TV Eye

High Art in Low Places

Artist Nao Bustamante
Artist Nao Bustamante

Well, it serves me right. After all the ink I've spilled trashing reality TV, I've actually found one I want to – make that, I must – watch. Having said that, I'm conflicted about it. The new show is Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, which premiered on Bravo last week. As with most reality series, I gave it a look, expecting to be bored/offended/annoyed after the first 15 minutes. Not only was I lured in, I watched the pilot again. Twice.

First off, I saw a contestant that I met once, Nao Bustamante. She and I were in a program of one-woman shows, organized by Luis Alfaro and presented at Highways Performance Space & Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., right after the 1994 earthquake. It was the first time I'd witnessed the aftermath (and aftershocks) of a major earthquake, met performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and saw a woman eat her penis (that was Bustamante, using a burrito as said body part). I had no idea why I was there with my sweet-faced monologues, but the reception was warm, and the experience unforgettable.

As with other reality series offering contestants the chance to jettison past the journeyman years in their chosen field for a shot at instant celebrity, Work of Art features the usual challenges to be conquered, immunities to be won (to avoid elimination from the show), judges to please, and prickly personalities to contend with in shared living and working quarters. Unlike other reality shows, this one offers the opportunity to be a star in what could be called the rarefied world of fine art. This is where my conflicted state comes in. The idea of artists performing on demand strikes me as antithetical to the arts. And I bristle at the idea of New York (a city that I love) being regarded as the center of the art world, in the same way some of my visual artist friends have purposely turned their backs on that scene, living very happy and productive lives elsewhere (usually in countries where art and artists are appreciated). But what really lured me in and kept me watching was when executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City) made her obligatory appearance to welcome the contestants.

"I come from a family that loves art," Parker says. "I grew up in a time when the government supported art. I'm an art enthusiast, and you're here because your work was exceptional."

The government supported the arts? Ah, yes – I remember. The National Endowment for the Arts was flush before conservative politicians stopped the well because "controversial" performance artists such as Karen Finley challenged traditional ideas about art (and propriety) – which is what all good art should do, shouldn't it? From then on, support for individual artists was severely curtailed, and, devastatingly, arts programs in the schools and communities were severely diminished. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I could create a snarky timeline from the near-dissolution of the NEA to now, when cheap reality TV is more highly consumed than the work of any contemporary artist – but wait. There's something wicked smart, even deliciously subversive going on with Work of Art. I like the idea that these artists – a diverse cast of contestants ranging from age 22 to 61, with various ethnic groups, approaches, and experiences represented – are getting some time in what remains the most powerful medium after the Internet. I like the idea that some kid, in some remote place in the Midwest, might actually see the show and realize, "I have to be an artist." And I love the idea that the fine art world has found a way (albeit in a cheap vehicle) to show itself to a much wider audience.

"Be brave, be competitive, and be yourself. Show the world your art. It's time. Do it!" Parker says before she makes her exit. Is that a tear rolling down my cheek? Damn!

I don't know if Work of Art will have an audience, but I know I'll be watching.

Work of Art: The Next Great Artist airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Bravo. To learn about the various contestants, judges, and get behind-the-scenes tidbits, go to

Follow TV Eye on Twitter: @ChronicleTVEye. E-mail Belinda Acosta at

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Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, Bravo, Nao Bustamante, Sarah Jessica Parker, reality TV, Karen Finley, National Endowment for the Arts, NEA

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