The Gray Lady isn't Just for Men

Bill Powers discusses the interplay between art and politics.

"Ripped from the Headlines" is the title of this week's episode, and as luck would have it, Ai Weiwei and guest judge Adam McEwen are both front page news. Or at least they should be. McEwen got famous writing fake New York Times obits for subjects who aren't dead yet, most notably Kate Moss and Bill Clinton. It's a form of memento mori and a way to conflate time. If you are in New York, please do yourself a favor and check out his remarkable exhibition at Marianne Boesky uptown. When I was there for the opening last week, Joan Didion was touring his show. Wow!

If you have been following current events, you may have heard that Chinese artist activist Ai Weiwei raised $840K last week to fight the "tax bill" China is imposing on him to the amount of $2.4 million. According to, "Ai said that he would not treat the money from supporters as donations, but as loans that he would repay." I aspire to be as gracious as this man. He may be the single most important artist alive today, and good for Young to force the paper of record to install a reminder of his plight in their headquarters. I can't wait to see it in person. Ai Weiwei is a hero to all people who believe in freedom of expression. I know an art historian in Chicago who says that MLK and Gandhi might have been the greatest performance artists of the 20th century. We just didn't have the language to describe what they were doing. Ditto for Ai Weiwei fighting the good fight inside the world's next superpower. I've read most of the art blogs and NY Observer recaps of our show, and I'm saddened but not surprised at the level of snark. I mean, it's your right not to like a sculpture about the foreclosure crisis or the gulf oil spill or political prisoners or gay marriage or chronic unemployment, but have you ever seen someone make a stinking dress or a creamy dessert while trying to address these social issues creatively?! I'm afraid not. So you can attack me for gesticulating too much or trying too hard (guilty) and say whatever you want about China's over-the-top dresses, but it's criminal to me that people can name five Real Housewives in this country and not five living artists. I believe in this Work of Art show 100%, and tonight's episode was the best we've had to date. We are all here in the service of the art -- the artists, the judges, the viewers. Our reward for this service is our opportunity to discuss the role of beauty and activism, war and social responsibility, among a myriad of other topics, in our lives today. Let's celebrate these opportunities.

I still can't believe Jerry Saltz is on Bravo.

The Drama's Done

Jerry gives his thoughts on the final three exhibits.

“Then all collapsed,” goes the last passage of Moby-Dick, “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Work of Art ended last night, although without sublime terror. Its end brought three good shows by three good artists, any one of whom could have won, all three of whom could have real careers (ditto the recent losers Lola and Michelle; Sucklord, get thee to Mordor). The three finalists, plus with my overall feelings about the program this season, tell me that a sea change took place on our show this season, in public and private. Last year, waves of hatred predicted the collapse of the art world and the destruction of art by television; this year unfurled in its own spreading shroud. A bit like art itself: sometimes capturing attention, mostly gliding slowly by.

This year’s Work of Art was less sideshow, more grad school. I suspect that it made for less entertaining TV, though the artists were better and, unlike last year’s, had a sense of how it would go. Each found ways of making personal work in the midst of one of the most impersonal situations any will ever face. As for me: I tried to be clearer in my criticism, weighed fifteen pounds more than last season, marveled as Bill Powers blossomed into an excellent judge, crushed on China Chow, gasped at Simon de Pury’s charisma. I stood in front of a dozen cute stylists. I saw my bald head powdered with makeup. I wore white Spanx that broke my dark heart. It’s a hard … it’s a hard … Wait. Sorry.

About the finalists: Just as last year’s winner, Abdi, should have been given a grant to a good grad school (with the win going instead to the true artist, Peregrine Honig), the excellent artists Lola and Michelle didn’t make it. Sara, who did make the final three, surprised me. After starting off making nice watercolors, she lapsed into cliché and confusion. Although her personality feels oddly absent (both in the flesh and in her work), she got in touch with her inner performance artist, the sculptor within, and excelled with materials. I’m told that Sara is in grad school now, and it should give her a chance to develop her talents. She didn’t win on this night, when much of her show dealt with secret lives and mutant creatures. Once she escapes generic symbolism (like the hypodermic needles she stuck in an old mattress) and ersatz surrealism (origami birds flying from a cage), her work, I imagine, will stand up in the real art world. Congratulations, Sara.

Young’s work rattles with repressed emotion and cerebral acuity. Sharp as a tack about art, the most articulate contestant ever on this show, he became adept at merging the social, the personal, and the material. His show dealt with life, loss, longing, the death of his father, and the cancer of his mother — a lot to take on at once. Thus, it lost emotional momentum. I fancy that Young’s losing a TV game show about art might make his eventual art career easier (though the $100,000 might’ve helped, too). He should move to New York, find a dive in Bushwick, have his New York nervous breakdown, and join a promising next wave of talented people.

Kymia took the prize based on her drawing skills. The surfaces of her drawings didn’t come across on TV, but they were covered in pebble-like flecks, pooled paint, sedimentary minerals, and other original marking techniques. Replete with circumspect touch and fine line and nicely scaled, they had physical presence and psychic gravitas. I was most taken with her rendition of a ship, a sort of psychic raft from the underworld drifting on Melville’s rolling ocean. The shadow of two legs on the sails was hokey, but I wasn’t bothered by this lapse into bathos. Her outing showed an artist following her vision to wherever it led her.

Which is what this show was for me. It already feels far away. My wife has still never watched a minute of Work of Art, though she loves that I did it. So do I. I’m not sure why this is, and would love artists to tell me if there’s an equivalent in their process, but for me Work of Art was all about the before and the after. The show itself was never the thing. It was about getting out of my office; learning how TV is made; being around artists trying as hard as they could; being a part of a mass of people, cameras, lights, and sound equipment functioning as an organism; confronting my fear of celebrities when the show’s executive producer, Sarah Jessica Parker, was a guest judge; being ogled by stylist girls while standing in my underpants. I loved making the show, trying to bring art to a wide audience, writing about it, and the tens of thousands of conversations it generated via my recaps, Facebook posts, tweets, and random street-corner conversations. I dug the shock of someone saying to me in my building’s elevator, “Hey! You’re that mean art-critic judge on TV.” All this experience enriched me, my life, my work, and my stomach.

But the televised show itself? I missed watching four episodes this year — twice I forgot it was on, and twice I had the wrong time. That’s how curious all this has been for me. Right now I feel at peace with my TV god; I’ve gotten everything I wanted. Now it is done. As I am a confessed inner hysteric, allow me a final act of exaggeration, as I end this strange, strange voyage into art criticism on television with the epilogue of Moby-Dick: “The drama's done ... one did survive the wreck ... I was he whom the Fates ordained ... I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks ... glided by ... I was picked up at last ... another orphan ... I alone am escaped to tell thee.”