Work of Art Rant
17 August 2010

I’ve had a few meltdowns on Twitter lately over the tweets people have been posting while they watch Bravo’s Work of Art. The snark invades, despite my efforts not to watch the show. The artists, bloggers, and critics all seem to have outsmarted the poor bastards on the game show. Indeed, many of the comments are funny and probably more entertaining than the show itself, which I stopped watching after episode 4. I have to admit I only saw the first episode because @c-monstah invited me to the debut screening at the WNYC studios in Manhattan.

 

 

As soon as Simon De Pury croaked his first bon mot out his nose, I knew I wouldn’t be watching the show. It was painful to watch someone like De Pury shamelessly perform for a cable TV audience. I mean he’s used to sucking up to rich people endlessly, I just never thought I’d see him get on his knees for a tv show. I doubt anyone else felt the kind of humiliation I experienced watching Jerry Saltz demean himself by seriously considering the undergrad, all-nighters the kids slapped together. I guess Jerry has a lot of practice as a professor and visiting critic. So, this isn’t a critique of the show’s trajectory or individual episodes. I didn’t see it, and I don’t want to. This is my personal rant, my inner monologue about the show, which has received spectacular interest in the art world.

 

 

A few months ago Jerry praised my work, but watching that first episode, I felt like the floor was falling out from underneath me. I wanted to crawl out of the room and hoped Jerry wouldn’t embarrass himself or be embarrassed by the show’s producers searching for the dramatic hook to captivate audiences. My inclusion on his top 10 list started feeling more like an anchor around my ankle than a life raft in the art world. After that, I watched the next three episodes with artist Jennifer Dalton and some friends at her house in Brooklyn. I drank a six-pack trying to sit through them. I mean, I wish we had been drinking whiskey for at some point the laughter died and the formulaic nature of the show, the manufactured drama, and the bad art made the extended viewing seem like a punishment for not keeping up on a weekly basis. When we had finished episode 4, I felt like it was 7 am and the coke had run out at a rather dull party. No one really wanted to talk about it, and I went home feeling disconcerted. Jen merely said something like “Well, I wanted to like it,” and frowned. She had been hopeful that the show would help middle America better understand contemporary art or what we have devoted nearly all of our adult lives to.

 

 

Still, I couldn’t really articulate why I hated the show so much when people asked. Individually, each episode wasn’t terrible. The contestants tried to do something within a hilariously limited amount of time in an artificial situation. I’ve spent more time sitting in my studio staring at the wall than they had to do all their projects, combined. When I watched the episodes continuously, I really did not want to watch anymore, and I haven’t. The thing was, I couldn’t just ignore the fucking show. Everyday, someone would mention something about #workofart on twitter and on Wednesday night the fucking twitterverse lit up with inane observations and chatter about who was doing what, who was wearing what, what idiocy had been perpetrated, or if Skelator, er, Jaclyn had popped her fake tits out.

 

 

The art world’s guilty obsession bled into every conversation, online and off that I was having. Nobody was riveted by the crap the contestants were producing, but far more interested in their relationships and personalities. Paddy Johnson, @artfagcity, and Carolina Miranda, @cmonstah, morphed from witty, sarcastic art world ass-kickers into something far worse; witty, sarcastic cheerleaders. Their participation in adding to the cacophony around the show disheartened me. It’s not so much about what they said (they are both excellent comedians), but that they were so engaged by something that made everything about art feel cheap and thin like worn polyester. I mean, my first instinct is to say ‘well, most of the art world is cheap and thin like worn polyester,” but it’s not. The stakes in this game have always been high, for some it concerns money that makes Abdi’s 100k look like chump change and for others powerful reputations, careers, and, well, money. For me, it’s just my life. This isn’t a career for me. It really is everything. Beneath the humor, the meta-commentary, and ironic devices there is rage, despair, joy, love, and a working philosophy about engaging the world. My drawings are warped, funhouse mirrors meant to trap all the fucked up shit that pops into my head and distort it into something people can look at without getting upset. Well, most people. Pissing of some people can’t be avoided including Jerry and everyone on Work of Art in this particular case. I’d rather Jerry be angry than sad, which only reinforces my ambivalence about the impact of the show.

