By **Kelie Montalvo**
If one were to Google “Work of Art,” the first site to come up would be the Bravo train wreck by the same name, but the second surprisingly, is the Wikipedia article for Walter Benjamin’s groundbreaking essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It’s ironic because Benjamin’s essay describes how a work of art loses authenticity, or its “auora,” in an age where that work can be mechanically reproduced with the push of a button. Benjamin didn’t foresee the rise of reality television and how it takes the work of art and removes it one step further—it claims authenticity when we know very well the medium is scripted and artificial. With reality television, the viewer consumes images of fantasy that pass for reality. Of course, one could argue that this aspect of reality television perfectly describes our real lives: a fantasy that passes for reality. In the least, we can acknowledge that all visual media, whether purportedly fiction or not, during the moment of disavowal or suspension of disbelief, also acts this way.
Work of Art highlights the performative nature of not just reality television or art, but of our very culture. This would be a good thing, a “postmodern” move, if it weren’t for the fact that the show takes itself entirely too seriously; there is absolutely no sense of play, parody, or reflexivity. In episode seven, for example, one of the contestants, Jackie, explains to the camera that she wanted her particular piece to represent the closed nature of a panopticon. Jackie doesn’t think to reflect on the fact that she herself is trapped in the panopticon of reality television; In fact, she is speaking to the camera when she says this. The irony that Jackie is actually onto something while not realizing it, and the irony that she could not spell Jane Austen’s name correctly in one of the challenges but could drop some Foucauldian verbage, albeit misplaced or unknowingly, is what makes the show most interesting—that and the occasional impressive art piece.
Work of Art raises, likely unintentionally, questions about the nature of art, authenticity, and technology in our socio-historical moment. The question that comes to the forefront for me is whether the creation of art showcased through the medium of reality television is comparable to the actual process of creating art, especially when that creative process is sold and branded like the products strategically placed in the corner of the show’s camera angles.
Post Script: Since writing this piece, Work of Art aired it’s final two episodes. Without giving too much away, the ending was not entirely surprising: the usual commercial overtones and mediocre artwork littered the finale; the good guy wins in the end. I found myself wondering why the hell I had sat through the entire first season in the first place. Of course, in yet another ironic gesture, I’ve taken the show seriously enough to write about it.
Copyright 2010 Kelie Montalvo
Kelie Montalvo is Guernica’s blog intern.