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Judge Jerry

How the reality show Work of Art changed me as a critic, for bad and for good.


We asked the three Work of Art finalists to create portraits of Jerry Saltz. The sculpture here is by the show's winner, Abdi Farah.  

It’s been one month since the final episode of Work of Art: The Next Great Artist aired on Bravo. For those who don’t know, I was one of four regular judges on the show, which, much like Project Runway or Top Chef, asked fourteen aspiring artists to compete for $100,000 and an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. I’m told the show got bigger ratings than Project Runway in its first season (whatever that means), and blogs have reported that the network is committed to a second season. (If that’s true, I haven’t been contacted yet. Hello?)

Should Work of Art return, prepare for a collective shriek of horror. The art world, for the most part, despised the show, describing it as, among other things, a disaster for art. The New York Times reported that a Brooklyn Museum trustee resigned in part because of the museum’s partnership with Bravo. Blogs blasted me as a sellout and fraud; one called the show “a glitter-dipped, shellacked turd” (sounds like a Chris Ofili painting); another said it “promulgates a massive deception that out-deceives all other reality programs.” (Take that, Fox News!) William Powhida, whose pointed cartoons of the art world were on my 2009 top-ten list, complained that being on my list was now “more like an anchor around my ankle than a life raft.”

My friend the critic Linda Yablonsky typified the sometimes-schizophrenic reaction. After she’d asked “what prompted someone of his standing to degrade himself this way,” I spied her willingly being filmed by Bravo at Work of Art’s first opening. When she saw me, she darkly chided, “I hope you find what you’re looking for, Jerry.” Assuming her moment on-camera meant Yablonsky was looking for something, too, I asked, “Would you be interested in being a guest judge?” She eagerly replied, “Yes!”

These are effete versions of the old saw that says TV causes violence. Only this time, TV wasn’t bad for children; it was bad for art—and so was I. Turns out that hysteria about the collapse of cultural values is not exclusively the purview of the right. But none of it is unexpected. The art world has a love-hate relationship with visibility, entertainment, and anything populist. It claims to be open but relentlessly polices its borders for anything as alien as this TV show was bound to be.

Yet Bravo had me at hello. The show appealed to my belief that art only got better once the boundaries between high and low culture were relaxed, most famously by Andy Warhol, then by countless others. It also satisfied my hunger to try new things; my demons that demand I dance naked in public; and my desire to see if art criticism is supple and porous enough to be practiced on a wider stage—even if this stage distorted that practice. German sculptor Joseph Beuys famously said, “Everyone is an artist.” I wondered if all of our interconnectivity and social networking also made everyone a critic. For me, criticism is a way of showing respect for art; I wanted to share that respect with a large audience and see if it would reciprocate.

I also did the show because I thought it would be fun—another thing the art world tends to disdain. And it was, a lot of the time. I loved being around other people rather than writing in isolation. I really liked my co-judges, gallerists Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Bill Powers, and host China Chow. (I also enjoyed the free food—enough to gain twelve pounds.) And I got to meet “Bravo-lebrities” like the Housewives of New Jersey, who seemed irritated by the question: “You all carry guns, right?”

I certainly did not do it for the money—I made in the mid–three figures per episode—or the hours. The show was shot in a three-story building in the West Forties that had been transformed by Bravo into a reality-show factory. We never interacted with the artists except when we were viewing their finished assignments or critiquing them. (My only off-camera encounter happened at 3:30 a.m., after taping an episode. A van pulled up next to me with some very tired-looking people. At first I thought they were prisoners being transported for morning court dates, until one of them gave me the finger. It was Erik, one of the more contentious contestants. He later called another contestant an “art pussy,” so I was glad I didn’t give him the finger back.)

One odd part of watching the show was the way things appeared to unfold slowly, over months. In reality, nine episodes were shot in rapid succession. That explains the exhaustion visible on the artists’ faces. (I later learned one was on steroids; one suffered anxiety attacks; a third said she’d been “put into pre-pre-menopause.”)

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