By Ken Tucker
Updated June 10, 2010 at 12:56 PM EDT

You’d think we were overdue for a reality-TV show about the art world. Watching people create art, must be fascinating, right? Or have we just been lulled into thinking that after seeing Hans Namuth’s hypnotic films of Jackson Pollock at work?

Bravo stepped into that void — if indeed it exists — last night, offering us Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. When it comes to splattering emotions like, Work of Art is like Top Chef in an exploding kitchen: controlled chaos. To be sure, each of 14 contestants arrived labeled – for example, there was Abdi, the “figurative artist”; Nao, the “performance artist”; Jaime Lynn the “illustrator”; and Erik, who gave us a clown painting that would be shoddy even by the standards of John Wayne Gacy. The egos roamed free: Jaclyn, a former studio assistant for the superlative hype-master Jeff Koons, said “people assume someone like me couldn’t be an artist” (why? because she’s hot-looking, one is left to assume) “and then I always surprise them with my work.” (That would be work which included a self-portrait of Jaclyn getting out of a car with a red star placed over her exposed vagina, a painting so poor that it was impossible whether she or Bravo placed the star over the private-part.) Assigned to do portraits of each other, Jaclyn has trouble rendering 60-something Judith, because she’s “a lot older than myself.” Ageism knows no artistic boundaries.

This challenge for the show itself is to make contemporary art palatable to a broad viewing audience. After all, after this week’s paint-a-portrait challenge, they have to grapple with abstraction or the conceptual stuff, don’t they? (I note a TV listing that says next week, the contestants must transform “trashed appliances” into art.)

Art is less Top Chef than Project Runway in its framework. Its Tim Gunn is Simon de Pury, who coaches and critiques the works-in-progress. As I pointed out in my review in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, what Art needed was a judge with the wit and prickliness of Time Magazine’s Robert Hughes, host of one of the best TV art histories ever, the 1980 PBS series The Shock of the New. Or perhaps Dave Hickey, the most influential current art critic who also revels both pop culture and kitsch (and a TV fan, however, he’s no Renaissance man: his taste runs to Perry Mason reruns). Nonetheless, Work of Art‘s three-person judging panel is very lucky indeed to have Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine’s excellent art critic, who isn’t a showy personality, yet who offers the most succinct comments in the clearest language.

Work of Art confirms a few things. One is that when it comes to reality TV and prizes (in this case, $100,000 and a show at the Brooklyn Museum), few rebels remain rebellious for long. All the contestants, even the supposedly the performance-artist who doesn’t “do” representational art, turn meekly docile both when given and assignment and in accepting criticism of it. The ringer in this series, an early favorite to win — the Nicole Scherzinger of Work of Art, as it were — is Trong, a New York artist and curator who would seem to at the very least be attuned to the same sort of art and aesthetic shared by the judges. (Then again, that may be one reason they’ll eject him quickly if his work is deemed too derivative of that aesthetic.)

This show is ultimately an example of something The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said as far back as 1985, that the differences between “art work and the art industry and the art business [have] collapsed. Which means that the younger generation now, depending on your point of view, is either corrupt or realistic.”

Me, I think the generation that forms the majority of the contestants here is a bit of both, and lacking in much of a sense of art history. Unless it was edited out, not one contestant had anything interesting to say about older portrait artists who might have inspired them, or could even articulate, in an art-historical context, what their work was trying to achieve. And I write as someone who actually enjoyed this show.

This week’s winner and loser were rather disappointing. Miles’ winning “death portrait” of Nao placed his subject in a pose strongly reminiscent of the portraits of Chuck Close, but no one remarked upon this. And loser Amanda — well, while it’s nice not to have to listen to any more of her nattering about the “journey” on which her art has taken her, was she really worse than Erik the clown painter, or did some combination of the judges and the producers conspire to keep that guy on because he’ll just do something even more laughably worse in the future?

I’ll be very curious to see what happens when Work of Art moves next week to its regular time period, 10 p.m. EST, after Top Chef D.C. (This week is was on at the same time as Chelsea Lately, which isn’t really fair.) I have my doubts as to whether pairing Chef and Art is a good idea — I’m not sure people want to watch two hours of shows that have similar narrative structures. On the other hand, there’s no way I’m not going to be front and center at least until the weeks when self-absorbed Jaclyn or the assiduously flamboyant Nao gets booted off. They may not make art, but they make good television.

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