Portrait of the artist as a reality contestant

Can Sarah Jessica Parker succeed with a new TV show to find the art world's next big thing, asks Sarah Hughes
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The Independent Culture

It sounds like the worst idea for a reality TV show ever: 14 artists move in together in New York, each week they make a new work of art and then one artist is voted off until the winner is given a cheque for $100,000 (£68,000) and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. Sarah Jessica Parker is the executive producer and occasionally she totters in to tell the contestants how much she loves art. Just call it America's Next Top Artist and wait for the meltdowns to begin.

Except it turns out that while yes, there are tantrums and people wittering about artistic journeys, Work of Art, which has just started on America's Bravo Channel, is also compelling television.

Suave auctioneer Simon de Pury acts as mentor to the artists, and against all the odds it turns out that it's fascinating to watch a bunch of artists competing for a prize that the art world will almost certainly laugh at.

Part of that fascination comes from trying to work out exactly why de Pury, one of the biggest names in the art industry, has chosen to get involved with what could be, after all, just another reality show. He's claimed that he finds most television arts coverage boring and thought this show would shake that up.

In contrast to the sardonic de Pury, the judges are subdued. There's New York Magazine's respected art critic Jerry Saltz, curator Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, gallery owner Bill Powers and, bizarrely, the socialite China Chow, whose main claim to fame is that she's the daughter of noted collectors Michael and Tina Chow.

Then there's Parker. Despite heavy mention in the pre-show publicity, her role seems to be more of a backstage one, although she does deliver a platitude-filled pep talk in the first episode in which she tells the artists to be "brave" and "competitive".

Ultimately it's the artists themselves who make Work of Art a cut above the usual reality show. There are those like New York curator Trong (yes, he does go by just the one name), who understand the art game and are happy to play it, serving up clever pieces that the judges relate to; and there are those like the naive Erik Johnson, an amateur artist who appears completely out of his depth by the end of the first task.

There are the opinionated, such as performance artist Nao Bustamante, who recognises that all reality TV needs characters and a certain level of fakery. And then there is 23-year-old OCD sufferer Miles Mendenhall, who appears so genuine it almost hurts to watch him.

Miles in many ways holds the key to why Work of Art, well, works. Passionate about his art, nervous when meeting the others and almost sublimely awkward (his response to Parker's arrival is to joke "who are you?"; the silence that follows is crushing), he also manages to create one of the best works of the first week.

Watching him explain that piece, an eerie portrait of Nao meant to recall Victorian death masks, illustrates just what elevates this show above most reality fare – the sense that most of these contestants actually care about what they do.

There are obvious flaws, too, with the format. Is anyone really going to create meaningful art in such a short time? Are we supposed to take de Pury seriously when he announces that he can tell good art from bad in "a split second"? Why do none of the artists or judges seem to know any art history or attempt to place the work in any sort of context? Are they afraid that the viewer will be bored?

Yet despite – and possibly because of – these problems Work of Art is still captivating television, not least because there's something hideously addictive about watching a bunch of people struggle to reconcile their dreams of artistic freedom with the harsh commercial reality. Will the right person win? Probably not, but it's certainly entertaining tuning in to find out.

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