Long before the American Idolization of every art form on the planet, the great humorist S. J. Perelman imagined a gnarly New York painter being asked by a vulgarian Hollywood movie producer: what exactly do you artists do in the studio when you get an idea? “I usually smite my forehead,” the painter replies sarcastically, “and shout ‘Eureka!’?” No, he doesn’t, and neither does any artist. That’s precisely the problem with Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, the reality show produced by Sarah Jessica Parker and premiering June 9 on Bravo. In order to morph the slow, lonely business of creating art into something watchable for the Facebook set, Work of Art has to sex it up into something more resembling The Ultimate Fighter than Cézanne methodically patching together a landscape.
On Work of Art, undiscovered artists vie in a series of 10 “challenges” (in art school, they’re called “assignments”), such as doing one another’s portrait, to see who gets a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum and $100,000 in cash. The competitors include a couple of young white dudes cuddly enough for A Life Interrupted, two babes (ditto), a roly-poly Hispanic photographer currently working as a fry cook, a Vietnamese-American jack-of-all-media, a black female architecture professor, and a Roseanne-esque performance artist named Nao Bustamente, who’s the resident snark. At the pre-competition exhibition of self-portraits, she says condescendingly to Ryan, a realist painter, “You’ve got some skills.” Passing judgment are art critic Jerry Saltz (impersonating Alan Rickman channeling Simon Cowell), a couple of overdressed dealers, fashionista China Chow (daughter of über-fashionista Tina Chow and host of the show), and—easily the best thing on the program—auction-house mogul Simon de Pury, who hands out the homework in a velvety French accent. Just before the tournament begins, producer Parker makes a cameo appearance to tell everybody: “Be brave, be competitive, be yourselves.” The contestants are inexplicably agog.
What’s not so mysterious, however, is why Work of Art—though probably destined for the ratings graveyard—has made it to our LCD screens: what we don’t understand, we reduce to a contest. Have no idea what makes a good businessperson? Watch the Donald summarily fire the ones who aren’t. Can’t tell crème brûlée from a cheeseburger? Look at those Top Chefs try to out-cleaver one another. Even the solitude of bass fishing has been ruined by its own TV tournament. And on and on, through art-auction prices to novelists trying to climb the Amazon ladder, and the adrenalized warblers on Idol. The pernicious bonus is, of course, that we get to see the losers dissed and feel as though, somehow, we might be more talented than they are. When the ax finally falls on Work of Art’s first victim, it’s Chow who delivers the bad news with the brutality we crave (and recognize from a certain other Bravo contest show): “Your art doesn’t work for us. It’s time for you to go.” Well, when television treats aspiring artists like combatants in the octagon, somebody has to do some smiting.