My August Bookslut column in full.
Gauguin, Reality TV Star
In the early summer of 2010, I, along with the majority of the “art world,” was aghast at Bravo TV’s latest creativity-centered reality show contest, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. Sure, I was a huge fan of Project Runway and Top Chef, the shows that served as templates for Work of Art. But this show, produced by Sarah Jessica Parker and hosted by China Chow (a model, actress, and also one of the show’s judges, connected to the art word through her collector parents and her own celebrity status), seemed an affront to the very integrity of art making and appreciation.
In each episode, fourteen artists (working in a range of media and styles, as well as within wildly diverse cultural contexts) are presented with a different art-making challenge. They are provided with housing, food (and beer!), as well as art supplies, and must create within a specific timeframe. The artists are then critiqued and judged by a panel anchored by Bill Powers (one of the owners of the Lower East Side’s Half Gallery, with writer James Frey), Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn (an art advisor and consultant), and Jerry Saltz (a veteran art critic who began at the Village Voice and now writes for New York magazine and holds daily court on Facebook). In the first episode, they each create a portrait that conveys the “essence” of a contestant they’ve been paired with; in the third, they are tasked with creating a book cover, with the prize of publication. Certainly the “art world” gang is all here. The untrained painter and drawer, working away in obscurity somewhere in the provinces; the OCD prodigy, naturally adroit at all things ART; the hyper, chain-smoking rebel who paints all night and sleeps most days; the cultivated and over-educated experimenter who knows everything, and enlightens all, at no one’s request. Types from the larger world are represented, too — the Brooklyn-based hipsters, a buxom Barbie wannabe, and an earnest career-changer.
Before the first season aired, the producers and judges alike championed how the show made contemporary art “accessible” to the masses. At best, however, the show in and of itself is a piece of art — a produced, interpreted, and packaged climate in which artist output is mandated, as well as evaluated and valued against certain prescriptions for what art (and art making) is or isn’t, or what it can or can’t do, in a public place. AsMichael Wilson wrote in Artforum‘s online edition after attending a preview of the first episode and panel session with the judges and producers: “Editing was staccato and manipulative, competitors seemed to have been chosen entirely for their looks (though the judges later denied this), and ‘reality’ seemed very far away indeed as the familiar struggles of most artists were displaced by a hothouse fantasy of prestocked studios andProject Runway-style accommodations designed to spark rivalry from the get-go.” At its worst, Work of Art is a controlled and distorted game of art making tailored to fit a mold built by a specific echelon of high-powered, well-heeled New Yorkers who manipulate middlebrow conceptions of what it means to be an artist in order to fuel Middle America’s Sex and the City-esque conceptions of high culture.
Maybe I sound harsh. Or pompous. I should mention that I am a white, middle-class born Christie’s educated and experienced woman who currently works in an art gallery. Maybe those in fashion and food were outraged over Project Runway and Top Chef, and I was too wrapped up in my own little world to notice. But I like to think my training and experiences allow for a broader understanding of the meaning of art objects in the marketplace from an economic, social as well as historical perspective.
At any rate, Work of Art — the actual show itself and the debate surrounding it — reminded me of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1919 novel The Moon and Sixpence. The novel is Maugham’s first after his popular and masterful Of Human Bondage, and based loosely on the life and times of French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin.
A literary writer, who tells the story of Charles Strickland from recollection, narrates the novel in the first person. The narrator meets Strickland when he is a dull stockbroker and family man, living in London, at a dignified and restrained dinner party given by Mrs. Strickland, a hanger-on of the London literary scene, who befriends Strickland. “To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults,” we are told at the start of the novel’s first chapter. “The artist, painter, poet, or musician, by his decoration, sublime or beautiful, satisfies the aesthetic sense; but that is akin to the sexual instinct, and shares its barbarity: he lays before you also the greater gift of himself.” Strickland, whose personality drives the plot and arc of The Moon and Sixpence, remains an enigma to us as well as our narrator. But our desire to understand him, to comprehend what drives an adult cultivated within the middle classes to spend most of his time alone, making pictures as a child might, is part of what spurs us to read The Moon and Sixpence. It’s also part of what makes Work of Artinteresting to watch.
