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International man of mystery, artist Banksy

I am still carrying around a big chunk of Canada’s uncivilized wildness in me, and it just doesn’t sit well with culturally-induced cynicism. And art world cynicism is cynicism of a particular stripe, leaving one to search for a few gentle but targeted exorcisms to remove that nasty taste in the mouth.

The cynicism-inducing culprits are clear. The first is Work of Art, Bravo’s “reality” (so in quotes, that) show about making art. For me and my friends it was quick to become the summer’s top contender for the program we most love to hate. I know, Jerry Saltz is a judge, and we all love him. But one good guy can’t save a program so bereft of nutritional value. Please, someone say something soulful, authentic, resonant—just once! In this world, art is entertainment, novelty, a plaything.

The problem is that Work of Art is so high in the chip factor: You know it is bad, really bad for you. But like that bag of greasy, salty, preservative-laced, empty-caloried potato chips that you just can’t stop ingesting, they know how to hook you. I need to be rescued from my perverse curiosity! Even though I fast forward to the last 10 minutes of each episode so I only have to sit through the infuriating crit and the cheap trick elimination, that’s 10 minutes better spent doing something less painful, like beating my head against a cement wall.

The second oil spill of cynicism is actually an amazing piece of work and one that deserves full viewing by anyone interested in contemporary art. But you’ll need your Wellies on to wade through the art world slime factor which is in full view. The film Exit Through the Gift Shop, purportedly made by Banksy (England’s masked mystery man and street art’s reigning king) is one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had in a darkened theater in a long time. It is cinematic trompe l’oeil, a complex mirrored snake of a thing that turns in on itself and constantly undermines any sense of a grounding wire. Part documentary, part punkumentary, part tongue in cheek expose on art and the art world, there’s no way to know just who and what this is really about. It is smart, engaging and very provocative.

But this is provocation at a price. For anyone who approaches artmaking with sincerity and respect for the deep mystery of it all, there’s just no room for you in the world portrayed by Work of Art or Exit Through the Gift Shop. And visual art is not the only creative field squeezing out practitioners who are committed to their work and don’t play the game of image, appearance and hype. This excerpt is from Will Blythe’s New York Times review of Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, whose dystopic view of American life now and in the future sounds harsh, bleak and all too familiar:

Egan’s depiction of Jules, the celebrity journalist, embodies her sophisticated sympathy. Such types are normally easy prey for fiction writers, cheap signifiers of corruption. But Egan understands that the manufacture of image in the modern world is as routine as the assembly of Model T’s in the old industrial economy. Which is to say it’s done by regular people like you and me, not villains but folks just trying to get by.

It just may be that the most subversive path is to openly and candidly care most about the quality, integrity and intentionality of one’s work. And being actively subversive is a well tested antidote to cynicism’s paralyzing and deadening wake.

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“Work of Art” judges (Photo: Bravo/Barbara Nitke)

I finally saw the first episode of “Work of Art”, referenced in the post below and being discussed, dissected and deconstructed on Jerry Saltz’s Facebook page as well as countless art blogs. Having just returned from a conference on how social and mobile media can be employed for social responsibility, my viewing lens has been complexified even further by some of the issues that came up during those sessions.

Here’s a list of what this show has had me thinking about. (This may be of interest even if you haven’t seen the first episode of America’s first art making reality show.)

1. Formula vs creativity
The show’s format is straight from the “creative competition reality TV show” playbook, a formula that has made hit shows out of making fashion and food. OK, you stick with what you think will work because no TV show—even a show claiming to be about creativity—is really about creativity after all. But the unwillingness to take chances on the format and explore new possibilities set the stage for just more predictable and mediocre TV programming that plays to the lowest common demoninator. Which of course doesn’t prevent it from being a hit with viewers. But that’s a different issue. Sort of.

2. What, no artist on the judges panel?
At least “Project Runway” had other designers as judges. The gatekeepers on this show are, with the exception of Jerry Saltz (who I will always give a pass to the way you give a pass to that brother who sometimes drinks too much and gets obnoxious but is elementally just the best guy), art merchants and tastemakers. Several of them in their intro spots made it clear that they approach art as entertainment. The “delight me ‘cuz I’m bored” approach to art doesn’t have room for the deeply personal, introspective moment that many of us are looking to have with a piece of art. “Art as entertainment” is just one approach to art and one that has many adherents. But a bit more of a balanced panel would have been a big improvement.

3. It’s the human drama, not the art
At the conference I just attended there was a lot of talk about how the internet has unleashed storytelling—particularly personal, single voiced storytelling—and how deeply that is changing our culture, our politics, our consumption, our way of interacting with each other. Caterina Fake, founder of Flickr and a major internet maven, laughingly referred to Flickr as an “emotional database”, describing “babies, pets and sunsets” as the backbone of the internet. Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, shared his concern about how narratives are getting compressed—the “meme of the day” syndrome—and worries that we are moving towards the superficial. “People who are funny and flaky tend to overwhelm the thoughtful, prosey types.”

Hughes’ concerns are played out in spades in this show. “Work of art” is essentially Survivor With Benefits. In my opinion a show that opens up how art gets made has some social good. I can see the value of the general public hearing and watching how a piece can come into existence, often through struggle and mistakes.

But viewing art through a television screen is never going to be optimal. The producers clearly understand this since the amount of air time given to the individual pieces themselves is miniscule. The camera does give lots of air time to sowing the seeds of the inevitable internecine conflicts we all know will emerge, in allowing the more eccentric and outspoken (can I say obnoxious as in really obnoxious?) personalities to rise to the surface. Maybe a better name would be “Artists as Gladiators.”

4. What is real and what is a game show?
Several bloggers have commented on the implications of crossing from game show to real world which in this case is epitomized by the prize of a show at the Brooklyn Museum for the winning contestant. I’m cynical enough to not be outraged by that blending since the art world is already a game show of its own making which, like underwear, is underneath all the trappings no matter what is on the surface. Most of my similar-minded artist friends don’t see “Work of Art” as some watershed event, looming threat or even a topic of conversation beyond this first episode. There’s room on the planet for all types of explorations. What I keep advocating for is equal time for us prosey types, those of us whose storytelling is expressed by making art that can hold a conversation with a viewer, that moves another person deeply, that shifts something in the body that feels significant, that brings a sense of mystery or transcendence That is something that cannot happen on TV, reality or otherwise.

This is the last posting on this topic I expect to make. But if your interest has been piqued, you can read Jerry Saltz’s latest thoughts about the show and his reaction to the first episode here.