Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dear Sarah Jessica Parker...

"Cherry-picking from a group of earnest artists also potentially reinforces the myth of the reclusive artist who waits to be discovered".

Dear Sarah Jessica Parker,

Bravo didn’t happen to pass on my request for an interview, did they? Alas, I figured it was a long shot. My hope was to talk to you about the reality television show that is in the works, to be produced by your company, Pretty Matches. Unfortunately, I’m ineligible to try out for the casting call for American Artist this coming week-end at New York’s White Columns Gallery because I don’t have a schedule that coincides with the projected dates of filming. It’s a shame, because I thought it would be fun to say I tried out. Mind you, had I actually made the cut, I probably would have felt conflicted. Here’s why:

I’m not a fan of reality television shows, What Not to Wear notwithstanding, and maybe it’s because they just aren’t realistic. American Artist does offer a semblance of reality by involving real-world art professionals, who will critique the work of artists undergoing art-related challenges, and select a winner who gets a cash award, an exhibition, and a sponsored national tour. However, I have to wonder if it’s wise to fast-forward through the stages of development of up-and-coming artists. Having just read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (Little, Brown and Co., 2008), in which he argues that 10,000 hours of practice leads to expertise (attributing the Beatles’ success in part to their grueling performance schedules in Hamburg), I feel like artists might be better served not having all eyes on them while they are still refining their style and technique. It will be interesting to see how the winner sustains his or her career.

Also veering away from reality is the prospect of having artists work outside their chosen media. I’m perplexed about what the value is in this, especially because I’m not convinced of its entertainment value. My husband works exclusively in photography, and I in fibre; if someone made us switch, I don’t think it would be the makings of a good show. It’s imperative for artists to push themselves, but that quality is generally innate for the ones who are likely to make it. Also, I fear that it sends out a damaging message about artists needing to be skilled in multiple media to be successful. Artists who fall into this category, like Michael Snow, are surely recognized for this, but there are plenty of artists who specialize in a single medium who aren’t valued any less because of it.

Cherry-picking from a group of earnest artists also potentially reinforces the myth of the reclusive artist who waits to be discovered. In reality, gallerists and curators have artists on their radar well before they become involved with them because the artists have put themselves out there and aren’t working in isolation. Maybe, ironically, that’s the one realistic element that will be offered up by the show: the artists who are brazen enough to respond to the casting call may have a good shot at getting ahead in the art world because they see the value of exposure. But the type of exposure could be critical. Will the winning artist be respected after the fact? Can a similar model work as, say, American Idol where artists have gone on to strike record deals?

Undoubtedly, American Artist will perpetuate the notion of the art star as well. The thing is, we already have art stars because of high profile art awards. The glamour that comes with those awards is called into question by Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World (W.W. Norton, 2008) by revealing the mixture of melodrama and disappointment that surrounds Britain’s Turner Prize. Melodrama makes for good reality television, for sure, but it sounds like American Artist might be searching for art stars in a context where they already exist.

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