Maugham touches on how the art market operates and what sparks interest in a particular artist’s career. He discusses how Strickland toils in obscurity, his aesthetic genius un-nurtured, innate and unappreciated, until well after his death. It’s then that a critic writes an article about Strickland’s work, rescuing his legacy from disregard, and initiating his painting into the buying and selling public. Maugham only reticently describes Strickland’s actual artwork, relying on our own individual ideas of art and art making. Implicitly, we realize that the public consuming Strickland’s work belongs to the very milieu he rejected in order to make it.
Shortly after the narrator meets him at Mrs. Strickland’s stuffy dinner party, Strickland absconds to Paris and takes up residence in a dingy hotel of ill repute. Mrs. Strickland implores our narrator to go to Paris to find and bring back Strickland. When the narrator does find him, he can’t bring him back. Intrigued by what could have made Strickland leave his wife, children, and life instead of repulsed by the selfishness of his act, the narrator and Strickland strike up a somewhat friendship. This friendship is tested when Strickland, after overcoming dangerous illness in the home of the tragic and creatively challenged Dirk Stroeve (who, with his traditional paintings of peasants and the like, is very successful within the art marketplace) takes up with Mrs. Stroeve. Goofy and pitiful, but also intellectual and astute in terms of aesthetics and painting, Stroeve deeply loves his wife and the trappings of bourgeois: all that Strickland has repudiated in order to become a painter. He also appreciates Strickland’s works as the gestures of genius. Stroeve is often the character that explains and educates art — modern or otherwise — to the narrator. Just as the narrator trips over articulating the pull and power of art, Strickland is haltingly verbal, almost unable to communicate outside of raw, faltering words. At the climax of the narrator’s direct dealings with Strickland, Stroeve’s wife has died after poisoning herself. Leaving her deathbed, devastated and wild, Stroeve returns to his studio that Strickland had appropriated after assuming his wife. He finds a painting of her in the nude by Strickland, and in rage, moves to destroy it. In attacking the painting, however, he is the one hit — by its beauty. After relating the episode to the narrator, the latter finally understands a piece of what sustains Strickland in the face of an obsession and desire that propelled him to abandon his family and polite society.
“He had found, not himself, as the phrase goes, but a new soul with unsuspected powers… There was also a spirituality, troubling and new, which led the imagination along unsuspected ways, and suggested dim empty spaces, lit only by the eternal stars, where the soul, all naked, adventured fearful to the discovery of new mysteries,” writes Maugham. “If I am rhetorical it was because Stroeve was rhetorical. (Do we not know that man in moments of emotion expresses himself naturally in terms of a novelette?)… But one fact was made clear to me: people talk of beauty lightly, and having no feeling for words, they use that one carelessly, so that it loses its force; and the thing it stands for, sharing its name with a hundred trivial objects, is deprived of dignity.”
Certainly Work of Art and The Moon and Sixpence are incomparable, both generally and specifically. But both cast an assortment of personalities in order to portray a slice of humanity often confusing and concealed from the majority. Work of Art seems to mediate personality in creativity through the moniker artist-manufacturer, perpetuating an idea that contemporary art is something that is easily and quickly produced for a group of wealthy insiders. It’s a missed opportunity to really talk about the artist in the real world — the struggles of finding supplies, time, shelter, and sustenance. The Moon and Sixpence illuminates the psychology of the artist, making that life recognizable and familiar. Through a plain language, it considers the colloquialisms that we are given to using in reckoning with creativity and “singular” types. It delves into the realities that most artists face daily in order to create: homelessness or inadequate housing; hunger; susceptibility to disease and lack of healthcare; isolation, both emotional and psychical; unemployment and low incomes; the cost of selfish acts made in order to make. It tackles how we often disregard creativity and artistic output until it has a monetary value, and how we then rush to consume.