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.