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Did Bravo TV's 'Work of Art: The Next Great Artist' really redefine art criticism?

August 13, 2010 |  1:57 pm
Abdi etc.

"Work of Art: Abdi Farah" opens at the Brooklyn Museum Saturday, a modest exhibition that is among  the prizes awarded to Wednesday night's winner of the Bravo television reality-contest show "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist." Farah, 22, also gets a nice, fat check for $100,000.

I wish the young artist well. Currently I have no plan to be in Brooklyn during the show's run -- and that means noting something that, as a critic, I never thought I'd find myself saying: I won't be writing about Farah's figurative paintings, sculpture and drawings for the simple reason that I haven't seen them.

Criticism and discussions about it can be abstruse, but one aspect is really quite simple: Never pass judgment on the merits of art you haven't actually seen. I would no more review art from reproductions on a museum's website or in a magazine than I would from seeing it on a TV show. Be there or be square.

My surprise in finding myself stating what I've always thought obvious comes from reading an item posted Wednesday on New York magazine's website. New York's Vulture blog opines that "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist" created a new way to practice art criticism. In online forums and the comment sections of blogs and across Facebook pages, "people who would otherwise have no access to art-world opinion, criticism or power were given voice." 

Really? Art criticism is about having "access" to establishment art-world power?

Needless to say, virtually all the "Work of Art" Twitter feeds and comment threads on all the blogs were written by people who -- like me -- have not seen Abdi Farah's paintings, sculptures and drawings, except as mediated through a camera. Sure, you or I can make some observations by seeing art in reproduction, just like we've been able to do for eons with print publications. On TV, Farah's rough-hewn sculptural floor reliefs of athletes in action, for instance, seem to have an ancestry in wall-reliefs of neighborhood people John Ahearn made in collaboration with Rigoberto Torres, which first got notice in the 1980s, and castings of friends George Segal was making in the 1960s.

Not having seen the sculptures, though, I can't say much more than that. Maybe there's no relation at all between Farah's art and that of Ahearn, Torres or Segal. Art criticism tends to be pretty low-grade without real access to the art.

In fact, for criticism that's the only access that really matters. The art is where the authentic power does or does not lie. Viewers of Bravo's TV show haven't had that chance, although those who do go to the Brooklyn Museum to see Farah's work can then expound.

But rejoicing over digital access to establishment power -- whose analog counterpart is letters banged out on a typewriter or handwritten in ink on paper -- is not extolling a new way to practice art criticism. It's cheering an old way to engage with an art critic, by using a platform that hasn't existed before. The twist is that the digital ether lets anyone with an Internet connection in on the correspondence written by everyone else.

To confuse social networking, which can be fun (and certainly useful), with art criticism is quite a blunder. It's probably to be expected, however; Bravo's savvy integration of cable television reality-contests with the Internet hasn't happened before for art, artists and art enthusiasts. The new often disorients.

But make no mistake: Bravo, an American cable television channel owned by NBC Universal, is the corporate chicken that laid this audience-participation art egg. "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist"  is a game show, finally not much different than "The Price Is Right," "Wheel of Fortune" and "Deal or No Deal." If you enjoyed the TV show, fine; if you didn't, that's fine too. Yet all the tweets, blog posts and comment threads now floating though the limitless Internet universe have been granted no access whatsoever to the real establishment power.

Applauding the illusion doesn't make it true, as artists Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman so memorably showed us almost 40 years ago in their classic videotape, "Television Delivers People." Like all important art it's worth seeing again; thanks to the Internet, anyone with a connection can -- and in person:

-- Christopher Knight

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Photo: Miles Mendenhall, Abdi Farah and Peregrine Honig. Credit: Bravo

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