 

 

In the past, Paddy has given me shit for making art about the art world. Once she described me as producing the closest thing to ‘fan art’ out there. So, imagine my surprise when Paddy in her role as @artfagcity began fawning over this fucking show in full-on “I like reality TV” mode by ingratiating herself with the show’s followers. Not only was Paddy twittering during the show, she wrote weekly recaps. I haven’t read any. It’s pretty much one of the main reasons I don’t read her blog anymore. Sorry, Paddy, it became another reminder that the show was out there. Perhaps now, I can visit AFC again without seeing what happened to Miles.

 

 

Cmonstah also tried to make fun of the show, I guess, but this is the part the makes me fucking irate. No matter how snarky you are, how witty you are, how mean-spirited you get, or how much you complain about the show, it doesn’t matter. If I complain about the show to people, “It’s a complete bullshit and a really bad representation of contemporary art,” they look at me like I’m some fucking elitist asshole who can’t relate to normal people and just accept the show. When they look at me their expression says “Look asshole, life is hard and I’m tired. I want to watch something stupid and feel good about myself or just not have to think too hard before I go to bed and get up for work at my boring, soul-sucking job in midtown or at this deadly museum. It’s just TV.” It’s just TV. The sarcastic LIFE Magazine profile about Jackson Pollock was just an article too, and it transformed his career in a way that the paintings alone hadn’t been able to do.

 

 

As the summer wore on I wished I could just say, “fuck it. It’s the Jersey Shore of the art world,” and watch the show. The problem is, I can’t. It’s not really the show I’m pissed about. I’m pissed off by it’s very existence and the promise it offers its contestants. I’m sure you all understand the basic fucking premise of the show; respond to an assignment, win, and get a 100k and a museum show. Sweet. All you have to do is crank out some art that is marginally less terrible than what everyone else is making. It’s not that you actually have to make anything good. My friend Letha used to explain that meeting the hottest guy in a bar is always a relative proposition. Sometimes, she would take home the hottest guy in the bar and still be making out with an ugly motherfucker. Despite this, and unlike the broader market where critics can ignore mediocre and bad work and collectors can chose not to buy it, someone had to win the show by default. It would have been way riskier and far more interesting if there was no guarantee anyone could win if the work wasn’t good enough. I think this one of the most obvious flaws in comparing the show to life. In fact, even the losers on the show are still winners if we count recognition as a form of payment.

 

 

Anyway, when I started to reflect on why a show I wasn’t watching and why it was making want to get violent and fight strangers, it started to dawn on me how closely the model of the show and everything about it reminded me of the worst aspects of the art world and America. First, the notion that some random fucks, chosen by a highly questionable jury, win the fucking lotto to get on the show with portfolios that wouldn’t have gotten them into Scope is problematic enough. The producers had also reached out to artists with representation, including myself, which undermined the underdog nature of the show. I’m sure some of the contestants were straight off the street hopefuls, but I bristled that Bravo was out there looking for personalities that might be ‘combustible’ or manufacture the appropriate amount of drama. Reality. Right. Does reality need ‘producers’? I hate the word ‘reality’ TV and wished that even one of the participants had found a way to undermine that concept, or at least challenge it.

 

 

So, yes, I turned down multiple requests to audition in New York. If there had been a little more time I was working with a Belgian actor to audition in my place, in character, but he was in Europe. The problem was manifold though. Would Bravo own my character at the end of the show? They own all the other art the contestants made. That character, an idea, has been central to my practice. Who owns the ideas?

 

 

That Bravo reduced art to series of BFA level challenges was arguably the most artificial and insulting part of the show for me. I mean, beyond the fact they have an absurd shooting schedule and severe time restrictions. On his FB page, @Jerrysaltz asked his thousands what challenges they would issue. OK. So, let’s just get this fucking straight. Would it be cool if I just went on my FB page and asked “Hey kids, what should I do next?” Of course fucking not, it’s the central challenge for an artist. “What the fuck do I do?”

