Over the last few months, the prospect of a New York art critic acting as a judge on an art-oriented reality-TV show has ruffled some feathers. The show is Bravo’s Work of Art. For better or worse, the art critic is me. I’ve only seen the premiere, so I have no idea if this is the end of my career or not. But I, too, have misgivings. Art on TV and in movies always comes off creepy. And let’s face it -- the camera doesn’t exactly love a balding, bespectacled Jewish man of a certain age. The first thought I had when I saw myself on-camera was that I look like a Shar-Pei.
The awful truth is that this was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Not because the money was so good; in fact, I took home less than $1,000 per episode. But the idea of trying to do art criticism in front of a wide audience -- even if it was mangled by the format of reality TV -- totally thrilled me. It thrills me still.
The first time I saw last night’s episode in its final form, at a press screening a few months back, I was dazzled at how jazzy and professional it looked. New York seemed so sunny and sharp. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would. I still cringed at the show’s subtitle, "America’s Next Great Artist," but I was amazed nevertheless. Then, about 40 minutes in, my attention flagged. I don’t know if this was my terror, an adrenaline crash, or a sign that we were in for a rocky ride. I’m still not sure. As defensive as it sounds, I’ve now seen the show twice, and it got a lot better the second time.
The whole introduction was jarring -- seeing all of these artists jumping, smiling, running and acting goofy really threw me. What artists act like this?, I thought. But when they showed the brief bios, I was totally intrigued. This was the first time I got to properly "meet" the contestants. Before then I only saw them with their work -- the judges had no contact with, or information about, any of the artists during filming. When they first walked into the studio I had two thoughts. The first: They’re all so cute. (Of course, to an older person everyone younger looks good.) The second: I know one of these people. I recognized Jamie Lynn Henderson, who introduced herself on the tape as "not just a Christian blonde Barbie wannabe" (a description that really made my head spin). She went to the School of the Art Institute where I had taught, and I had even visited her studio. I immediately told the producers, and they said they’d make that information known. (I also recognized Judith Baum from the art world, although I had never met her.)
In the introduction, Nao said she was "too established for this show." I had never heard of her. Trong, who someone said was "really well-known as a curator and an artist"? Never heard of him. As for Erik, I was sort of shocked to hear that he was living in his truck and had been an artist "for about six hours." That may have explained why his expressionistic clown painting struck me as amateurish. Although I ended up really liking him, I got into a long fight with him in the first week. (It was cut.) I squawked that he needed to stop falling back on the excuse that he was "untrained." I told him no one cares and that I’m "untrained," too -- I have no degrees and never went to writing school. Like most people in the art world, I’m basically making this up as I go. The art world is about trying to invent new definitions of skill.
The way the show is edited, Nao seems pretty obnoxious. But I liked that she had game, and I couldn’t wait to hear what was going to come out of her mouth next. I think I gave her the perfect opening to get off the best line of the night: "I’m not responsible for your experience of my work." Whether this is total truth or total nonsense, I’ve already seen it on a T-shirt. Meanwhile, my darkest moment by far came when Mark looked into the camera and said something I don’t think I’ve ever heard an artist say before: "Being above average is not bad at all." For better and worse, the art world is populated by people who think that, on the contrary, being only "above average" is the definition of mediocrity -- akin to spiritual-esthetic death.
As for the winners and losers: I don’t know if anyone noticed, but I didn’t say a good word about Abdi’s painting of Ryan, which everyone else seemed to like. To me, it was garish pop-cartoon illustration. (I also thought that his self-portrait as an alien, which was shown briefly in his introduction, was silly and clichéd, at best.) Of the three so-called "bad" artists of the evening, I didn’t like any of their work and would have been happy had any of them gone home. I admit that Amanda’s painting struck me as the weakest of the bunch. Still, when I heard her little good-bye about "being on this journey," I got a little sick to my stomach.
But maybe being sick to one’s stomach comes from whatever it is that drives someone like me to even appear on a reality-TV show at all. I know that after the first time I watched the show, the line that kept going through my mind was Erik’s, when he looked at the camera and said, "I’m never going to get laid again." In truth, my wife has been too busy to see the show. Note to self: hide the DVD.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at email@example.com.