The PICTURE: Unrealities1
There was a time when I might have dismissed “Work of Art” as a case of the pop culture czars turning the art world into another one of their fiefdoms. But after I watched the first episode, I was tempted to reverse the equation. I began to wonder if the whole ludicrous phenomenon of reality TV could not be traced back to the art world, and the cult of pseudo-documentary filmmaking that began with Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls in 1966. Warhol pioneered a cinema verité that was dedicated to gossip, backbiting, boredom, and the general proposition that most people are rotten at the core and should be happy with their 15 minutes of fame, if they are lucky enough to have it. Doesn’t that more or less describe reality TV? It was Warhol who discovered the narcotic allure of cinematic literalism. By now the drug has a global appeal. Warhol’s original idea was that if you had already been bored by Mondrian and Malevich, who the cultural arbiters had been telling museum-goers were very great, then the boredom that you experienced when you watched The Chelsea Girls was proof positive of the greatness of Warhol’s own work. I realize that when it comes to the big bucks and the huge audiences that are involved with reality TV, we are a long way from the pseudo-avant-garde formlessness of The Chelsea Girls. Nevertheless, I wonder if we would have ever found ourselves subjected to the mundane ironies of reality TV had it not been that Warhol, more than a generation ago, made boredom fashionable. And if people are so starved for theatrical excitement that they can see high drama in “The Real Housewives of New York City”? Well, that thought might have made even the poker-faced Andy crack a smile.
With reality TV, it is never clear whether things that matter are being treated as if they do not matter, or whether things that do not matter are being treated as if they do. What is certain is that there are always going to be a few winners and a great many losers. And all of them become pawns in a performance that renders their lives in some way unreal. We watch as somebody loses a friend or a lover or the chance for a high-paying job, and we are supposed to shrug and say, “Oh, it’s just a show.” But of course it is both more than a show and less than a show. It is the more and the less that give the reality TV phenomenon its creepy fascination. What we are witnessing is somebody’s life, or at least a part of somebody’s life. What is at stake—or ought to be at stake—is their skills, their goals, their hopes, their values. And yet we cannot quite believe that any of it matters. (We are not sure that the participants believe any of it matters, either.) When Jerry Saltz or Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn discuss the contestants’ work, they allude to artistic values, values of line and color and so forth that have for centuries been touchstones for anybody who cares about the visual arts. But the authenticity that those values are meant to embody is fatally compromised by the enterprise with which Saltz and Greenberg Rohatyn are involved. We cannot believe in what they are saying about the art or the artists, even if it contains a grain of truth. Reality TV is dedicated to untruths and semi-truths and a culture of disbelief. And how can anybody discuss the essentials of art in an environment that is designed to put every value in quotation marks? The format, modeled on the get-ahead-at-all-costs model of “Project Runway” and “The Apprentice” and all the other reality-TV competitions, turns artistic experience into psychobabble and corporate speak. With “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” artistic growth becomes just another twelve step program.