 

 

There is an army of talented artists out there, and you can find a platoon of them working for Jeff Koons, who have awesome skills, but the biggest struggle facing an artist is individuating themselves from the masses and finding a reason to employ their abilities. “Hmmm, I can do anything I want, but, uh, shit…” I am fucking insulted that the producers of Work of Art and that witch-hooker Sarah Jessica Parker couldn’t come up with some format for the show where the artists had to do their own fucking thing, and let the judges…wait, who the fuck is Bill Powers? Where is the Half-Gallery? I wouldn’t ask that fucker to interpret the second hand on my watch…actually engage in some critical analysis and consider every aspect of the work, not just if it met some absurd pre-existing conditions. But no, we get the contestants making fucking book covers and interpreting what it feels like to drive a luxury, product placement car? Fuck you Audi you fucking pieces of shit. Fuck all art cars; BMW included. I will never ‘design’ a car or a yacht. I might piss on one, but that’s it.

 

 

While the challenges make me irate and are the most unrealistic thing about the show (and don’t compare it to Project Runway, since it’s more likely than not that the designers will end up working for someone else and executing their ideas), artists don’t get fucking challenges. We call that illustration, commercial work, or being an artist’s assistant like Jaclyn. I wonder if she’s back at Koons’ studio working on his ideas? Anyway, the challenges themselves only serve to do the thing that makes me want to jump off a fucking cliff. They are the shitty vehicle that enables one lucky patsy, and in this case Abdi who seems like an affable kid, to experience a simulation of art stardom, to be an instant sensation. If Starbucks can make instant brew, Bravo can make an art star, of course. I can’t help but see the show offering a compressed, flawed version of art stardom; a rapid ascent, a vast payday, instant entrance into museums and institutions, and some amount of broader public awareness (I won’t call it fame. Most of America doesn’t know who the fuck Jeff Koons is. Abdi, Miles, and Peregrine probably have more useful celebrity than Koons for about six months). Success in the shows terms seems flimsy and tawdry in comparison to say the career trajectory of Dana Schutz or Jules DeBalincourt ( I mean they are talented and have good ideas right?). I will never stop being fascinated by them. They both have talent yet I find them to be derivative painters who won the art lotto and filled the darling spots at the beginning of the boom era.

 

 

Comparatively, Abdi is something of the butt of a protracted joke, a novelty coughed up by produced television, it’s way too edited and manipulated to suggest it’s anything other than a mocumentary using non-actors to play the pre-assigned clichés. I don’t know how Abdi’s show will look, and I’m not judging his work here. I just know it will be difficult to shake the feeling that everything is covered in a faint layer of perspiration and a greasy residue like the inside of an OTB or a Greyhound bus bathroom (If you’ve never had the pleasure you’re probably not reading this so fuck you). The veneer of dignity has already been stripped away by the profit-whores at Bravo who have reduced the activity everyone involved has dedicated years to into tidy, fifty-minute episodes. What scares me most about this, this blackhole of terror that opens up in my chest, is that there is no dignity to art, to this career, and that the whole thing is a terribly produced ‘show’ that is always already rigged and that no matter how hard I work, I will always be a middle class loser without the right fucking pedigree to suck on Bonami’s cock.

 

 

I also quiver in terror when I think about all the artists out there laughing their collective ass off at Miles’ ass or Skelator (see I can’t resist either), because I wonder how many of those same fuckers would shed their dignity like Jerry to get on TV. What bullshit excuse would they use to achieve the sort of cognitive dissonance that would allow them to become the butt of a weekly, nationally televised joke. Or perhaps even worse, all the artists laughing at the contestants believe they can laugh at them on TV because at least they aren’t actually on the show. No, they are just watching TV, risking nothing. I mean, if they could just get their own break, they would be successful too, but of course, they’d never risk their own dignity by actually being on the show. I sense a kind of hypocrisy, even in myself, when I consider how people love to take a piss on the show, when they don’t have a fucking pot themselves. I turned down the opportunity to audition for the show because it seemed like something that would be fun to watch someone else do, but there was no way I was going to destroy what little integrity I had in not taking things seriously. What Ken Johnson said about Jen Dalton is how I think about what I do, “taking not being serious seriously” (paraphrasing), and if I’m going to destroy my career, I want to do it on my own terms, not making money for NBC Universal and Bravo.

