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Masterpiece, Weirder
October 11, 2011  | By Eric Gould
 
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Bravo's Work of Art: The Next Great Artistreturns for a second season Wednesday (Oct, 12) at 9 p.m. ET, and it's a bit of a surprise that there was enough interest in a competition show about the art world to make another run. It just seems that TV shows about cakes and plastic surgery addicts would do better.

But, thinking on it -- and given the often combative and (intentional or not) comical aspects of Bravo productions -- it's probably a winning environment to plant artists in. Where better to put those who deal in feelings and interpretations than on a Bravo production set?

After reviewing last year's Season 1 premiere, it was pointed out to me that a competition show might not be the best place on TV to address art and how it is made. But I continue to support shows like WOA, Project Runway and HGTV's Design Star as they air art and design discussions to audiences that might pass on a PBS documentary.

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That's a good thing, in the sense that it shows how works of art, and creative ways of looking at the world, pervade daily life much more than we're generally aware of. Shows such as PBS's Art21 might be superior formats for discussing and understanding this kind of work -- but nobody's getting thrown off the next episode there.

Commercial television usually trumps documentaries in dollars and ratings, simply by putting the soap opera appeal first. And Bravo has perfected the formula. From housewives to fashion -- and now, the art world -- they shill the interpersonal drama at least as much as the subject matter.

The irony here is that Bravo was launched in 1980 as a fine arts channel, dedicated to broadcasting indie/foreign films, performing arts, and fine arts programming. Rebranded two decades later by new owner NBC, the network took steady aim on pop culture starting with 2003's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. That one reached over 3.5 million viewers, and Bravo never looked back.

(The Ovation cable channel has stepped into the "higher arts" breach to fill the seemingly requisite role of a television location for fine arts and design. Relaunched in 2007, Ovation has initiated a multimedia platform with a website that attempts to create a social community for artists of all kinds. But as a commercial venture, Ovation isn't immune to the tides of the marketplace. A glance at programming this week shows reruns of So You Think You Can Dance in heavy rotation, while discussions on photography and painting are left to the web.)

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On Work of Art Season 2, the premiere episode takes a fascinating look at the first task, as the 18 artists and one designer are asked to take schlock art and kitsch pieces from junk stores and reuse them to create a new piece.

It's a brilliant challenge, asking the artists -- and us as viewers -- to look at common objects around us in a new way, to create new meaning from banal things we take for granted. (See Young Sun's performance artwork [above], based on the old "Dogs Playing Poker" kitsch art. In this case, it looks like they're playing mah-jongg.)

Would that the show simply stayed there. But after these bright, well-intentioned young artists introduce themselves and their work in a gallery at the Brooklyn Art Museum, and perform well on remaking low-brow art into high-brow, they then descend into a catfight montage spliced from clips of the season's ensuing episodes. It's like watching a very bad weather forecast.

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Most disturbing are the short clips of a bespectacled photographer -- Kathryn Parker Almanas, whose work recalls macabre visions of viscera -- disintegrating, not unlike the subject matter of her photos, into gasping, paroxysmal sobs, due to a presumed collision with some other cast member or one of the judges that the network so treasures.

Many elements of Season 1 are still intact here, including the debonair studio critic Simon de Pury, again fulfilling Bravo's requirement of a suited shepherd for these contests, replete with a speech affectation.

We also get the usual young female artists who seemingly never tire of using their naked bodies as subject matter for the artwork. Not a big stretch for material (and not a lot of stretch marks), but certainly good footage for reality video.

Nevertheless, series producer Sarah Jessica Parker and host China Chow often stress that a Work of Art is one that makes you feel, not think. If we stay focused on those feelings, not the drama, and how modern art functions in this way -- we at least get to experience the power and value of creativity.

Not a bad attitude to cultivate, particularly in the tough economic spot in which we find ourselves these days.

 
 
 
 
 
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