Am I allowed to say that the last episode of Work of Art made me feel glad all over? Not because the show’s over -- although the last ten weeks have been more stressful than I ever imagined. Even though fingers have wagged at me for "interacting with the laypeople" and the L.A. Times opined that the show is "vacant television piddle," I'm glad to have been associated with this strange chapter in the canoodling of art and popular culture. I wish I’d been more articulate and clear about why I liked and disliked certain works of art, but I’m glad that my faith in art and artists was not broken. All three of the finalists -- Abdi, Miles and Peregrine -- came though and made shows that could have been seen in any respectable New York gallery. I’m even glad that the Brooklyn Museum, though much disparaged for it -- even by me -- risked giving one of these artists a chance. Haters will say that all this was just a train wreck. Whatever it was, somehow life occasionally managed to break into this "reality."
That life was in this episode. The three finalists were each given $5,000 and three months to do anything they wanted. Each mounted this show in the beautiful spaces of Phillips de Pury (nice digs, Simon). For me this episode was fun to shoot. I was happy to be in the land of free finger food one last time (there’s a fleeting shot of me tasting one of Peregrine’s sculptures -- d'oh!). Previous contestants were there, but pussy talk was absent: Erik didn’t brand Miles an "art pussy," and Judith didn’t call Jaclyn a "proud pussy." Nao, who should be given her own TV show, could be seen wearing a red parrot thing on her shoulder.
As a typical navel-gazing New Yorker, I was glad to see artists working and thriving outside our little island. My two favorite shots of the season were Simon kissing the hands of Abdi’s and Miles’ moms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such complex body language as when this aristocratic peacock all but clicked his heels and bowed, while the moms either swooned or prepared to slap him. Getting peeks into the artists' lives helped make them more dimensional, less like "vapid" cartoon characters. Peregrine is married to a wonderful jazz musician; they live in Kansas City, MO. They make and play these Hieronymus Bosch-like musical instruments. Her studio was large and beautiful and might have made some New York artists envious. Her work looked magical to me. Peregrine’s circus-mind had finally run wild with pink pile-up sculptures of butterflies and zebras. While her work still echoed ‘90s "Scatter Art," she made three-dimensional fairy tales, showed tremendous range in her color and intelligence with materials. Her picture of twin dead fawns made China, Jeannie, guest judge David LaChapelle, and even Peregrine herself cry. This picture has real internal content and external energy.
Next, Simon -- who was wearing a parka (that phrase makes my day) -- visited Miles in Minneapolis. For weeks bloggers have groused that I have a special liking for Miles’ work. Yup. And I loved this project. Miles, near as I could follow, used his iPhone to take pictures of a street person off a White Castle surveillance monitor in a divey part of town. Two days later, he learned the man froze to death on a nearby park bench. In a true in-search-of-the-miraculous meets detective story, Miles then zeroed in on this one nothing picture, enlarging it, enlarging images of the enlargements, and so on, until he reached a sort of irreducible point of optical no return. It was like seeing someone disappear before my eyes. I loved watching an artist follow an idea to an almost horrifying point of reductive absurdity. Miles’s willingness to start with life, filter it through psychology, break those things up through photography and technology, and arrive at some sort of ontological doorstep was truly admirable.
Next we met Abdi and his Mom in their Dover, Maryland home. In his cruddy basement we saw Abdi escaping many of his bad habits, as he experimented with plaster and huge, luminous, fallen beings. As his cartoon imagery faded, his art become less literal, more abstract, open -- not annoying. (Although it still veered toward the melodramatic.) His photographic figuration was filtered though acidic colors and a more distanced realism; his starkly painted body-bags were more than clichés -- they had pathos, and carried real cultural and visual weight. China and LaChapelle were truly moved by his work. Bill always had an eye for it. But Jeannie summed it and much more up when she said, "Abdi took something familiar and made it his own; certainly more than the other two, whose work fit certain art categories."
Her idea of "other art categories" is key to how the show finished. I’m not comparing this reality TV game show about art to Tolstoy’s monumental War and Peace. But there’s a scene in this oceanic epic that helped me think about how this drop in this TV bucket ended. Even though I liked the work of Miles and Peregrine, here’s how I came to understand why Abdi had to win. Near the end of Tolstoy’s book, Napoleon’s ruthless juggernaut is about to invade the Holy City of Moscow. The novel has been building to this for almost 1,000 pages. On the night before the invasion, the great Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov sits alone, knowing the inevitable will arrive with the dawn. He weeps and asks himself, "When did I lose Moscow?" He goes back over events, pores over every battle, ponders every deployment of men, every retreat, diplomatic twist and turn of providence. Finally he understands that no one thing caused this; that tomorrow is the sum of all of the events that led up to it; that this night was fated from the beginning.
