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Eye Exam: Actor Slash Artist

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Abdi's painting

By Jason Foumberg

The lecture, “What not to paint and how not to paint it,” was cancelled. Art critic Barry Schwabsky was there, present behind the microphone, but he wasn’t going to deliver this lecture, not tonight. Schwabsky, who writes from London for Artforum and The Nation, baited me into the audience with the frisky lecture title and then switched it at the last moment for something about painting and Plato’s cave, a philosophy that’s been tossed around since Greek antiquity and which lives happily, if safely, in today’s grad-school seminars. Schwabsky left his courage in London, and I left the lecture shortly thereafter.

I wasn’t planning to revisit Schwabsky’s non-lecture but his misfire stirred in my memory while I watched a crash landing into the rules of painting, this time on a primetime televised art critique, on “Work of Art”—just another failed attempt to marry the art world and television. On episode eight, guest judge Ryan McGinness and artist contestant Abdi went head to head. Abdi defended his painting by deferring to that old story about Plato’s cave, although he misattributed it to Socrates. A forgivable accident, to be sure. Not buying it, McGinness got his blazer in a bunch. Abdi was getting a pretty negative review from the judges, and then this happened:

“What things would you like to see in the work,” Abdi asked of his painting, fishing for positive feedback.

“The fact that you’re even asking for advice,” sprang back McGinness with dramatic disappointment, “is the wrong approach. You should just be asking yourself.” And then I winced—not for Abdi’s high-school stylings but for McGinness’ embarrassing (and televised!) art fart.

The history of art is threaded with Abdi’s question. “What things would you like to see in the work?” To which the answer is, usually, nipples and shaved crotches, and anything else that the collector or patron desires to own.

Komar & Melamid, America's most wanted painting

Remember Komar and Melamid, the artist duo who toured the world in the 1990s asking town-hall audiences what they wanted to see most in a painting, and then painting it? The resulting kitchen-sink works are often Thomas Kinkade-worthy, and with historical figures in the foreground like George Washington. (The duo also surveyed each country’s least-wanted painting, and these were typically geometric abstractions). Komar and Melamid were no doubt critiquing popular taste levels—the results are insipid—but they were also representing contemporary audiences’ unfamiliarity with contemporary painting practices. What an eye-opening experiment.

Hyper-successful artists, from Titian to Warhol, stoked this sort of populism, too. “I’d ask around ten or fifteen people for suggestions,” reflected Warhol in his 1980 autobiography, Popism. “Finally one lady friend of mine asked me the right question: ‘Well, what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.” Warhol often asked friends what he should paint, and he wasn’t ashamed. On TV, McGinness scoffed at the painter’s pandering, but why such shock and drama? He used to work at the Andy Warhol Museum. Adding irony to insult, this year McGinness published a tongue-in-cheek book titled “Studio Manual,” a 192-page instruction manual for “employees” to create signature Ryan McGinness works of art. What a real phony—I bet Warhol would have cast him in a second.

The popular characterization of the artist as a pure, headstrong, heart-driven outcast, who is unencumbered by money or happiness, persists on “Work of Art.” Wouldn’t the perfect blend of TV and art provoke really good artists to innovate both mediums, beyond something as mundane as painting? TV has yet to be a great medium for the gallery-minded visual artist, who is continually relegated to the public-access channel. To his credit, McGinness’ guest appearance did reveal some unspoken paradoxes of success in the art world: charm gets you everywhere; bullshit and beauty are rewarded; fiction is cold, hard currency; realism is fake; and, importantly, audience does matter. Even though the show’s performance artist got knocked out in an earlier episode, the other contestants succeeded for their ability to act—a different sort of performance art. I’m not holding my breath for David Robbins’ “Ice Cream Social” to air (a truly innovative proposal for TV art, if you haven’t read it), which is something that would bring me back to watching; “Work of Art” season two won’t.

China Chow should have just come out and said it: “Your work of art is a piece of shit.”

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