Are Hipsters Monsters? Bravo’s ‘Work of Art’ Has the Answer
When I first heard about Bravo’s latest reality offering, Work of Art: The Search for the Next Great Artist, in which a bunch of hipster artistes compete against each other for big big prizes, I died a little inside. The fact Sarah Jessica Parker was producing didn’t help much.
However, I gave the show a shot because a.) I am attracted to damaged artsy people and b.) I like to think of myself as damaged and artsy as well. In other words, I’m a hipster and I’m glad I did, because last night, the show offered up the most fascinating and interesting episode of reality TV I’ve ever seen.
To explain the utter awesomeness of this episode requires a quick bit of background. Anyone who’s ever seen Top Chef or Project Runway knows the basics of Work of Art: Semi-pro wannabees in a creative field are challenged each week to produce an artwork after having ridiculous constraints placed against them. The artists are meant to be a cross section, if not of the artistic community, then America at large, which is why the show counts a line cook among the contestants.
Unlike chefs or fashion designers, however, art is purely subjective. Food can clearly taste bad. A dress can tear on the runway, but to declare that ‘your piece of art isn’t working for us’ as the judges of Work of Art do each week, is mostly a matter of taste and, as we’re learning, popularity.
None of this is terribly surprising, but what has come as a shock is how willingly the chosen artists have been to play into the usual reality TV conceits.
If there’s a group you’d expect to subvert and rebel against being showcased on reality TV, it’d be visual artists. Instead, almost the entire cast has merrily bought into all the reality bullshit. You can see it on their faces when they win and in their tears when they lose.
In fact, only two cast members seem aware of their ironic situation: Miles Mendenhall, the twinkie obsessive-compulsive Minnesottan who manufactures ‘quiet spaces’ out of concrete anuses and Erik Johnson, a moody, bearded loner whose life was literally saved by art, having used it as therapy to help repair his mind after a major brain injury.
It’s no surprise that not only do they make for the most interesting watching of all the people on the show, but also that they hate each others guts.
For weeks now, Erik has been insisting, while chain smoking to the camera, that Miles is a huge fake, that he plays a tortured artist for the camera, but offscreen is a different guy altogether. Erik seems to be on to something. Just after the show premiered, a report on a local Minnesota arts blog detailed how Miles had worked with his art professor to craft a persona he would play on the show (presumably as a sort of critical commentary art school joke), but the post was quickly taken down, and Miles (and Bravo’s lawyers) have denied any sort of extended performance art on his part.
Which of course, is total bullshit. The Miles we see on TV is an impossible character. He falls asleep during challenges, he speaks in the sort of emo art-school dialogue that only shows up in parodies of artists. The horrific part, however, is that his Lost Boy Artist schtick has made him wildly successful. The judges instantly were moved by Miles’ “sensitivity”, one of the girls on the show throws herself at him with every opportunity (as does New York Magazine critic and judge Jerry Saltz, who mused on his blog today that Erik’s art career may be ruined forever because he publiclly called Miles an ‘art pussy’) and he keeps winning challenge after challenge.
No wonder Erik is ticked off.
This week’s challenge put the contestants into two teams, each tasked with designing a piece of public art for a Manhattan park. Erik gets stuck working with Miles, as well as a mousey girl who wears funny hats and another girl whose pissed at him because she took credit for an idea that was his on a previous artwork and he called her on it. It’s that kind of show.
Naturally, the team decides on Miles’ idea: A treehouse that forces viewers to stare at a particular patch of sky. And naturally, every single idea proposed by Erik is shot down. In fact, the only thing they can think of using Erik for is manual labor, which to his credit, he begrudgingly does.
To anyone who has ever been in high school, this is excruciating to watch. Miles and his ladies adroitly shut Erik out using the sort of Orwellian teamspeak that we train our children these days to use as a lame attempt to make them ‘civilized.’ At one point, when Erik raises his marginalization as well as his resignation to being the team’s grease monkey to to Simone Simon de Pury, famous art gallery owner, who serves as this show’s Tim Gunn, Miles pounces. It’s not enough for Erik to just work on the art, he must love the art, feel passionate and most importantly, be part of the communal joy that is Team Miles.
In short, it’s not enough to just eat Miles’ shit, you have to like it, as well.
This is a bridge too far for Erik, who lets out an invective against Miles. “Look, I get what your doing, the whole tortured artist thing. I get the whole ‘We’re in this giant corporate showroom and it’s so overwhelming that I have to go to sleep’ thing as a statement. But I’m not going to play along. You’re a fake.”
Which is how Erik became my personal hero. He’s a modern day Antonio Salieri to Mile’s Mozart, only Miles is no genius. Erik, for whom artmaking is a literally life-sustaining activity is unable to sit by while Miles reaps acclaim and adoration for basically being a pretentious asshole. So, he calls Miles on his shit, winning the instant admiration of the other team, who have been merrily watching this debacle, as well as the instant enmity of Team Miles.
The denouement is as heartbreaking as it predictable. The sculpture, once finished is atrocious. It’s a jungle gym designed for murdering children and the idiots who designed it are unaware that they situated it so that the patch of sky viewers are forced to watch is where the Twin Towers stood.
At the judge’s table, Erik stands his ground that he tried to be a part of the team, but wasn’t allowed to sit at the cool kids table and while the design was Miles’, it’s Erik who is sent home.
Returning to the waiting room, the mousey girl from Team Miles tries to say she’d like to see Erik again, but Erik, who isn’t going to fake niceties tells her he hopes never to see her again.
By himself, he holds the first painting he made in the show, a portrait of another contestant. He says his only regret was that he wish that if he went, it would have been in the first episode for “painting some dumb surfer boy trying to be a zombie.”
He shows us the painting. It’s Miles.
I don’t know if I’m doing the episode justice. What’s so fascinating is Miles transformation from adorable hipster to something just this shy of Nazi. From his oversized glasses to perpetual bedhead, Miles is the very modern model of a postmodern metrosexual.
But let’s face it: there are hipsters and there’s frathouse guys who dress as hipsters. If we’re honest, the whole hipster thing is based on us trying to recreate our childhood. We think we’re more clever because the things we love about our childhood we love ironically, but the stuff we love ironically is pretty fucking dumb. Transformers? Saved By the Bell? These are adult conversations?
Erik, who seems unable, by virtue of life-experience to fake it, seems hopelessly uncool. His biggest sin, in the eyes of Team Miles, is that he won’t go along with the elaborate fiction they’re deluding themselves with. Erik is vilified for trying to introduce ‘reality’ into a reality TV show and since following that road would eventually reveal that Miles and his flock are little more than a bunch of delusional art-poseurs grandstanding for thirty seconds of fame, he must be stopped.
In our increasingly trivialized society, where, thanks to technology and urbanization, we’re able to filter out any news or people that go against our carefully constructed identities and world views, people like Erik, who seek to pop our groupthink balloons are either dangerous, or vital, depending on your point of view.
The hipster movement, with nostalgic irony calculated to strip history of any real meaning and smug self-satisfaction tamping out skeptical self-criticism, is our generation’s definition of cool and Miles is its poster boy. But I’ll take the honest asshole over the surfer boy zombie every time.