Bravo took no chances in creating their latest reality-competition show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. It’s almost an exact replica of their two previous hits, Project Runway and Top Chef, though in this incarnation the 14 contestants are visual artists, competing for $100,000 and a show at the Brooklyn Museum. The formula is familiar: contestants, who have been sequestered into hip but tiny living quarters (generously furnished with alcohol to promote bad behavior), are given a timed challenge at the beginning of each episode (in Work of Art’s pilot, the challenge is to create a portrait of a fellow contestant); the middle portion of the episode involves the stressed-out contestants creating their art pieces; and at the end of the episode, they present their work to judges, who then whittle them down to a winner and a loser, who, in this case, is kissed off by host China Chow’s pronouncement: “Your work of art didn’t work for us.”
What’s compelling about these shows is that even though it’s clear the contestants have been cast, to a certain degree, for their personality traits, they are also ostensibly good at what they do. What’s most important in this brand of reality show is the final product. And even though the producers often highlight the bickering and cattiness, they’re equally focused on the creative process. It makes for compulsively watchable TV, at least more so than in reality shows where the winner is often the contestant best at one-upmanship and/or most desperate for celebrity status.
What could make Work of Art doubly fascinating is that the visual arts field is subject to such varied critical opinion. There’s not even agreement, for instance, about what constitutes “art.” This is raised in the pilot when an abstract expressionist from Illinois creates a portrait that resembles a small piece of wallpaper. The judges agree that it is definitely not a portrait and possibly not even art. This is a dilemma unique to the show; an American Idol fan might prefer Crystal Bowersox to Lee DeWyze, but everyone agrees that both are, at the very least, singing.
Executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker makes a couple of awkward appearances during the pilot—awkward because she clearly has no genuine place in the art world (she explains her credentials by saying how important art was in her household growing up). The appearance of Parker, whose association with a certain city is hard to forget, does point out just how wedded to the hipster New York art scene Work of Art is. While the producers have recruited artists from around the country, all of the judges—gallery owner Bill Powers, New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, and curator/owner of Salon94 Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn—are New York-based. It would have been more interesting to include, say, a gallery owner who sells seaside watercolors, or maybe a high school art teacher, but that’s one small lost opportunity on what looks to be another first-rate Bravo reality competition.