“I am a fine artist” said Judith. The idea of designing a book cover, even one for a classic novel, seemed to her to be a task beneath contempt. Mark, a contestant who makes a reasonably steady living as a commercial artist, was insulted by Judith’s comments.
Did I catch murmurs from the television audience about the role of irony and popular culture in contemporary art? Did I hear someone mention “Pablo Picasso” or was it “Marcel Duchamp”? Suddenly my mind recited a litany of “greats” who have mined triviality and banality, looking for the mother lode of art.
Too bad that no one on the show, not even the purported “experts” alluded to any of this.
The twelve survivors selected tubes of paint from a box, each marked with a word or phrase: Love, Monster, Time, Adventure, Good and Evil, and something else, Blood, I think. Hanging in the studio were large panels bearing question marks. On the obverse were titles of half a dozen great works of literature from the 19th century whose themes matched those words. There was little time to work and this time the winner would not earn protection from the next round of eliminations. Instead, the winning work would become cover art on a new Penguin edition of the novel.
I rather liked Challenge Number Three. It forced the artists to think about the relationship between image and text, and the text itself was inescapable. It also forced the artists to connect with the past instead of cocooning in the present. As with the portraits in Challenge Number One, recognition mattered. The art had to evoke the ideas, narrative, expression and meaning of the book. The art also had to sell the book; it had to make the browser in the bookstore stop, come closer, pick up the book, and want to read the story.
Mark and John as artists more experienced in commercial design were clearly the happiest with the assignment. The conceptualists, Nao, Judith and Peregrine, especially, seemed at sea. Erik was thrilled to have the “adventure” Alice in Wonderland for his book. He had a tattoo of Alice on his arm; it was moreover the only title in the group he had read. Miles measured how long it took to read one page of Frankenstein’s Monster by Mary Shelley, determined he needed four hours to read it all, and retired with book and silencing earphones to a remote corner.
Abdi’s effort to sculpt a monster failed abysmally; the next morning he cut stencils and spray-painted figures, title and author in a last ditch effort to have something to turn in. Miles played with electricity and turpentine to scorch a piece of wood, simulating that moment that Dr. Frankenstein brings his creation to life. Ryan generated three heads for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a frightening image of metamorphosis but misleading. It diffused the haunting schizophrenic unity of the central character into something closer to the compartmentalized characters of the United States of Tara.
Unsurprisingly, Mark and John produced solid designs for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and H.G. Well’s The Time Machine respectively. Mark’s image of a shadowed figure just inside doors partially ajar included a rivulet of blood that formed the upright of the initial “D.” It was all about the black, white and red. Sharp. Effective. Contemporary. John conjoined vivid pinks, blues, violets and oranges like the irregular facets of a psychedelic gem, to suggest a machine, a space, or as Jerry Saltz said over and over and over again, someone’s head. Black, spiky, hand-made letters formed the title and author. A little ladder in the lower left seemed to provide access to this kaleidoscope of light, energy and time.
John’s design got the prize. Judith, Jaclyn, and Peregrine got hammered by the jury. Judith was eliminated from the competition.
Judith’s scorn for the very idea of a commercial assignment was palpable. She felt demeaned by it. Her painting for Pride and Prejudice gave her trouble from the start. She tried finger painting in an effort to evoke flower petals and gardens; she shifted to a diptych composition—slatey blue on the left, pink on the right—perhaps alluding to an open book. She said she had “read Austen” but kept trying to force the subtle duality of the title into polarity. Ultimately, she wrote the title backward in a sort of painterly script. Very Leonardo, I suppose.
Too bad that the episode included no discussion of the idea of high art and low, of commercial obligations and expressive accessibility. For this the editors carry much of the blame as they stitched together isolated sound-bites and theatrical moments into forty minutes or so of entertainment.
The jury is also at fault. Bill Powers seemed to have little to say. Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn concentrated on barbs straight from “Mean Girls.” Jerry Saltz, certainly a person with better-than-average vocabulary and breadth of knowledge, only babbled.
I think I know why.
Judith wasn’t the only one disoriented by the intrusion of commerce into the arena of fine art. Powers, Rohatyn, and most certainly Saltz see themselves as erudite members of a rarified avant-garde. In purporting to recognize a Work of Art—and to name the Next Great Artist—they have erected a flimsy wall between the “intrinsic value” assigned to art by philosophers and the fluctuating “market values” dependent on Adam Smith’s laws of supply and demand.
Although the Jury skitters around the fact, art world “success” is as much about marketability as quality and the artists are not the only players who have wagered their futures on this little bit of reality television.
Jane Austen’s characters are not the only ones entrapped by their pride and their prejudice.