Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Experiencing reality (TV)

I don’t watch a lot of television, but I confess to having a soft spot for a good competition / elimination.   Amazing Race, MasterChef are probably my favorite US and UK variants, respectively, but it’s hard to compare US and UK takes on the reality format unless you have two shows built on the same premise airing at about the same time.

Surprisingly, that opportunity came from Art.

Aspiring artists, hoping to break into the big time, showed their works to a panel of three judges, two men and one woman, hoping to be selected for a spot in a gallery exhibition to be attended by wealthy patrons and influential critics.  In the US, the show was Work of Art, airing on cable channel Bravo; the UK featured Show Me the Monet on BBC2.  You can see clips from each show by clicking on the two embeds below.

Work of Art–Episode 4, Part 1
Show Me the Monet–Fiona Cockburn

The BBC program is a bit like Antiques Roadshow: artists bring their work in for the “Hanging Committee” to review.  If they score well on originality, technical skill, and emotional impact with at least two judges, then the work goes on to the exhibition.  Immediately, we learn whether the artist managed to sell it. 

There’s a lot of drama in having each artist judged on a single representative work for less than 10 minutes. These are charged emotional encounters, putting forward very personal works and the artists really struggle to keep composure as the judges dissect them.

Charlotte MullinsI’m absolutely fascinated by Charlotte Mullins perfect hair and unflappable poise, but enjoy art critic David Lee’s remarks the best.  Still, the format is so low-key and the entrants go by so quickly and repetitively, it’s hard to get involved with them, and the show wears thin quickly.

Bravo’s show is more like the Apprentice: artists are given a task (creating cover art for a novel), materials, and a time limit, then judged on the results that they were able to product.  The worst performers are voted off by the critics, and the remainder go to a further round, eventually arriving at an exhibition.

WoAThe critics are completely faceless; the engagement is with the contestants who each build a presence and a narrative over the weeks.  The artists have to work fast and are outside of their best medium, so the technical quality of the art feels low and and the participants have little emotional investment in what they create.  There’s relief or disappointment after the judging, but none of the confidence shattering dismissal of  the British judging.

I think that the differences in the shows are reflective of the differences in audiences, the difference in culture.  Britain prefers an examination; the US a performance.  The UK wants art, the US prizes style: one focuses on the work, the other on the individual.  I think it’s a reflection of the respective societies as much as it’s a lens on the artists.

Neither show was a hit with the media: the Guardian and Time were critical, but both Monet and Work are coming back for a second season.  I would prefer to blend the two: the highbrow seriousness of Monet’s judges, the extended opportunities for the artists to show their personality and creativity in Work.

Until then, there’s MasterChef, which is ironically judging as much by artistic appeal as by culinary taste.

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