So. “Work of Art”, on Bravo. For a while now I’ve thought that because while there are reality competitions for dance and singing, the visual arts can’t, I thought, ever be covered in such a format. Which was a shame, in a way, because it would be nice if art could be given a platform like dance, could be given a boost more into the public eye … and it was a good thing, I figured, because after all the motivation behind these shows isn’t first and foremost the art in question. Even “So You Think You Can Dance”, which was a shock to me in the quality of art it produces, uses the whole horrendous “we’ll announce the winner of the week after the break to keep you here over the commercials” gimmick. As for “American Idol” … I’m pretty sure that the great music that really has come out of Idol has happened more in spite of the show than because of it. So imagine my surprise when I heard about “Work of Art”. A bunch of artists in various media are brought to NYC to create work on demand in order to win $100,000 and a private show at a prestigious museum.
I hesitated about watching it, because I went to art school. I wanted more than anything else to be an artist. Then money ran out, and I left art school. I have written and discarded diatribes against what I experienced in art school – no one needs to hear the spew of bitterness that sparks – but the upshot is that I never knew whether I wasn’t given any support in that school because I wasn’t any good, or because I didn’t work hard enough, or because I was quiet and shy and escaped notice. I left after two years not really knowing if I had any talent worth continuing to pursue, and never managed to go back. I tried working on my own but lost … hope, I guess, and stopped painting and, eventually, drawing. (Well, lost hope, and my mother let my then-toddler nieces use a $35 brush for paint-by-number. That didn’t help.)
So that’s that. The result is that I have a massive clump of raw nerves that get zinged every time I brush up against the art world. And watching “Work of Art” has provided some zings, certainly … but it also has worked as a cure, to a degree.
Watching SYTYCD has impressed me not only with the dance, but with the community of dance. The interactions between the judges, the dancers, the choreographers make it sound like there is a support system in place, a community of affection and learning. The critiques given on the show are constructive, and the goal is to build better dancers and to bring dance to more people. The Simon Cowell brand of criticism has no place on SYTYCD. These are people I have come to love (I adore those judges), and they’ve led me to believe that they are people who would be a joy to have in one’s life.
And what Work of Art has taught me is that the art community is not so warm and fuzzy. After watching that series, I have learned that, at least from this exemplar, the art community is pretentious, self-absorbed, and filled with people I would claw my way through concrete to get away from. In other words, a world I can take some comfort in not being a part of. I do know that this wasn’t representative, necessarily; there wasn’t much pretension in art school, and my favorite cousin is a working artist. And I met Michael Whelan once, and he was lovely. But it’s fact that dance is a collaboration – the choreographer must work closely with the dancers, and the dancers’ partnering requires intimate cooperation; this can’t help but contribute to the familial feel of the community. Artists, unless they’re Hildebrandt twins, work alone by nature, almost start to finish. Like writing, art is a solitary endeavour.
What has been the primary lighter for a very short fuse of mine has been the to me incomprehensible contempt shown through the series for mere illustrators. God forfend one should create a literal painting actually depicting, say, a human being doing something non-masturbatory. Literal = bad.
I majored in Illustration. This prejudice is something that always infuriates me … It’s like when I first realized that characters in L.M. Montgomery’s books often expressed prejudice against Catholics. It baffled me… what did I ever do to them to cause dislike? And with illustration versus fine art, it baffles me that there is such a divide when the work is, at times, indistinguishable unless the genesis of the piece is considered …
Illustration, you see, is whoredom, according to these folk. One mustn’t take money for a work of art … until after the work is completed. The fact that fine art is every bit as much for sale as illustration is – except that with illustration the buyer of a piece is set prior to commission, and fine art isn’t, sometimes (though often it is) … Hm.
The other difference, besides money, is whether the subject of, say, a painting, is recognizable. God forfend you create a painting that looks like the subject at hand. God forbid you opt for realism, much less photorealism. No, that’s plebeian.
