A questionable concept executed without any inspiration, Bravo's "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist" may finally be a bridge too far when it comes to the cookie cutter competition shows churned out by the Magical Elves production company.
 
Your tolerance for "Work of Art" will likely boil down together you think that true art is something best created, appreciated and understood in a competition setting and whether attempting to compare, contrast and rank these hastily conceived and created works has anything to do with the way art has been evaluated over the centuries or a validity for how such work should be evaluated in the future. 
 
For me, every second of "Work of Art" was specious and intellectually insulting, but I guess it comes down to how (or if) you approach art at all.
 
"My approach to art is purely physical. I normally know in the first split second if it's a great work or not," mentor Simon De Pury tells the camera.
 
I, myself, do not usually know in the first split second if I'm looking at a great work or not. I find that the art I have the most immediate and visceral reaction to is rarely the art that lingers in my memory and that I find myself seeking out in the future. Or, at the very least, I find that art requires contemplation, especially the art that's most challenging. And if the art is challenging, I don't want to have every little bit of it explained to me by the artist or by a curator, because otherwise, my involvement in the art is completely passive and steered. But maybe my problem is that I'm just not as trained as De Pury and I lack his ability to instantly assimilate and process art, without any required contemplation and deliberation.
 
If you're as primitive as I must be, you're also going to be annoyed by "Work of Art." If you fall into the De Pury camp, you still probably won't enjoy "Work of Art," unless you also think that the best way to appreciate art is in glossy books or still pictures on the Internet. 
 
[Full review of "Work of Art" after the break...]
 
Seriously, "Work of Art" is an utter crock, almost a parody of the genre. It's like a producer sat around and said, "Why the heck would anybody enjoy watching a competition cooking show, where viewers at home don't get the aromas, flavors, textures and non-visual sensations central to good food? Why, that's nearly as dumb as doing a reality show to find a great artist!" 
 
It sounds more like a pop art prank than like a search for a real artist. I'd love to see Andy Warhol's version of a Bravo art competition series.
 
Instead, Magical Elves, the company behind "Top Chef," as well as "Top Chef Masters," "Project Runway" and "Top Design," is in charge, so this parody series didn't require any alteration of formula.
 
Fourteen artists from a variety of disciplines are placed together in Manhattan. There's no pretense that these were actually the *best* 14 artists the producers were capable of finding, but they were selected for reasons involving diversity, grating antagonism and, in the case of two or three of the women, pure hotness. 
 
Each week, they're given a challenge, given a series of restrictions and time frame complications, and set to work. They're judged in a public forum. Groups are brought in to see the judges. A winner is selected and given immunity, as things usually go in the art world, and a loser is sent home with the ungainly kiss-off "Your work of art didn't work for us... It's time for you to go."
 
It's the exact same way we've celebrated outstanding chefs, hairdressers, singers, dancers, supermodels, interior designers, entrepreneurs, fashion designers and trained dogs in recent years.
 
While judging on any competition show of this sort will be subjective, there are still certain empirical traits that are objective within most of the disciplines. On "American Idol," singers miss notes. On "So You Think You Can Dance," dancers lose rhythm or drop steps. On "Top Chef," cooks overcook cuts of meat. With those contexts, even the subjective artistry can be viewed objectively.
 
"Work of Art" isn't, thankfully, trying to claim that there are ways of evaluating art through which all critics should see eye-to-eye. This isn't one of those art-by-mail scams where you send sketches and a check through the mail and you get a critique letter telling you if you have the goods to become a professional artist (or at least enroll in a for-profit "art school).
 
So what, then, are the "Work of Art" judges basing their critiques? After one episode, I couldn't tell you, since none of the judges have the time to articulate anything even marginally substantive regarding why they favor one contestant over another.
 
Jerry Saltz, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Bill Powers come with credentials, but to what end? Powers and Rohatyn, with their gallery backgrounds, seem to have an agenda that involves commercialism or at least sellability, which is both arbitrary and pretty meaningless, since the show would doubtlessly look down its nose at anybody who came across as Thomas Kinkade-ian. There are one or two mentions to artists being very of-the-moment or very able to fit into certain contemporary trends. But, correct me if I'm wrong, if you have an entirely unknown artist whose greatest attribute is that they're very much within the curve of an established movement that that artist had nothing to do with creating, evolving or advancing, that artist isn't especially innovative or "great" are they?
 
Nobody on the show would dare acknowledge this lack of formal criteria, though. Perhaps that's why host China Chow keeps delivering broad, bland platitudes on the nature of Art. It turns out that ""It's been said that good art is not what it looks like, but how it makes us feel," whatever that means, or however that can be quantified.
 
In addition, nobody bothers to acknowledge the apples-to-oranges comparisons required by the entrenched structure. The task in the premiere asks contestants to split into pairs and do portraits for one of their rivals. Then, the judges proceed to look at the work turned in by the experimental artist and the abstract artist and tell them that their work was, in fact, too experimental and too abstract. The judges also rave that several of the portraits captured the essence of the subjects represented, artists the judges had never actually met, or met so swiftly in passing that no amount of "essence" possibly could have been conveyed. So again, what the heck are the judges judging on? And how proud should they be for gushing over the winning portrait which is so derivative that I had a hard time pinning down which iconic image it felt most heavily inspired by (I went with this "Rescue Me" promo over dozens of Rolling Stone drawings).
 
I'm just gonna keep saying it: "Work of Art" is a crock.
 
That doesn't mean that there aren't contestants who appear to have ideas and gifts. They just happen to be pushed to the background so that we can meet fun characters like clownish Mark, contemptuously described in his on-screen chyron as a "fry cook" (because he has the nerve to have a day job),  ridiculously beautiful Nicole and performance artist Nao, who treats being an annoying reality contestant like her latest installation. We spend more time with the artists talking about what they're doing than watching them do it, so by the time the final works are show, they've been drained of even minimal opportunity for discovery. I think I'm interested in Miles' OCD and his quirky artistic ideas, in the inevitability that Jaclyn will make her genitals the focus of several upcoming pieces and in the utter fraud of alleged artistic neophyte Erik who turns out to be aspiring filmmaker as well.
 
You'd think subject matter like "art" might inspire Magical Elves to mix up the visual language of their formula, but "Work of Art" uses basically the same New York City cutaways, the same non-descript warehouse space and the same pacing as their other shows.
 
Did I go into "Work of Art" thinking it was a bad idea from the get-go? Yes.
 
As one of the contestants puts it after being torn to shreds, "I'm not responsible for your experience of my work."
 
In some senses, she's right. Aspiring artists have the choice between pandering to audiences and working completely in their own worlds. Sometimes pandering is rewarded, while sometimes fierce individualism is rewarded. On "Work of Art," the winner will be the artist who panders most successfully and they'll receive $100,000 and a show at the Brooklyn Museum. Is that the recipe for delivering on the promise of the show's title? It sure doesn't feel that way to me. 
 
[Yes. I'm ignoring the Episode One guest appearance by executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker. She's ridiculous. She's the crock of the crock.]
 
"Work of Art" premieres at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, June 9 on Bravo.