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Judge Jerry

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The art critic as reality-TV judge.  

The judges didn’t experience anywhere near that level of stress, but our schedule was grueling. Each episode equaled fourteen hours of shooting, beginning at 2 p.m.—at least at first. After the third night of this, I sent a letter of resignation to Bravo. The network made sure the shoots ended at 1 a.m. after that, but it was still like being in a minimum-security prison; you couldn’t leave the building for a breath of fresh air without a minder, and microphones were never turned off—I mean never. At times, it was humiliating, or maybe withering is a better word: During the taping of one episode, the crew chief yelled “Cut,” then walked over to me, perched like an infant on a high stool. He mumbled something about “body contours” and asked if I’d ever heard the expression “hanging brains.” I was clueless. He nodded toward my crotch: “Jerry, you need to readjust yourself.” I looked down and shrieked, at which point the control room exploded in laughter. This after occasionally having to stand on a box so I wouldn’t be dwarfed by my fellow judges.

The sequences I hated most were the dramatic 30-second face-offs between judges and artists before winners and losers were announced. Those sometimes took half an hour to shoot because of the complex camera angles, with the makeup team continuously padding out to powder my shiny head (just try to be an authority figure after that). Similarly, the critiques (or “crits”) that last a few minutes on TV went on for hours and were sometimes very emotional. Jaclyn cried when she was told she’d misspelled Jane Austen’s last name; China Chow wept when we sent Mark home. Another time, I yelled at the artists to speak up during one another’s crits, because knowing how to solve problems is a big part of improving your work. (It surprised some friends that I ended up being the show’s hard-ass, but the reality-TV me is pretty much on-target. I now know what Goethe meant when he said, “If I knew myself, I’d probably run away.”)

My complaints about the show are garden-variety. I agree with the many viewers who said it didn’t reflect the “real art world”—although it was never meant to. It was intended as a game-show version of undergraduate art school where assignments are given, studios supplied, and people kicked out (without, of course, owing $100,000 in school loans). A lot of the challenges were inane—telling an artist to create a work based on an experience in an Audi showroom, or to make “shock art,” can only produce stupid results. People on my Facebook page invented far better challenges, like “Make a three-minute video-portrait of a fellow contestant” or “a work of art about your future child.” I also thought the choice of Simon de Pury (our Tim Gunn) as mentor was misguided; I love the guy, but the head of a swanky auction house—which is about making money—shouldn’t advise young artists about anything, ever.

People always ask if Bravo influenced the judges’ choices. Nope. We kicked off and kept whom we wanted; Bravo was informed only after we’d made our decisions, I assume so that the crew knew where to put the cameras. (If it were up to the network, the outspoken Nao might have stayed; she could have been our Snooki!) I don’t regret many of our choices, even when I didn’t get my way. I wish we had kept John longer; his self-fellating portrait might have been boring, but it required the sort of nerve that can lead to great art. And I was vocal about not liking the work of the eventual winner, Abdi; his subject matter, finish, surface, and color were clichéd and too dependent on Pop and cartoons. (Although his nifty sculpture of me on the previous page is the nearest I’m likely to come to a presidential bust.) The judges were accused of going easy on my favorite artist, Miles (“Couldn’t you see he was manipulative?”), as well as Jaclyn (whom some called “booby girl”). But we didn’t know them the way the viewers did, and, frankly, I didn’t care; it was their work that we were judging.

That is, until we watched the episodes. I’m negative about art in writing, I’m tough as a teacher, and I regularly parade around my apartment grousing about art (I fantasize about a website called I’llTellYouIfYou’reAnArtist.com). But that ability to be candid and sometimes ruthless is harder to sustain once you get to know the artist you’re critiquing. Learning, for example, how hard Ryan struggled with his work, and hearing that he was an outcast in his religious family, made me regret voting him off the show, even though I knew we had done the right thing. And I felt positively awful about telling Trong that he wasn’t even an artist after seeing how hurt he was. I ran up against this with one of the guest judges, too. I had reviewed Andres Serrano’s 2008 show—photos of excrement—as “crap,” so I was a wreck when we met. He immediately smiled and said, “I bet you didn’t want to work with me.” I had thought the same of Serrano, was relieved he hadn’t hit me, and ended up finding him profoundly insightful.


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