I’ve been a devoted fan of Project Runway ever since season three, when I finally gave into my friends who INSISTED I would love it. OK, they were right. Unlike Top Chef, another critically acclaimed reality show that friends recommended and I quickly stopped watching, you could actually judge the final products yourself. I hated having to depend on other people’s tastebuds.
I’ve dabbled in a few other reality shows — The Fashion Show, of course, and Top Design — but I’ve found my thrill with Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. I wanted to wait until the season finale before I wrote about it, but it’s had me hooked since episode one. Please tell me where else in the reality TV universe one can find a show that
a) frequently discusses the theory and praxis of conceptual art
b) allows visual artists to discuss their process
c) debates the value of representation
Um, let’s just say nowhere.
Although I often violently disagreed with the show’s regular judges, I learned a lot from their debates and I was thrilled to hear what some of the A-list guest judges had to say. Jon Kessler, Andres Serrano, Richard Phillips, Will Cotton, Ryan McGinness, and a very emotional David LaChapelle offered excellent insights into the work that I watched come into being. Every single show was filled with serious commentary about the creation and impact of art and, of course, insight into the personalities of artists (yes, several of them were crazy). I think this is where the reality show format actually provided extra depth to the proceedings. I really enjoyed Art:21, the PBS series about art in the twenty-first century, but the reality show format helps reveal how artists work in the moment, and that seems to never be the case in news magazine and documentary style productions, which always cast their gaze backwards.
I was often irritated at how much Project Runway preyed on the clash of personalities and catty comments. That stuff is fun, but the reason I tune in is to see how a bunch of creative minds grapple with design problems. I’m fascinated by the diversity of strategies employed and the often surprising final results. And their resilience during absurdly difficult challenges is pretty inspiring, too.
In my mind, Work of Art is another excellent example of serious intellectual inquiry masquerading as trite, formulaic entertainment. May it awaken the artistic inclinations of couch potatoes everywhere!