Judge Jerry

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.”)

The art critic as reality-TV judge.Photo: Andrew Eccles/Courtesy of Bravo

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.

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.

Judge Jerry