Bravo's Work of Art Riles Up the Art World

Bravo's latest reality show, Work of Art, is a modest hit for the network, but it has artists and art critics all riled up

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Barbara Nitke / Bravo

A scene from Work of Art

Shortly before 10 p.m. on most Wednesdays, some two dozen artists and art aficionados can be found draped across mismatched couches in the back room of Soda, a bar in Brooklyn, waiting for the opening credits of Work of Art to appear on a big screen. Bravo's latest foray into reality television, Work of Art has captivated — in the manner of a most excellent train wreck — the artsy crew at Soda, which piles in to sip pints and hurl pithy observations at the screen. "This construct is so false!" one viewer exclaims, as the contestants are judged on their art — a typical comment for the evening.

As with most reality shows, the premise of Work of Art is simple: 14 sassy personalities — including a painter with a penchant for removing her top and an installation artist with obsessive-compulsive disorder — undertake the world's most preposterous art commissions. (Make a junk sculpture; you've got $100 and 48 hours.) Every week, a contestant is booted off with the icy phrase, "Your work of art didn't work for us," spoken by host China Chow. The last artist standing gets $100,000 and a show at the Brooklyn Museum.

With ratings of up to 1.2 million viewers since it launched in June, Work of Art (which is co-executive-produced by Sarah Jessica Parker) is a modest success for the network that brought us Project Runway and the Real Housewives shows. While not as successful as the foodie juggernaut Top Chef, which draws an estimated 2.7 million viewers per episode, it's not bad for a debut cable-TV program devoted to the fabrication of contemporary art — a topic not exactly known for its riveting mass appeal. (In comparison, Project Runway averaged 1 million viewers in its first year.)

In the traditionally opaque world of art and art criticism, however, where opinions are usually safely buried under layers of jargon, Work of Art has caused a sensation. On the one hand, its very existence has ruffled art critics, who deride the concept as puerile. ("Vacant television piddle," scoffed Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times, before dismissing the show's definition of portraiture as too 17th century.) On the other, it is studied in microscopic detail by a bevy of culture blogs and mainstream websites, from the Wall Street Journal online to ArtInfo.com, all of which offer detailed recaps brimming with theoretical references and healthy doses of snark. While some bloggers and commentators have hailed the program for its demystification of the artistic process, others trash-talk the show for its artifice and vow never to watch.

Ah yes — but is it art? For most critics, the answer is an unqualified yes. "It's art if the artist says it's art," says Jerry Saltz, New York magazine's Pulitzer Prize–nominated art critic, who appears as one of the show's four judges. Whether the work is any good, of course, is another question entirely — and one that has been the subject of fiery debate. "The art world looks at a lot of the art on the show and thinks it's crap," says Saltz. "But when I find myself going to [galleries in] Chelsea these days, I find that the art on our reality TV show is not much worse or much better."

In a world where art is often about the complexity of the idea behind it, the challenges on the program have taken heat for being too simplistic. Thus far, contestants have produced portraits, book covers and "shock" art like that of Andres Serrano, who famously photographed a crucifix in a jar of urine in the '80s. (The shock-art episode turned out to be rife with poop jokes.) "The challenges seem designed to pry conflict and personal narrative out of the contestants," says Paddy Johnson, who regularly critiques the show on the art blog she edits, Art Fag City. The episode in which the contestants had to work with children's art supplies, for ­example, "was just an excuse for all of the artists to talk about their childhoods."

Indeed, there's been some sensitivity over how the show portrays artists. "We get so little representation in the larger culture," says Jennifer Dalton, an artist in New York City whose installations examine how artists are perceived by society. "They've generally done a good job in showing people who look normal, showing that artists don't all dress goth and act affected." However, Dalton notes, the show still succumbs to clichés like that of "the tortured artist — Miles [Mendenhall] with his OCD" — or the brassy performance diva, Nao Bustamante.

Some of the most pointed criticism has been reserved for the Brooklyn Museum, for granting the winner a solo exhibition. "It's like the Harvard Business School turning over one of its classes to the contestants of [The Apprentice]," says Tyler Green, a columnist for Modern Painters and writer of the museum-centric blog Modern Art Notes. "It's a slightly pathetic departure from the best practices that govern the field." Saltz, who says he was not aware of the museum's role until late in the production, agrees, stating on his magazine's culture blog that its participation "doesn't pass the smell test." Others have suggested that it would have been more appropriate to hold the show at a commercial gallery, not a publicly funded institution. The museum counters that this will simply be another juried exhibit of the sort similar institutions have long shown. "I know who the judges are, and they are people with respectable credentials," says deputy director of art Charles Desmarais, adding that the Brooklyn's curator of contemporary art, Eugenie Tsai, participated in the final selection process.

As the Aug. 11 season finale approaches, discussion surrounding the program is only getting more heated. But the slings and arrows of the art world might not make much difference to the folks behind Work of Art. "Our sights are on broad viewers," says Frances Berwick, Bravo's president, "people who like to have pretty pictures on their walls but might not know what goes into it." The network has yet to announce whether there will be a second season. Would art types tune in for another dose? "Hell, yes," says Johnson. "And I would participate in it too."