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Jerry Saltz’s Work of Art Recap: Self-Critique

Saltz with Kathryn Court.

This week’s assignment saw the artists designing book covers for one of six preselected novels. As I watched, I was startled to see how much pressure the artists were under, how hard they seemed to work, how sleep-deprived and stressed out they were. I was touched when I heard John say that he wanted to portray “my reality and gay culture” in his Time Machine cover; by Ryan talking about “good and evil” in connection to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (even if he did spell “Jekyll” wrong in his piece); by Jamie-Lee sighing that she “needed to be redeemed.” Nao’s idea for Miles to simply read Frankenstein aloud to the judges was brilliant. I loved that Erik, who did Alice in Wonderland, actually had a tattoo from the book already on his arm. Had he just shown us his arm he would have been my hands-down winner. Something changed for me as I watched this week.

When the crits began, I became melancholy. After seeing all this behind-the-scenes agitation and anxiety I hoped I wouldn’t say anything critical to anyone, that I’d just be nice. I cringed when someone recommended we “just burn” Peregrine’s cover, Jaclyn’s illustration was branded as “middle school,” and Nicole was told that her interesting piece was “a complete failure.” When I heard myself tell Judith that she’d “fallen back on gestures that were familiar,” I thought, I hate critics.

But I got over that pretty quickly and thought, being critical is a way of being honest. I didn’t love Judith’s finger-painted cover, but I felt bad about sending her home; it’s obvious that she’s a real artist with a strong survivor’s will. Because she was also the closet to me in age, it was like a small part of me went home; I am now the old person. Mark’s Dracula piece, which looked like a paperback-novel cover or a ready-made movie poster, came this close to winning. It looked cool and spooky. Then we all realized it worked too well, that it was mainly slick — which isn’t enough in art. We finally agreed that John’s abstract pink pineapple from the 27th century was the real winner. I look forward to seeing his Time Machine on bookshelves someday. When the episode ended, I realized I was no longer thinking about whether or not this is a good or bad show, or fretting about how odd it might be for an art critic to even be on TV. That felt far away. Somehow all this had become more personal and complicated. No wonder I was squeamish while watching this week.

Notes on Reactions to Last Week’s Episode
Trong: After the last show, a lot of people wrote me to say that they thought that Trong ran afoul of the judges because he made fun of reality TV. In fact, I am sure he is a fine artist, but this work simply struck me as familiar self-reflexive post-conceptual sculpture. Do viewers honestly think that the producers of these programs don’t know that the shows are rife with contradictions, paradoxes, and people acting out? Bravo never told me what to like, dislike, allow, or discourage. I couldn’t care less if someone makes fun of reality TV. Everyone, including me, makes fun of reality TV; that’s one of the best things about it. No matter who you are you can watch these shows and think, Well, at least I’m better than this person.

Miles: Many were quite irked that Miles jumped into Trong’s crit and blasted his work. What wasn’t shown: Earlier, I had become annoyed by the way that the artists stood by mutely as their colleagues were being critiqued by us, so I barked at them, “Listen, I’m also judging all of you by what you say in these crits! I want to see what you know, how your mind works. One of the ways I judge young artists is to see if they have the character to solve the problems that are in their work! So show me!” From then on the artists spoke up — to good effect.

Judging Biases: A lot of comments were made about contestants “playing the judges.” Especially Miles, who people say is “faking his OCD,” and the so-called “evil Nao,” who is supposedly putting on a persona. Maybe they are. So what? I’ll judge whatever an artist puts in front of me, on a reality show or a Chelsea gallery. I will admit that Nao did seem to put a spell on me sometimes, but I never noticed that Miles was supposed to have OCD. He squirmed a lot and looked tired. But then so did I — mostly as I wondered What am I doing here? Judges saw the artists only for the critiques. Once crits began, I was basically trying to think of something constructive to say — plus keep my stomach tucked in, not look too much shorter or balder than I am, and not sound too stupid.

Brooklyn Museum Backlash: Darker repercussions from last week’s episode surfaced when the New York Times reported that a big Brooklyn Museum trustee resigned, saying that the museum had become “a center of celebrity, [as] evidenced by the fact that they have partnered up with Bravo.” He was referring to a fact that also stunned me when I learned about it on one of the last days of shooting. (In addition to receiving $100,000, the winner of Work of Art will be given a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.) As contradictory as this may sound from someone on reality TV, to me a museum giving a show to a winning artist of a TV competition doesn’t pass the smell test.

Photo: Barbara Nitke/Bravo