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I’ve been following the Bravo TV reality series, “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” (fifth episode this week). It tracks a group of young-ish  artists, most of whom have already been exhibited, and assigns them a fresh project each week to be conceived and completed in about 1.5 days. 

The completed works are then displayed in a private gallery showing, followed by a critique from a panel of judges (a core of regulars, plus  one fresh prominent figure per week; one week it was Andres Serrano.)  The projects range from utilitarian-but-arty (design a book cover for a classic novel re-issue) to almost-unspecified (“do something outrageous”), and at times the artists receive their assignments by lot, with no say as to the subject agreeing with their own affinities (or preferred medium).

Although it’s the usual winnowing-out design typical of such programs — and I don’t at all care who gets tapped as eventual winner — I’d pinpoint the same two interesting elements within each hour-long segment:

•  The very different processes each of the artists follows in interpreting the assigned project. These are profiled in some detail — surprise! — and follow the gradual development of each new work. This manages to take up a big slice of the program, some 20+ minutes. It’s exhilarating to see cameras paying attention to a working-out that stems from labor which is primarily  ‘head-work’.  And  rare.

•  A refrain in the judges’ comments, present virtually every week: that the works they find successful do  *in some respect* provide for viewers to respond to the piece — and actively. (For example, they very much admired works in which the artist incorporated a mirror, or sign-in boards to register comment, or placed him/herself actually physically into the piece; etc.)

Of course the judges want  the artist’s individual personality to be expressed in the piece; but beyond that, and far from an auteur context where a viewer is only meant to “receive” an utterly  complete document, the judges want the art to invite the viewer to respond, so that the work is ‘incomplete’ unless and until someone reacts to it in a way that registers to other viewers. (This forested tree demands the listening ear be there! so its fall can be heard.)

There’s plenty of opinion flying about throughout  the episode  — in addition to the judges, the artists themselves comment liberally on one another’s  work throughout the show.  If you pay no mind to the trumped-up  personality conflicts and the bland or fatuous criticism (or the commercials), the  show can be worth screening.

The level of  the works  — particularly those by  three of the competitors still ‘alive’ — is certainly professional. And the prize is $100,000,  plus a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. Sarah Jessica Parker is one of the program originators.

Would that composers could reap the same on-camera attention for our head-scratching  hours…!

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Trailing behind all of us is the catalogue of music we’ve already written.   (In my case multiple works in most genres,  with plenty to choose from in several mediums — a fair number also ‘living’ in recordings.)
But the musical universe likes to think of us primarily  as creators of brand-new pieces.  We’re sort of like the TV Western gunman, Paladin,  whose calling card read “Have gun, will travel” –tweaked for composers into ”Have pencil….”
How do we balance serving our attention to future works  with care also for extant works  in their life-after-premiere?

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