Lowbrow meets highbrow on Bravo’s new reality-television series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. The show, which premieres next Wednesday, tracks 14 contestants as they compete to win $100,000 and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.
“Look—we’ve done it with food and fashion and hair and interior design, I think we can do it with art,” says Bravo senior vice president Andy Cohen, when asked if developing a high-concept show about art was a programming executive’s worst nightmare.
Cohen attributes his confidence to the producers: Sarah Jessica Parker, and her production company Pretty Matches, and Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, of Magical Elves. Since Cutforth and Lipsitz banded together in 2001, the Elves have been busy shifting the focus of reality television from double-dare matchups such as Survivor, to creative competitions. Their collective hits, including Project Runway and Top Chef, have earned the duo an impressive reputation and secured Bravo a loyal, and growing, 18-to-49 demographic. Even better, the shows are cheap to make.
Nonetheless, the Elves didn’t see a television show about art as a particularly sure thing. “We definitely recognized it was a challenge,” Cutforth says. “But we were excited to embrace that. It’s hard to break open a new area of artistic expression that hasn’t already been mined. Art is one of the last frontiers because people are scared of it.”
The producers used their traditional casting formula to appeal to a broader audience. Although they said that the cast dynamics are organic, it’s difficult not to see the contestants as archetypes. In the first episode, there’s the villain (snippy Nao), the misunderstood ingenues (saccharine Jamie Lynn and sex pot Jaclyn), the misfits (veteran Judith and rookie Erik), and the likable front-runners (quirky Miles and earnest Abdi). Without much effort, one can connect the dots from these characters to their counterparts on past Bravo shows. The conventions extend to the stacked judges’ panel as well.
In a series of sculptural cocktail dresses, host China Chow does her best Heidi Klum while delivering the show’s signature, damning proclamation: “Your work of art didn’t work for us.” Phillips de Pury chairman and auctioneer Simone de Pury is the compassionate mentor who’s quick with a catchphrase. (“Be amazing!” “Wall power!”) Pulitzer Prize–nominated art critic Jerry Saltz is the tough but fair judge, and gallery owner Bill Powers is the resident cool guy. Collector Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn garnishes the mix with sophisticated criticism.
It works. If you choose to “sample the show,” (network parlance), the Magical Elves will hook you, just as they have before. Still, the notion of throwing the art world into this particular sausage factory is unsettling for some.
“There’s a lot of, ‘We’ll be watching you!’” says Powers of his contemporaries’ reaction to his judging gig. “You’re not sure if it’s a warning or an endorsement.”
Although many prominent artists (Jon Kessler, Jonathan Santlofer, Andres Serrano, David LaChapelle) agreed to appear on the show, others shied away, perhaps concerned with how it might affect their image.
Artist and guest judge Richard Phillips said the paranoia was unwarranted. “I’m certainly not fearful about what it could possibly do to my production.” he says. “When Warhol appeared on The Love Boat, he wasn’t concerned about how it was going to read on his Jackie in Mourning painting.”
Phillips also allowed his work to appear on Gossip Girl. He sees both shows as a way to engage a wider audience in contemporary art. “This form, the so-called reality show, is omnipresent. Whether we like it or not, it encapsulates a lot of entertainment production today. We need to raise the level of discussion and not run away from it,” he says. “My work is conventionally called a type of realism. For me, the opportunity to engage in what is known as a reality show is consistent with my objective. It’s a choice to be a part of the first projection of pop culture rather than merely being a passive reflection of it.”
Putting aside the impact of the show on established artists, a viewer would have to have a heart of steel not to be swayed by Work of Art’s potential impact on contestants. There’s Mark, the “fry cook by day, photographer by night,” who could leverage his Bravo celebrity to quit his day job. And there’s Ryan, who might be able to stand by his maxim, “I live to create and I create to live.” Even the contestants’ ecstatic expressions upon seeing their art supplies call to question the pragmatism of knocking an endeavor that gives struggling artists the means to create their work. (I’ll reserve judgment about what their ecstatic expressions upon seeing Sarah Jessica Parker might indicate.)
There’s the optimistic possibility, as well, that Work of Art could affect the viewers as much as the contestants. The show may encourage mainstream dialogue about art by lessening the quiet concern many feel when asked to discuss it. By validating viewers’ judgment, the judges could give the audience permission to have opinions about art while teaching them a language in which to express their ideas. How many people learned about “color blocking” on Project Runway, or “flavor profiles” on Top Chef?
“I hope that people will feel more comfortable talking about their opinions about art, or wanting to have opinions about art,” says Magical Elves’s Jane Lipsitz, “That’s our goal.”
For now, the producers can be satisfied with modest praise. “Good news,” announced the industry blog Art Fag City after the show’s first screening, “Work of Art… will not embarrass the art world.”
Work of Art premieres June 9 at 11 p.m. E.S.T.
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