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'Work of Art' recap: Judge to Erik: 'Why?' 'Why?' 'Why?'

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I’m ambivalent about the way things worked out on Work of Art: The Next Great Artist this week. Yes, the hour was the most dramatic to date, with fascinating exchanges in particular between Miles and Erik. These young men grappled with the big questions, vigorous debates that went to the very heart of what it means to be an artist: Miles called Erik a “fourth grader… with a bad-ass macho attitude,” while Erik called Miles “a total douche” and a “stuck-up art p—y.” Why, it was like Barnett Newman debating Jackson Pollock! Like Larry Rivers vs. Robert Motherwell!

But in the process of this highly amusing fracas (I did relish Erik accusing both Miles and Jaclyn of promulgating “their typical art-school crap”) we ended up with an alienated Erik, a marginalized Erik, an Erik who ultimately went home, shaking his metaphorical fist at… well, Erik said it himself so eloquently: “trained artists who have their heads stuck up their asses.”

The thing is, Erik’s Angry Young Man With A Chip On His Shoulder He Can’t Sculpt image is as familiar to the art world as the Sensitive Young Artiste images Miles projects; it’s just that Erick doesn’t know he’s a “type,” while the fascinating Miles seems glowingly aware, and is using the show to manipulate his competitors, the judges, and us. Where he initially struck me simply as rumply-slacker-arty-boy, Miles has become something more intriguing, more devious. (Funniest moment of the night: Ryan’s impersonation of Miles making coffee.)

The task this week was to create a piece of public art on a site in lower Manhattan. The eight remaining artists were divided into two teams. The “Red” team decided to make a large multi-sided geometric wooden thing surrounded by smaller but pointy, jagged things. For all the judges talk about the finished product looked “inviting,” I kept thinking about the first little kid that would enter this public place and fall head-first on one of the pointy things.

The all-too-appropriately named “Blue” team created a wooden question-mark-on-its-side-plus-a-bolstering-wall thing. This was the team containing the arguing Miles, Jaclyn, and Erik (baby-voiced Peregrine spent most of the hour saying she was scared of pretty much everyone and couldn’t they all just get along?). All artists were told they had to add something individual to the project and be able to explain it during the judges’ “crit.” Early on, Erik said he wanted to have some vines twirling around their project, and people initially seemed cool with that.

As soon as the building started, though, Jaclyn abruptly said, “I’m starting to hate this idea,” and that she particularly wanted “no plants, or vines… that’s really silly.” Considering that Jaclyn’s idea of coming up with ideas is to “appropriate” ideas from other contestants, I’m surprised she got away with this critique, since it was clearly aimed at sabotaging her arch-enemy Erik. (Yes, Big Brother is not the only reality show with a “sabateur.”)

When Miles backed Jaclyn, Erik’s instant bitterness arose. He told Miles with heavy sarcasm, “I respect the role you play — you’re a trained actor,” referring to Miles’ tendency to performance-art his way into the judges’ hearts. As usual, there was just enough truth to Erik’s accusation to keep you from dismissing his complaint. Even more intriguing was the revelation of a note Jaclyn has passed to Erik some time during the construction, a scrawl about how he should “argue with us about something… insist… say it needs… you need to convince us.” Erik interpreted this as advice on the project he felt he didn’t need. I interpreted it as camera-conscious Jaclyn giving Erik tips on how to portray himself on TV so that he’d remain a viable, colorful contestant.

Judge Jerry Saltz asked the Blue team why they’d positioned their piece where they had. Jaclyn said it was to take advantage of the largest patch of sky in the vicinity. Saltz then asked, “Do you not know what that patch of sky is? [It’s] the hole in the sky that the Twin Towers left.” His tone was accusatory, but I didn’t understand in what sense. Because they were ignorant of the geography of lower Manhattan and hadn’t oriented themselves to realize what they were looking at? If so, I have to defend the artists, most of whom aren’t from New York and could easily have not known in which history-fraught direction they had pointed their edifice.

The way that moment was edited, it looked as though the positioning of the Blue team’s piece was going to be a factor in the judging, but it went unremarked after that. Instead, there was a nicely tense interrogation of Erik by Saltz after Erik declared he “wasn’t a fan” of his own team’s work. “Why not?” asked Saltz. As Erik began his usual mumbling, Saltz said again, “Why not?,” and when Erik continued to babble, Saltz snapped, “Why not?” followed by a simple, “Why?” You got the idea that Erik — and probably most of his young colleagues — have never been asked to articulate the opinions they have. Saltz was pushing him to think, and to speak in full sentences, and Erik failed. The Blue team lost, and Erik was given the paint-spattered, metal-toe boot.

The Erik ejection robs Work of Art of what was really revving up to be weeks of studio drama, but let’s face it: Erik was pretty douchey himself, and his art was as lousy as any of the show’s contestants’. His most valuable contribution was to provide the element of the untrained, self-styled working-class laborer (“I’ve been lifting heavy stuff,” he said with gruff pride this night) that’s always been one part of the art-world ethos. Now we’re left with the battle of the art-school divas: Given the blandness of the rest of the cast — oh, I mean artists — it’s going to be the Battle of the Art School Divas, Miles vs. Jaclyn. Why? Why? Why?

What did you think of Work of Art this week?

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