This season Bravo introduces a reality television series, Work of Art, billed as a contest to find the "next great artist." The show collects 14 trained and untrained participants, all of whom responded to a call for submissions by submitting zany autobiographical videos, screened by three judges: critic Jerry Saltz, dealer/advisor Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, and dealer Bill Powers. That this show so enthusiastically adopts the structures of another show, Bravo's hit Project Runway, makes it seem like a program about conventionality—and whether or not the art world craves it. Only the first episode is available for screening.


Since the onset of video art, countless forays have been made into television, and specifically reality TV, but none before have so scrupulously mimicked the conventions of mainstream. Work of Art basically squishes art into the task-structure of Bravo's hit Project Runway, in which designers compete to execute themed contests. By comparison, Jeffrey Deitch's never-really-seen 2005–2006 show Artstar, featuring artists relatively established and demonstrably more skeptical about the constraints of the show, looks like a bit of obscurantism. There's rapid-fire editing, one-on-one interviews, dramatic music, and re-contextualized facial expressions, all meant to ramp up excitement and distill the viewing experience into nuggets of catchy information.

We are introduced to the artists by a showcase of their self-portraits. Some of the contestants are evidently skilled figure painters, and a number of them demonstrate technical aptitude in the 13 hours provided to execute a challenge. But by and large, the viewer's inevitable question about why they haven't been "discovered" answers itself fairly immediately. Jaime Lynn Henderson makes a pastiche-y painting of herself with sunglasses and coloring book-level chiaroscuro. Trong, whom another contestant seems to think is famous, packages small conceptual tricks into precious, design-y packages. The artist seems to think outside the bounds of figuration, which is unique among this crop and could be moderately interesting to watch.

Art needs a sense of humor, says photographer Mark Velasquez, and that humor moves along the lines of photographing himself, an overweight hispanic man, busting out of a stage set like a self-hating clown. Later, Velasquez says he hopes his art has earned him a "B+," articulating a rather upsetting yearning for patriarchal approval. Lines like this, self-deprecating and simplistic, are foreign to the art world—or at least self-conscious. Indeed, the great failure here is language.

The contestants here do not represent the art community—for the sake of diversity, and because someone in an existing art community would not risk their career to be on TV.  And the contestants seem to have each gone into it knowing that they would be typecast, and have adopted various caricaturish qualities and raisons d'etre (refreshingly or unnervingly, not around sexuality or race, but around neuroses).

The first contest is portraiture, which is a good idea because it's a bonding exercise, and because by depicting others, they are demonstrating what an artist should look like, and how to express that effect. None of the contestants demonstrate any real literacy in the field of portraiture. Performance artist Nao Bustamante is the episode's villain because she is assertive and pompous and wears a T-shirt with her name on it. Faced with a frenetic subject who won't sit for her portrait, Bustamante makes an all-over zig-zag pattern. It's not a real map, and there's no correlation to the the sitter but for the fact that he does in fact move around a lot.

We get to the judging portion and we're waiting, just waiting for Bustamane to get her fill (because we're absorbed in the slice-and-dice narrative style). But we're also waiting for the judges, who are the advocates for intelligent artist discourse, to politely explain not just why this is an ineffective protrait, but what the value of a portrait is. Saltz's retort is a sound-bite: "There was a lot of process, but not enough portrait." The hosts and judges each have readymade taglines: China Chow's unwieldy, unnecessarily mean motto is, "They say a great work of art is not about what we see, but what we feel [note: who said that?], your work made us feel nothing."

Work of Art finds a recent counterpoint in Rob Pruitt's Annual Art Awards, which also sought to see if art, by entering into the cosmetic, self-laudatory structures of Hollywood, could communicate to a broad audience what it's all about. Without national distribution or household recognition for its participants and attendees, the award show did not capture interest or viewership beyond the community that beared it direct witness.

Every glitch in Work of Art is a charming reassurance that art maintains some resistance to the bland television format. China Chow's presence as hostess is a big glitch. She seems to have been unable to give her lines effectively, so her portion of the show is largely voiceover. Simon de Pury is the contestant's mentor, a role he commands with kindness, clear judgement and critique, and hoaky, old man delivery. The obviously fake b-roll of De Pury discussing Jeff Koons demonstrates the desperation with which the producers try to squeeze any name recognition out of this show. Sarah Jessica Parker's 15-second appearance (she's one of the show's producers) is more proof.

Utlimately what would be passed off as a mere blip in the machine of commerce and spectacle in the fashion industry will receive detailed epistemological and structural analysis from an art community. And that's the difference.