdi's "fallen giants" and Peregrine's twin fawns. Shades of "Bambi"!

As for the question of "criticism," well, we all know how stupid, wrong and generally irritating other people's opinions can be, particularly when they don't match our own (mine are generally off, judging by past performance). It's the curse of the reality show era, with its endless panels of judges, each hewing to their own standards. The cooks on Top Chef would seem to have the most straightforward job -- how's it taste? -- while nothing could be more otherworldly than the fashionista rationales on The Next Top Model.

That's the problem with judgment: it hinges on an irreducible subjectivity, as is shown quite clearly in my esteemed colleague Jerry Saltz's final review of Work of Art, which is not so much critical as thoughtful, filled with heartfelt sentiments towards his colleagues in this game, the young artists.

As Saltz suggests, the most interesting thing about "Work of Art" is our emotional engagement with the artists themselves, something that's unavoidable if you actually watch the television show. We care about the characters. Though the effect is familiar from fiction and theater and our own social lives, and echoed by Robert Rauschenberg's notions of "art as life" and more recent ideas of "relational esthetics," here it adds just the right touch of "reality TV."

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.