Work of Art Works Out

We watched the finale of season one of Work of Art: The Next Great Artist last night, finishing with what has been a rather brilliant viewing experience. But the show saved the most interesting episode for the end, and it did so by completely changing the game. Frankly, I was kind of shocked, even while I was mesmerised.

The shows preceding the final work on the basic mechanism of the competitors having to make a work of art based on some stupid theme in about 24 hours or so. This leads to really stressed artists acting like dumb-asses making generally shitty things. The time pressure lends a really lame “art school project” feeling to everybody’s attempts to make something, along with the pressure to somehow demonstrate themselves to be “the next great artist”. Yeah, right.

And, of course, that’s quite excellent viewing, because you get to scoff violently at their showings – no small pleasure. Occasionally you might admit that one of the pieces is not so bad, but by and large it’s a viewing experience dominated by laughing in the TV faces of the desperate artists. You revel in the feeling that you are, in fact, seeing nothing to do with Art as you think of it, merely a grinding, week-to-week car crash of epic proportions. It’s wonderful.

But then along came the final episode of the show. In this one we join the artists a month ahead of the final “exhibit-off” and see them at work in their studios, then see the final exhibitions, then find out who wins. And I’ll be damned but it turned out that these people could actually turn out pretty good shit when they were under absurd time pressure and production decisions and so on. Not that I’m saying the finals shows necessarily set the world of fire, but it’s good stuff – it looks like it was made by people taking their art seriously rather than a bunch of idiots playing at make “Art”.

Jerry Saltz, one of the judges on the show, wrote a rather great post about his feelings on the finale for New York Magazine, and it’s worth reading if you followed the show. He says some interesting and potentially inspiring things about how the show complicates and challenges the traditional art world, and also goes on to highlight how important he felt the blog-comments based criticism he encountered while blogging about the show was.

Work of Art is still full of totally insane pretentious bullshit, both from the artists (oh, Peregrin) and the production (“The Next Great Artist”? Really?), but I think it’s true that, with the finale, they’ve given a wider audience an important insight into the way that contemporary artists might work, and why they do the things they do, and they’ve done it without buying in too much to the often bullshitty world of contemporary art criticism. It’s actually quite an accomplishment. Like some kind of bi-partisan bill passed by the US Congress or something.

I await season 2, in which I would quite like it if they didn’t have a show where the artists do one project in a children’s arts-and-crafts making play-centre. Man that was cringe-worthy. They brought them brown paper-bag lunches to rub the salt in. Wow.

14 August 2010
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