 

 

We used to talk about the mother of all capitalist art fears, ‘commodification’, where any idea or critique is simply absorbed by the market. In this case, it’s not a particular artist like Murakami who tried to swallow the market and ended up in its belly anyway but the claim to art itself. It’s like watching the ‘art market’ get chewed up by a bigger cultural fish, ‘the entertainment industry’ and turned into a giant advertising product meant to deliver an audience to the real consumer, the advertisers and sponsors. I’m pleased Christopher Knight posted a link to Richard Serra’s video “Television Delivers People”, which reminded me of what I was witnessing. What makes art potentially radical is just neutered for the sake of showing an understandable process to deliver the numbers of viewers.

 

 

Apparently it has worked. Season 2 is starting to cast and another batch of artists will compete again for some quick cash and an instant social/professional network earned in a fucked-up, truncated version of reality compressing years of hard work, ass-kissing, struggle, and sacrifice into a month. Again, a totally unrealistic lotto system based on physical appearance, personality, age, gender as much as whatever artistic merit is presented/sold to the public as a viable alternative to the struggle of making it as artist. I mean a viable alternative to having a trust fund. As for @Jen_Dalton’s optimism that the show “would help educate people about contemporary art,” Work of Art also serves to remind me that I, and art, have failed to approach anything remotely radical in decades. Thinking about the 52% of Californians who voted for Proposition 8 or fundamentalist beliefs in ‘intelligent design’ also remind me that there are ideas, beliefs, and perspectives to which I am not tolerant. This intolerance is based on a reaction to traditional thought that eschews science, logic, and reason for faith and pseudo-science. The defense of the tradition becomes paramount to any realistic concerns. I also don’t like the way that Work of Art makes art safe and sanitized for the masses by relying on cliché and tradition. It’s like calling McDonald’s food. Sure, as the lowest common denominator, it qualifies, but it’s not what we aspire to. Work of Art makes art appear safe, professional, and full of fucking morons talking gibberish about nothing. I’d rather sit through an hour long lecture series on Altermodernism subtitled in English every week than watch Work of Art. At least I might learn something or experience an idea that will challenge my ideas about what is possible in art.

 

 

Nothing I’ve seen or heard about Work of Art suggests that possibility even exists. No, instead, I am left feeling depressed about art. It looks ugly, cheap, and I feel like we all, not just Abdi or Miles or Skelator, are jumping around like clowns for rich assholes. And it’s not just the contestants that are also experiencing some d-list celebrity status. In their temporary TV fame, I see my own shallow, ugly reflection staring back at me. It reminds me of the ever-increasing up tick of twitter followers and little messages from the tumblr bot, or looking at peaks of Google hits in analytics amid the long, desolate stretches of insignificance. The feeling of being desired or recognized is a powerful thing, and on most days, I can tell myself “It’s because of the work you’ve done,” not the personality projected during a few hours of reality tv. On other days, that nagging sense of desolation brought on by the warm, lazy reception of Work of Art is that I am failure, just another shitty hack producing ‘symbolic representations of radical thought’ or being yet another symbolic pressure-release valve for radical thought, instead of being genuinely radical.

 

 

So maybe the joke is on all of us, for accepting art as a closed set of predetermined relationships calculated and influenced to produce a single outcome. Or it’s a joke because it is so much like art itself. As Jerry Saltz pointed out “the work on our show isn’t much better or worse than what I see in Chelsea”. Maybe it’s not the show I am disappointed in, but myself and everyone else in the art world.

WILLIAM POWHIDA
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