Bravo's New Reality Show "Work of Art" is "American Idol" for Artists

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The main requirement of good reality television is that its cast members emanate force fields of charisma. The main requirement of a television-elimination challenge is that its competitors display visible and varying talents. When a show incorporates both of these television tropes—as Bravo's new series "Work of Art" does—its participants had better deliver on both the talent and charisma counts. There's also the matter of the judges, who must be articulate, eminent in their field, and capable of salty soundbites. Finally, the prize must be truly covetable. But just because the ingredients of a top-tier reality show are identifiable doesn't mean they're easy to amass into something watchable.

"Work of Art", which premiered on June 9th, is an interesting case study. The judges include Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York magazine, and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, a curator. Simon de Pury, the former chairman of Sotheby's Europe, serves as a mentor, and Sarah Jessica Parker is executive producer. The contestants are sexy and talented, for the most part, and the winner gets a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum plus $100,000. "Work of Art", in other words, fulfils the formula. But there's a snag.

The success of reality TV depends largely on the implicit participation of the viewer. Viewers of "Project Runway" can decide for themselves whether a dress looks good or bad. "American Idol" viewers can evaluate musical talent based on performance. But viewers of "Work of Art", when faced with the show's obscure art challenges, might find it difficult (or intimidating) to levy their own verdict on the results. The pieces on "Work of Art" aren't judged by how good they look but rather on how they make the judges feel. What, then, is a viewer to do?

Just watch, perhaps. "When I saw it I thought of John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer," observed Bill Powers, one of the judges, of a painting. "Your attack, your colour, your surface, and the type of painting it is is a problem," Jerry Saltz chimed in. "You know what I mean?" Well, maybe we don't. It's hard to feel vindicated when the qualitative difference between the winner's piece (a tribute to death portraiture) and the loser's piece (a mellow abstraction of falling leaves) is not immediately obvious. What "Work of Art" lacks in audience participation it will need to make up for in judging acuity and competitive intrigue. For the former, there's Jerry Saltz's candid recap of the first episode to supplement our viewing. For the latter, we'll have to wait and see.