One of my favorite paintings in the world is Juan de Pareja, from long before there was a division between “Fine Art” and “Illustration”. Most everything from the first volume of Janson’s History of Western Art is a joy to me. And, additionally, I was inspired by Tom Canty, by Keith Parkinson, by Michael Whelan, by Kinuko Craft, and – given that he went to my school – most especially Don Maitz. By New York standards I am quite, quite bourgeois. I’m a cretin. I value skill. I value the ability to create something with depth and beauty. Color, line, form, light, shadow – some or all of these and more; it doesn’t have to “look like” something or be a realistic representation for me to enjoy an artwork.I’ve spent the last hour being a Barnes & Noble customer – I don’t know the artist, I don’t know the name of the work, but it was ugly … There was a painter I remember Sister Wendy talking about, I think, who created some seriously unlikeable work, but whose name escapes me and whom I can’t track him down. My object in trying to find him was to use him as a prime example of absolutely abhorring an artist’s work but maintaining respect for the fact that the artist has ability. Similarly, I dislike the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti, but I can appreciate his ability. The later works of Picasso give me a headache, but he was attempting something, and his early work shows that he could paint. Modigliani, Max Beckmann, Kokoschka, Frida Kahlo – none of them artists I will choose to ever, ever hang on my wall or save to my computer, but whose work is solid, showing that they know their media and tools. It goes back to what I was talking about last month, about Scott Hamilton being able to skate badly because he could skate extraordinarily well. Knowing what you’re doing, being able to create a realistic work of art, allows you to create an abstract work that has some substance.
Then there are the “artists” who offend me deeply. Here’s my plebeian, cretinous, etc. criterion for something to qualify as art – it’s simple. If it looks like something done by a cat, a chimp, or a two-year-old
(with or without my $35 brush), it’s not art. I truly believe that at least some of these people selling work that I would slit my wrists rather than have attributed to me go home at night, put their money in their safes, go into their bedrooms and lock the door and laugh hysterically. I think they are taking advantage of a deep strain of gullibility in human nature combined with a desire to appear sophisticated.
“Work of Art” was an experience. There were artists whose work I enjoyed, sometimes (occasionally), but whom I loathed deeply, and a couple I kind of … no, actually, I didn’t really like any of them except possibly one, who was happily and shockingly the one who won. The rest of them were by turns unbearably pretentious or nasty or … Put it this way. Two of them admitted to killing things in their spare time. One said that he felt another of them, who went to the finals, was faking it – putting on a performance and putting one over on the judges and anyone else he could gull.
I don’t even want to get into performance art at this time, if ever. At all.The show was a strange experiment, and I’m not sure it was a successful one. It’s one thing to give a dancer a piece and expect him to have it down in a week; it’s one thing to give a singer a song and expect him to put a spin on it and give a knockout performance in a week. It’s one thing to hand a chef a theme or an ingredient or whatever and expect something amazing in a few hours. It’s a bit different to hand an artist an assignment and expect something magnificent in a few hours. Particularly funny was the “shocking” episode: go make something shocking in twenty-four hours or less. It was moronic. Making art on demand is silly, but, again, art school. Making shocking art on demand – especially when that isn’t your forte – is absurd. I particularly enjoyed it when one of the judges – most of whom I despised as much as I did the artists, except that with two massive exceptions the artists dressed like ordinary human beings while the judges dressed like sideshow exhibits – would say something derogatory about art school. What, exactly, do you think art school is but handing artists assignments and expecting something amazing in a few hours? I watched the whole thing, and was curious about who would win, but I didn’t care so much; the show was an exercise in pretension with occasional sparks of actual talent, overwhelmed by the cast of characters chosen more for their cultivated eccentricities than for their talent. I’d still kind of like to see the concept, done well … If there’s some way of getting all of these people to check at least some of the attitude at the door, it might work … maybe …?