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Judge Jerry

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From Left to Right: A Forever Doodle of Mr. Jerry Saltz in Simple Iconic Terms, by Miles Mendenhall; Portrait of the three finalists, by Peregrine Honig; Portrait of the judges, by Peregrine.  

If I could change anything about Work of Art, it would be how the contestants are selected. Clearly Bravo’s criteria were more numerous than mere talent, because the contestants simply weren’t good enough. I wish the judges had picked the competing artists, the way they do on American Idol. (This from a TV-biz neophyte who frequently bugged Bravo to add musical challenges, to make it more like Glee.) On the other hand, since finishing the show, I’ve caught myself in galleries thinking, “This art isn’t much better or worse than the stuff on Work of Art.”

My biggest regret? As Linda Yablonsky suspected, I was looking for something on this program, but that thing didn’t happen. I was okay on-camera: snappish, entertaining, sometimes witty. But I failed at practicing criticism on TV. I wasn’t nearly clear or articulate enough about why I liked and disliked things. I didn’t explain how artists embed thought into material. There’s no doubt in my mind that many other critics would have done better than I did.

But I’d gladly try again. I learned a lot from the experience. For decades, nearly every successful artist has come out of art school. I’m not saying forget about school and enter the art world via a reality-TV show. But Work of Art reminded me that there are many ways to become an artist and many communities to be an artist in. The show also changed the way I think about my job. Over the ten weeks it aired, hundreds of strangers stopped me on the street to talk about it. In the middle of nowhere, I’d be having passionate discussions about art with laypeople. It happened in the hundreds, then thousands of comments that appeared below the recaps I wrote for nymag.com. Many of these came from people who said they’d never written about art before. Most were as articulate as any critic. I responded frequently, admitted when I was wrong, and asked others to expand on ideas. By the show’s end, over a quarter-million words had been generated. In my last recap I wrote, “An accidental art criticism sprang up … Together we were crumbs and butter of a mysterious madeleine. The delivery mechanism had turned itself inside out.” Instead of one voice speaking to the many, there were many voices speaking to me—and one another. Coherently. I now understand that, like us, criticism contains multitudes.


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