Art Reality

America's most famous artist, Shepard Fairey, in his studio. Photo courtesy

America's most famous artist, Shepard Fairey, in his studio. Photo courtesy

No matter how hard I try, avoiding reality TV is a challenge. The shows are like invasive kudzu: Nanny 911, Extreme Makeover, The Housewives of New Jersey, Jon & Kate, The Price of Beauty, COPS, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, and many, many more. This fall I’ll be avoiding American Artist, Sarah Jessica Parker’s collaboration with Magical Elves, the team behind Top Chef and Project Runway. The new show will serve a mash-up of amateur entertainers—that is, real people—engaging in old-fashioned game-show-style competition and unscripted activity. According to press reports, each episode will feature the show’s “contestants” competing in art-themed challenges from a range of disciplines—including sculpture, painting, photography and industrial design—and completing works of art that will be assessed by a panel of “top figures” in the art world, including artists, gallerists, collectors, curators, and critics.

If there are any producers out there (PBS?), here’s my suggestion for a better reality show about artists. Create a show that’s a little more verité, like an old-fashioned documentary. Forget about vetting “contestants.” Cast the net wide and choose 100 art grads from all over the country in June by random lottery. No auditions, video entries, or artist statements. Abandon any attempt to frontload charisma or talent. As the competition proceeds, to minimize the artists’ artificiality and self-consciousness (and their inclination to ham it up) they would be forbidden to reveal that they are participating in a reality TV show. Inevitably, some will be genuinely talented, some avidly self-promotional, some charismatic, some absolutely clueless—just as in real life.

Give them a list of goals to complete over the course of the viewing season. Those who fail to make the benchmarks are gradually eliminated. Here are some purposely vague goals that might be included:

  • Find suitable living/working space that they can afford
  • Get their work in three group shows
  • Contribute in some creative way to the wider art community
  • Publish three reviews (either essay or video format) of their colleagues’ art shows
  • Curate a themed group show
  • Get a grant or a teaching job
  • Arrange five studio visits with gallerists or curators
  • Get a solo show by the end of the year

Automatic ejection results if an artist:

  • Fails to make art for more than four days during the period.
  • Works longer than forty hours a week at their day job

In addition, in the early stages the artists are responsible for assembling a three-person crew to creatively document their progress on video, in any way they see fit. Before airing any of the results, a season’s worth of episodes would be prerecorded to avoid special treatment.

For me, a show like this, that creatively and realistically demonstrates the overwhelming challenges would-be artists face, would be must-see TV.

  1. C-Monster says:

    i take issue with the idea that they all be art grads. you need at least one crazy street artist in there. one that’s a little twitchy from inhaling all the spraypaint. someone that isn’t afraid to get into a bar fight…

  2. David says:

    That sure would be a brief show. Try getting these in New York: “suitable living/working space that they can afford” and “a grant or a teaching job” without working “longer than forty hours a week at their day job” and getting a three person crew to film them all the time. I’m guessing you would call it Top Trust Funder?

  3. Great post, Sharon. You’ve neatly defined the difference between “reality” and reality.

    If I may, I’d add these:
    . Successfully navigate the digital snafus and interfaces with your e-mail and internet providers, your computer, laptop, netbook, camera and phone–with a budget of $100
    . Pay your own health insurance before, during and after the taping of the show
    . Bonus points if your artwork is delivered by the handler in the same shape it left your studio: no dings, dents or scratches. And on schedule
    . Immunity on the next round if you successfully retrieve artwork or payment due from a recalcitrant dealer

  4. Thanks for the great suggestions. Of course if someone would like to produce such a show with me, the tasks are definitely negotiable. 😉

  5. Oh yeah, and don’t forget that they need to have a 30 min- i hour artists talk ready to give at a moments notice.

  6. Trong Gia Nguyen says:

    Sharon, I think reality shows are simply the new game shows, e.g. competitions between individuals vying for a prize at the end. They have nothing to do with reality. If anything they fall into the category of “constructed realism” and represent another medium (video and television) for the style – photography being the most prominent.

    I just hope at the end of “American Artist” that Jerry Saltz will pronounce “Ladies and gentleman, here is your new American Artist!” And of course he/she should be an illegal immigrant who the Whitney just “discovered” for its next biennial, titled “Ameri/Cannot.”

  7. majel says:

    I feel a little like if you are over 50 you should jump off a cliff. An opportunity for new grads and young emerging artists is great, don’t get me wrong I would like every working artist to get some of their dreams answered but artists of all ages.

  8. Luther says:

    A popular reality show about fine art is probably an oxymoron. I like the idea of each artist teaming up with video/film artists where the medium and the message are the same. I would definitely watch that but mass audiences would hate it. Perhaps this is Public Access material? Somebody has got to do this!

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