So far I have successfully resisted the bait dangled by all the reality shows. Tribal hostilities, The Donald’s flunky-wannabees, housewives, litters of children, none of these strikes me as entertainment.
BRAVO got me, though, with “The Next Great Artist.” I might have watched it anyway because as an art historian I actually have some interest in such creative endeavor. When I discovered that a former student was one of the participants, I knew I was in for the season.
Fourteen artists of distinct ilk vie for a $100,000 prize and an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. These people, diverse in ages, ethnicities and personal issues, share living quarters in Manhattan and produce objects based on an assignment set by auctioneer and aesthete Simon de Pury. De Pury is also the avuncular cheerleader, the “mentor” to these presumably starving artists. The host is China Chow, described on the website as an “art enthusiast.” The jury that identifies each week’s winner and loser includes Bill Powers, an art dealer, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, a dealer and independent curator, and Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine. Since most viewers won’t recognize any of these names, a little extra glitz comes in the person of actress Sarah Jessica Parker who is also the show’s producer.
Show One was all about the introductions.
The women are Peregrine, Nicole, Nao, Judith, Jamie Lynn, Jaclyn, and Amanda. Judith is the requisite elder, a wiry, bespectacled former architect easily a generation older than most of the others. Nao plays the role of bitch: she’s assertive, opinionated and weighty of physique. Jaclyn is my former student; while a very good painter, she brings self-conscious glamour and a little va-va-voom to the group. They men are Trong, Ryan, Miles, Mark, John, Erik and Abdi. Abdi is a tall, skinny African-American kid from Pennsylvania via Baltimore, telegenic and sweet. Trong is a New York intellectual; Erik, a total naïf; and Mark comes across as a goofball. Miles suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and that adds clinical authenticity to the generally neurotic atmosphere. Later on they are shown the jaw-dropping array of top-quality art materials to which they will have access. At least a few of them try not to drool.
Each must create a portrait of the competitor with whom he or she has been “randomly” paired. There’s not much time, just a few hours. The Jury selects a winner (Miles) and a loser (Amanda).
I felt smug because the jury agreed with me that Miles’ work was clearly the best, not just in terms of likeness and craft but in qualities of imagination and modernity. While ambivalent as to whom I would boot from the group, I concurred with The Jury that Amanda’s painting just didn’t function as a portrait.
Show Two landed them in a warehouse filled with junked electronics and household appliances from which they were to create something meaningful that was sculptural—or at least three-dimensional.
Miles won again. His OCD running out of control, he decided to create an installation that was about sleeping and sleep on it. Exactly what the installation incorporated from the detritus in the warehouse wasn’t really clear, but someone was just agog that he had literally “put himself into his art.” Well so did M. Clousseau (See Jon Agee, The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, a kid’s book but a terrific read). I thought Miles’ work was both clever and refined; I thought Nicole’s television-tomb was better, not so much in craft but in expression and worthiness of content. The Jury seems enamored of Miles’ fragility; is this a statement about genius as mental illness?
Once again Abdi was in the final three; that kid is very, very good.
Somewhat to my surprise, Trong was bounced. His work was deemed too cerebral, too engaged with high-falutin’ art-think and just too dull. I thought they were going to eliminate Jamie Lynn whose installation was vilified in the critique as “not being a work of art.” To me she was the likely candidate for elimination–cute and feminine but not as sexy as Jaci; Trong is the sole Asian in the studio which I though would protect him for a while.
But I was wrong.
In 1949, Life magazine asked in a now infamous question about Jackson Pollock: “Is he greatest living painter in the United States”? In 1949, Pollock’s “greatness” seemed linked to the shocking splatter and puddles of pigment that earned him the moniker “Jack the Dripper.” Now don’t get me wrong: I’m both respectful and appreciative of Pollock’s accomplishment. It’s the linking of artistic greatness and general inscrutability that makes me suspicious.
The greatness of great art is in that magical conjunction of originality of form and masterful craft with meaning that transcends the limitations of subject, medium and historic context. That’s a bit much to demand of this group chosen at least as much for the collective ability to generate entertaining action as individual gifts and skills.
Yet we shall see; or at least I will.
Two down and eleven to go.