I have never seen the reality show Work of Art before, but I get what it’s about – a kind of Project Runway for artists. I did know that Jerry Saltz was judge on the show and found that amusing since I associate him and his wife, art critic for the NYT, as being part of a fairly uppity Big Apple arts scene. For such prominent players, I thought that reality shows about art would cause eyebrow lifting, heavy sighing, and deep frowning at the failure of the greater American public to understand the weighty complexity of their world.
Yet I do understand what Saltz says here about the hairs on his neck standing up. It is difficult to push artwork from its cosy domain of academics, gallerists and critics into an unknown public eye. And it’s even more difficult to be respected for it within your field. I feel this frequently with regards to ShinyArt. Here is an excerpt from Saltz’s recap of the final show:
“But there’s one more question I have to ask. Did I “win” or “lose” by being on the program? Art and TV have always been bad bedfellows; they never get one another. If watching this show sometimes made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I can only imagine what it did to the hairs on the back of the collective neck. Yet I honestly never thought of saying no to this show. I loved doing it; it changed the way I think — somewhat, anyway. I wanted to see if art criticism was porous and supple enough to actually exist on a different stage.
And it did. I’m not referring to all the strangers who stopped me and said, “Why’d you eliminate Trong?” (or one of the other artists). In the middle of the street — or, once, in the Dallas airport — I’d be having animated conversations about art and art criticism. That confirmed my suspicion that many people have inner critics dying to get out. But the good I’m thinking of wasn’t about me, and it didn’t happen on the street or even TV. It happened here in these recaps. And not in my summaries of each episode. It happened in the tens of thousands of words that all of you wrote in the comment sections at the bottom of the recaps. An accidental art criticism sprang up, practiced in a new place, in a new way, on a fairly high level. Together we were crumbs and butter of a mysterious madeleine. The delivery mechanism of art criticism seemed to turn itself inside out; instead of one voice speaking to many, there were many voices speaking to one another. Coherently. All these voices became ghosts in criticism’s machine. It was a criticism of unfolding process, not dictums and law – a criticism of intimacy that pulsed with a kind of phosphorescent grandeur.”
What I like about this is Saltz’s ultimate conviction that when you do drag art from its traditional mooring place and thrust it into new environments (a reality show, a lobby or restaurant), there are people who get it and are stimulated by the experience. And frankly, without that rogue vehicle for viewing the art – they would not have been stimulated at all because they may never walk into the right gallery.
Non-traditional spaces for art does not make everyone into an informed critic, nor does it mean that the value of arts academics, gallerists, critics, etc. diminishes – on the contrary, their value increases because perhaps more people are interested in what they have to say. These spaces merely open the door for further discussions about art, questions about art, and contemplation of art by an ever-widening population with diverse backgrounds and interpretations. And that’s gotta be good.