Thursday, January 5, 2012

Art Contests

There was a time when I thought that an art contest was about as low as an artist could stoop in presenting his/her work to the public.  My thinking was that art making isn't a competitive undertaking and that participating in art contests was demeaning to both the artist and the artwork.  But, as I grow older, I guess the idea of exhibition as a contest has become more palpable.  I suppose what is most important to me is the integrity of the contest - that is, is the exhibition of the artwork more important than the awarding of any prize at the end and is the contest conducted with fairness and integrity?

I think, if it weren't so politically incorrect (and unlawful), our society might see a return of gladiatorial exhibitions (i.e., blood sport).  Even in the culinary arts, contest have become insidious.  I remember just a decade or so ago it was possible to tune in a cooking show on the TV and be entertained and instructed by a chef actually demonstrating and discussing the preparation of food.  Now it would seem that prime time TV is preoccupied with panels of arrogant, elitist food-snobs who taste samples of ill prepared food cooked by up-and-coming chefs who are expected to prepare their dishes in an unreasonable allotment of time using the most exotic and unobtainable ingredients.  As expected, one or two contestants may be able to pull off a reasonably decent dish while most of the others are soundly berated and humiliated before one contestant is ordered off the show.  What the viewer is left with is NOT a passionate food preparation experience, but a look into the cut-throat drama of the contest.

Jerry Yarnell, Bob Ross... move over!  Season 2 of "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist" (WOA) has just completed.  Bravo TV put a group of up-and-coming young artist in a well stocked studio, gave them goofy themes and concepts with an unreasonable amount of time to produce palpable artworks.  Oh yes, and as in the cooking contests, we were obliged to watch more personal drama than art process.  As could be expected, given the time constraint, most of the artwork was ill conceived and lackluster in its execution and presentation.  With little exception the weekly episodes did nothing to showcase the artists' individual creative abilities.  They served only to demonstrate the influence pressed upon artists by the elite controllers of the modern art market.  What is illustrated in WOA is the notion that the artist is relegated to the status of a necessary evil in the process of art marketing.

One notable omission this season - the lack of a career-seasoned older artist.  I suppose after Judith's rebellion against the status quo in season 1, it must have seemed wise to just go with the younger, early-career cadre of artist.  In their hunger for success they appear to be more willing to bend to the will of the marketeers.

The one shining moment in both seasons was the finale.  The finale offered the three remaining contestants, Kymia, Sara and Young, the opportunity (and time) to actually demonstrate their own conceptual and creative abilities.  Given this freedom, the artists did what artist do best - in their solitude they created good art.  At the eleventh hour WOA showed us who the finalist really were as artists - something missing in the preceding episodes.  It leaves me wondering what some of the other contestants might have accomplished if given the freedom to do so.

The outcome was somewhat disappointing.  The winner was Kymia and deservedly so.  Her exhibit showed mature technical skills and a great aesthetic depth.  She's also likable as a person - intelligent and enthusiastic with a wonderful personality and artistic sensibility.  The disappointment was in the second place selection.  Most online discussions and even Bravo's own poll would seem to indicate that Sara should have received the second place position.  Young's exhibit reminded me of the memorial shadow box I put together after the death of my wife's favorite greyhound.  She cried when I gave it to her, but I would never consider it high art.  Sara, "you wuz robbed".  I have to wonder if maybe the final placement wasn't a backroom compromise to appease someone with a thing for Young.  I scratch my head in disbelief that a majority of the 5(?) judges thought Young's was the better of the two exhibits.

Gracie's memorial shadowbox

Oh well, such is the way of contests.  My daughter, Lucy, and I have watched both seasons with enthusiasm.  It is after all ABOUT ART and as artists, we held out hope from episode to episode that there would evolve some semblance of artistic integrity.  We were left wondering, "who were those artists who didn't make it to the finale?".  perhaps season 3 (if there is one) will see changes in the format that will allow the contestants to explore art making to a greater degree than the personal-drama reality-style of the first two seasons.  But hey, it's TV and nothing more can be expected.  Even at that, I applaud Bravo for their attempt at bringing art to the masses and hope there will be a third season.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention one of the judges from the show. That would be Jerry Saltz. He's a writer and art critic for New York Magazine. He also chronicled his experience on the show with blog posts on Vulture. A list of the posts (and others) can be found at NYMagazine .  Of all the judges, I most appreciate his honest critiques and comments and his sincere respect for the responsibility given him to choose winners and losers.  In his blog posts there are indications that at times he may have questioned some of his decisions.  I don't see this as a lack of confidence, but a pretty good indicator that he truly takes the responsibility seriously.  The artist contestants have a lot invested in a high-pressure situation and deserve every consideration.  Jerry delivers on that responsibility in spades.

I've been a little long-winded, but these things seem to go where they want to go.  I'll try not to wait so long to post next time.


  1. Thanks for your insight about this new take on reality TV shows. This one seems to be creating a buzz among visual artists. I haven't had a chance to view it myself, but will be on the lookout for season three!

  2. I haven't watched it either ,like "Shock of the New" or whatever Robert Hughes show was called it sounds very commercialized and, yah, probably backroom stuff going on. People love to watch,blood , sweat and , yes, tears, it is a modern coliseum for art, bring in the lions!!A feeding frenzy for the masses!!

  3. i've entered contests for theme-exhibitions in musea,
    Do i get invited then it's great, dont i, i still will make the painting because it will fot next to my other works.

  4. Nice article, Steve. I wonder too how one judges art. having formally studied art, I understand perspective and color theory, design, and technique. I bring that critique when viewing other work.

    .. but who cares?

    Art is a creative expression. I don't care if one is coloring in a coloring book or has the skill to paint a masterpiece. It is the expression that counts.

    My first job after art school was in a creative advertising agency. It was a dream job. I rendered products and was privileged to work on some very cool design layouts. I used all those technical skills I developed and called it art... pfft.. soon I got burned out and moved on to another career.

    15 years later, I picked up the brush again and this time I am determined to express and create. How does one judge that? You can't. You can judge the technical skill but to judge the creative expression is much more difficult. Only when you connect with an artist's expression can you relate to it but it is very hard to judge.

    Thanks for launching such an needful topic.

  5. Kristine, thank you for your comments. You've added some new perspective to the discussion.

    I believe that the viewing of art is a subjective process and every viewer of a particular piece of art will come away with a unique interpretation. Artists in particular can be among the most opinionated in their response to certain genres of art - or even styles, techniques, material choices, etc. Judges of art contests (often other artists) bring all their prejudices with them to the judging process. The ability to set those prejudices aside and remain objective is probably very difficult and to be admired.

    You're right - it really can't be judged. But, as long as it contributes to the goals of the artist what's the harm?

    I look forward to viewing your artwork. I'll be browsing around for it when I finish this post.