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Bravo's "Work of Art:" The Next Great Artist?

“Art and TV have always been bad bedfellows; They never get one another.” So says Jerry Saltz in his recap of the season finale of the Bravo reality show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. The show’s format is a lot like Project Runway or Top Chef, following 14 contestant throughout a series of challenges (i.e. art inspired by nature, shocking art, art inspired by childhood) for the grand prize of $100,000 and a show at The Brooklyn Museum of Art. Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine, is a judge, along with Bill Powers, co-owner of Half Gallery, gallerist and consultant Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, host China Chow and mentor Simon de Pury, who may have one-upped Tim Gunn in the funny voice category.

But even with an impressive line-up of judges and the backing of the Brooklyn Museum, parties on all sides have received a lot of flack, not only for participating in reality television, but reality television that proposes to discover real artistic talent. True, the idea of finding a Picasso through something akin to Star Search is a little bit appalling. We prefer to believe that art-making holds a sacred magic, that it happens in a private, personal space away from a watchful audience and the roving eye of the camera. But really, what’s wrong with showing the process?

Sure, pitting 14 hopeful artists against each other in the same studio space and forcing them to create something under thematic and time constraints is an artificial set-up, but so is the one hour chefs have in Iron Chef‘s Kitchen Stadium to prepare a multi-course meal. You can argue the differences all you want, but the point is to test contestants’ skills under pressure. It may not be the most organic way to make a meal or to make art, but it’s a different and interesting way to look at the process, and it provides a new language with which to talk about art. Are the contestants’ pieces any less valid because they were filmed making them? Even if you don’t like the end result, the answer is no. Any artist might impose the same restrictions upon themselves in their own studio.

I would also argue that the point of the show for the contestants is not to build a portfolio over the 10 weeks of competition. The pieces in and of themselves may not be exceptional, but we get a sense of their abilities based on how they address the issues of a particular challenge. Of course, ‘quick fire’ challenges aren’t necessarily the best way to test concept and skill – Matisse worked on his “Bathers” series for years. But it’s one way, and the results are exciting to watch.