On an infinitesimally small, epically ridiculous level, I asked myself a similar question at the end of the last installment of this TV show. "When did Miles lose?" I think I knew all along that the talented Peregrine, who created a carnival of good and bad, high and low art -- including a working cotton candy machine -- is not an artist who is about winning or losing. She and her work are about living a life in art. I adore that. But Jeannie’s comment about work that "fit into other art categories" explained what had happened with Peregrine and Miles. His show was all-but-perfectly realized, and looked like something I might review in a respectable Lower East Side gallery. Here came the rub. Miles’ work was so up-to-date that it looked dated. This way his art lost its edge, turned in on itself; it went from being over-hung to just being overkill. As highly accomplished as his work was, it was a bit too much in a highly conceptualized, self-reflexive, intensely theorized and familiar quasi-visual idiom. Miles had lost by winning. He got so close to a good idea of art, that the art he got close to wasn’t entirely his own. I began to understand that this had been happening all along. Indeed, it had been there in his first digital black-and-white portrait of Nao. I think Miles should move to New York and be poor and stay up late with thousands of other young artists. Then, in five years, he could be an artist to reckon with. That he lost this reality TV show will one day actually help him.
Abdi, on the other hand, had won by losing all along. He won by extending himself and his art, expanding on his weak ideas and making them work for and not against him. Abdi won by not being cynical; by actually putting himself through an emotional-esthetic wringer; reaching deeper. Abdi’s Brooklyn Museum show probably won’t be a hit with the art world. However, I can imagine museum crowds getting a lot out of his work, and that his small show might even teach the art world something about its own openness or lack thereof.
But there’s one more question I have to ask. Did I "win" or "lose" by being on the program? Art and TV have always been bad bedfellows; they never get one another. If watching this show sometimes made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I can only imagine what it did to the hairs on the back of the collective neck. Yet I honestly never thought of saying no to this show. I loved doing it; it changed the way I think -- somewhat, anyway. I wanted to see if art criticism was porous and supple enough to actually exist on a different stage.
And it did. I’m not referring to all the strangers who stopped me and said, "Why’d you eliminate Trong?" (or one of the other artists). In the middle of the street -- or, once, in the Dallas airport -- I’d be having animated conversations about art and art criticism. That confirmed my suspicion that many people have inner critics dying to get out. But the good I’m thinking of wasn’t about me, and it didn’t happen on the street or even TV. It happened here in these recaps. And not in my summaries of each episode. It happened in the tens of thousands of words that all of you wrote in the comment sections at the bottom of the recaps. An accidental art criticism sprang up, practiced in a new place, in a new way, on a fairly high level. Together we were crumbs and butter of a mysterious madeleine. The delivery mechanism of art criticism seemed to turn itself inside out; instead of one voice speaking to many, there were many voices speaking to one another. Coherently. All these voices became ghosts in criticism’s machine. It was a criticism of unfolding process, not dictums and law -- a criticism of intimacy that pulsed with a kind of phosphorescent grandeur.
If art magazines are like beautiful immutable still black-and-white photographs -- rigorous fixed-images and texts, frozen out of the flux -- for me these threads became a changing landscape of different minds, mutations of "selves" flowing through time, speaking an unknown aggregate language that did not solve, but that discovered, changed its mind, generated unpredictable patterns, and was serious but not sacred. Disembodied online, these threads were still a criticism of physical bodies rather than the mind-body separation that usually governs criticism; it was a place where life broke through. Evolution happens faster where eco-systems overlap, at their edges, where they’re less pure. Somehow an edge of criticism was reached; on these wilder shores of criticism "impurities" bred, definitions blurred, rules broke down.
On these outer banks people who would otherwise have no access to art-world opinion, criticism or power were given voice. Those voices were sometimes sharp as tacks. Since there's no money in art criticism anyway, I can imagine clusters of critics forming online art magazines and actively encouraging such multi-headed, non-hierarchical conversations. For me the deep content of being on Work of Art was to see if art criticism could find new ways to expose itself to the world so that more of the world might expose itself to it. Many art world gate-keepers tut-tut that this conversation in the vernacular between equals is "piddle." What I learned from doing this strange TV show, whose strangeness still somehow feels familiar, is that criticism contains multitudes.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.