Work of Art

A Piece of Work: Watching Bravo’s Art Reality Show So You Don’t Have To – Episode 2

This week, we got schooled
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China Chow and Jerry Saltz on "Work of Art." (Courtesy Bravo)

As you may recall from last week, you are an invalid. (Condolences.) Yes, for the purposes of this column’s shtick, you are physically incapacitated and reduced to relying on reality television for news of the art world. Not real news mind you—here, you’ll find neither skyrocketing auction prices, nor reports from rebounding European fairs; there will be no restitutions, reattributions, deaccessions or heists. Rather, what’s in store is yet another tutorial on Contemporary Art Today, as delivered by the cerebral academics at Bravo every Wednesday, at 9/8c, and explained by this columnist, your devoted teaching assistant.

WEEK TWO: Wherein we glean that while in the “real art world,” an M.F.A. degree from a top-tier graduate school may garner the attention of galleries, launch your career and enhance your artistic practice, it will not brace you for (let alone protect you against) the savagery of televised art experts.

SUMMARY: Before we turn to such weighty matters as the merits and shortcomings of a graduate education, here is a brief recap of what occurred on this week’s installment of our enlightening program. The 13 remaining contestants, split into two dueling teams, were tasked with using Parkour—“a discipline where participants overcome obstacles using only their bodies to move from point A to point B in the most creative and inventive way possible,” according to Bravo—as inspiration for their art.

Rather than, say, artfully elbowing their way through a Barneys Warehouse Sale and emerging with size-8 Manolo Blahniks, the would-be great artists went rogue, ignoring the (albeit confounding) instructions for the challenge. Instead of doing anything even vaguely ninjalike—unless you count avoiding getting thwacked by auctioneer Simon de Pury’s flailing arm gestures—the contestants worked on pieces variously inspired by domestic violence, the moon, North and South Korea and poop.

The Sucklord and Lola (née Dolores Haze) flirted grossly, until all fun was brought to a grinding halt by Mr. de Pury, who, with tight lips and shockingly few gesticulations, expressed his displeasure with the projects underway. The teams began again from scratch, with one group creating non-Parkourian pieces inspired by a pervy playground (“Play With Me”). The other team, meanwhile, decided to present “Loop,” a smattering of unrelated artworks about circles.

Bayeté Ross Smith won the individual competition for two videos on adjacent screens, featuring him spinning around and around on a rooftop, looking increasingly nauseated. It is worth noting here that while Mr. Smith did not go to graduate school, his photographs have been published in The Spirit of Family by Al and Tipper Gore.

“Loop” lost the group challenge, perhaps because it came across like a botched episode of Sesame Street—a show about circles that mostly fails to feature things that are actually round. But only Yale M.F.A. Kathryn Parker Almanas was booted off the show, for her video of organlike blobs that are repeatedly plopped down on crumpled plastic sheeting. She wept mawkishly during her critique, in part because she was in incredible physical pain, as a chronic sufferer of the digestive ailment Crohn’s disease.

Neither this handicap nor the fact that she had already received artistic affirmation from a leading university, nor her attempt to chant at the moon saved her from elimination.

LESSON: What does this teach us about the art world at large? For starters, in Ms. Almanas’s own words, “autoimmune diseases and reality TV do not mix.” Moreover, the skills peddled by the top-ranked photography M.F.A. program in the country (according to the latest ranking by U.S. News) are a hindrance when it comes to knockout brawling in Bravo’s competitive art arena.

New York magazine art critic and Work of Art judge Jerry Saltz revealed in his inaugural recap of season two that his fellow judge Bill Powers has dubbed the TV program “Work of Art: The Next Great Grad School.”

“We often spend 45 minutes reviewing a single piece,” Mr. Saltz wrote. “These crits are as intricate and intense as any I’ve been in at Yale or Columbia.”

Not so fast. Actual Yale M.F.A. critiques cultivate drastically different talents and reward very different creative impulses than reality TV does. If anything, Yale’s crits, a few of which this columnist has attended, are even more wildly brutal than Bravo’s—one-liners delivered by the photography department’s longtime director Todd Papageorge tend to be considerably more caustic than Mr. Saltz’s zingiest zinger.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    The best of acerbia:

    “an M.F.A. is not a golden ticket to artistic superstardom in Bravo-land. Rather, it’s likely to serve as some terrible curse that will turn you into a flower or a bug.”


  2. Nbuchanan says:

    I still want to know what happened to last year’s winner….