Thanks so much to Alyssa for having me on while she’s adventuring in Alaska.
Let me first say that “Work of Art” is not about art. I do not tune in to learn anything about art or art history. The “art” produced by the contestants isn’t interesting or even on the level of most art students at most major universities. In short, the art on this show is bad and probably shouldn’t even be classified as such. But what “Work of Art” is good at is the genre of reality television. It’s ridiculous, absurd, and hugely entertaining.
Work of art, if you haven’t been sucked in to its post-”Top Chef DC” time slot, has the same premise as its preceding show or Project Runway: The idea is to get artists to put something together along some kind of theme in a few hours and have a gallery showing to see what “works.” Last night’s episode was the last before the show’s finale next week.
[Aside: "Top Chef DC" is possibly its dullest iteration to date. You would have thought having someone with a Michelin star on this season would have made it more interesting, but instead you get a lot of mostly competent but wholly uninteresting chefs.]
The constants on “Work of Art” are weird, narcissistic, dysfunctional, and erratic (or at least, that’s how the show is edited to make them look). An artist friend of mine worried the show might make people think artists are stupid. After watching this show, I think this is a completely legitimate fear. So please let me assure the casual observer of the show: Artists are not stupid. These “artists” on “Work of Art,” however, just might be.
Peregrine often takes it upon herself to dress like an alien. Miles, who recently graduated from my alma matter, the University of Minnesota, comes off as a bit OCD and often takes competition time to nap because he feels “overwhelmed.” (Some of my friends have expressed that Miles might be the closest to an actual artist on the show.) Jaclyn somehow manages to make the judges think she’s making provocative “feminist” art by photographing herself naked in nearly every challenge including the challenge where she was supposed to design a book cover for Pride and Prejudice. In fact, last night Jaclyn was voted off for a piece in which she didn’t include naked (or semi-naked) photographs of herself.
[Yet another aside: Let me just say that I'm not blaming Jaclyn for being too "slutty" or anything like that. I genuinely believe that women taking control of their own sexuality is a good thing. But Jaclyn's pieces seems to completely ignore much of feminist criticism and philosophy. She once earnestly included "the Male Gaze" into one of her pieces -- and not really in a critical way. I find some of the judges classification of Jaclyn's work as "feminist" to be problematic at best and find her evaluation of human sexuality and body image (especially considering that she appears to have undergone a breast augmentation surgery) to be stunted.]
But the beauty of “Work of Art” isn’t just in its
characters contestants. The episode in which they were supposed to make “shocking art,” inspired by photographer Andres Serrano (most famously known for his Piss Christ), is possibly the funniest thing I have seen in a long time. I won’t even attempt to summarize the episode, since it’s actually worth watching on your own — or at the very least, reading this post from Melissa McEwan at Shakesville — but let me just say: Shit panda, Walt Disney erections, and cum. So much cum.
What “Work of Art” has hit upon here is not the next Project Runway or the next Top Chef. Instead, they accidentally created a show that looks back to the 2000-2002 era of reality television. By using the premise of a competition, they’re revealing some of the most absurd aspects of human nature.
It’s true that there are a lot of really disgusting elements in reality television: The cheap production costs, the manufactured nature of the conflicts, and the deeply integrated sexism (including extreme disproportion of white male winners on nearly every show). I totally respect and am grateful to those who call on producers to stop making this crap. Still, there’s a reason there’s an audience for reality television, however uncomfortable that reason might be. On some level, people enjoy watching this crap. It certainly sucked me in, and I’m supposed to have some kind of refined feminist sensibility.
In the end “Work of Art” is definitely not about art, but it is about perfecting the art of reality television.