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Review: Art becomes blood sport in formulaic reality competition ‘The Exhibit’

Not long ago, A study showed that the strongest signal to “make it” as an artist today is not talent or an MFA or group performance. What matters most, according to the research, is endorsement: how quickly an artist can secure institutional support in the form of a solo show at a major gallery or museum. Everything else follows. There are apparently few other stairs to climb.

That explains MTV and the Smithsonian Channel’s latest reality offering, “The Showcase: Finding the Next Great Artist,” a show that turns endorsement into the ultimate prize. In six episodes, seven rising artists compete for $100,000 and an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC Contenders range from rising stars (Baseera Khan, who has been profiled in Artforum, Frieze and the up-and-coming (Misha Kahn, whose “Watermelon Party” was on display at the Dries Van Noten flagship store in Los Angeles in 2021) to the established but overlooked (Frank Buffalo Hyde, whose work is held by the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe).

In a familiar formula, artists are given several hours to make a “commission” in response to a given topic (gender, social media) and their work is critiqued by a rotating panel of judges, including artist Adam Pendleton and writer Kenny Schachter. . After six weeks, an artist will reach a level of visibility normally only provided by mega galleries. For artists who cannot depend on the traditional platforms that always work in their favor, the show offers a recourse to a damaging gallery system and an opportunity for them to broaden their audience.

Still, these gladiator games in the cultural arena are a tacit validation of the destructive belief that culture is a blood sport. Artists already compete with one another for validation, resources, and attention, and “The Exhibit” only exacerbates the problem by framing it as entertainment.

This isn’t the first cast of shows in this mold. In 2010, Bravo’s “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” produced by the company behind “Project Runway” and “Top Chef,” exploited a stark parallel between the internal drama of the art world and the familiar conceits of reality shows. The show also featured a $100,000 cash prize, as well as a solo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, where a trustee resigned in protest, citing perception of the museum as “a party venue and a celebrity hub.Critic Jerry Saltz wrote an apology for her role as a judge in the first season, describing her as “bad for art.” (He subsequently returned for the next season.)

After winning the second and final season, Kymia Nawabi said hyperallergic: “Unfortunately, the show hasn’t really impacted my career in a very obvious way (yet). I thought there would be some galleries interested in my work: no. I thought I was going to make a lot of new sales: no.” Despite decent ratings, “Work of Art” it was cancelled and it happened with the even more short-lived “Gallery Girls,” which followed several upstarts in New York City’s glamorous gallery scene and ended, tellingly, when a cast member chose a job at an upscale concierge. instead of an internship at a prestigious art consultancy.

“The Exhibit” wisely keeps its institutional affiliation at a calculated distance. Melissa Chiu, director of Hirshhorn and the show’s chief judge, opens the competition by describing the contemporary art museum as the Smithsonian’s “wild child.” Presented by MTV’s Dometi Pongo, it’s certainly a bolder and more irreverent show than its sumptuous close-ups of wet paint and subdued galleries might lead you to believe, more in line with the museum’s high-profile initiatives with contemporary artists likeBarbara Kruger and Nicholas Feast. Following in the wake of less ruthless craft tournaments like “The Great Pottery Throw Down” and “Blown Away”, the show seeks to cultivate a friendly atmosphere, forgoing weekly eliminations. In its fervent embrace of sportsmanship, “The Exhibit” wants to renegotiate a parasocial relationship with reality TV and inject a much-needed levity into the rarefied and often forbidding province of high art.

Yet within 10 minutes, factions and villains emerge as predictable tropes. Pedigreed artists fall for MFA jargon while badmouthing self-taught painters, who find camaraderie and motivation in being ostracized from the mainstream; sculptors and mixed-media artists take on painters and draftsmen in a suave parody of centuries-long academic debates. Indigenous painter Frank Buffalo Hyde, for example, criticizes the attention given to institutionally validated young artists over those who have long “done the job”: a fair criticism, though whose superficial treatment here pigeonholizes the artist and establishes age discrimination. conflict.

Rivalry can be generative. It can sustain creativity throughout long careers and push the limits of artistic experimentation. But this sense of competition is frustratingly at odds with an issue-of-the-week format that expects artists to create topical (and readable) work on demand.

Contestants are judged on their originality, quality of execution, and strength of concept, a set of criteria so universal as to be essentially worthless. In the first review, featuring works on gender, Misha Kahn is criticized for an overly ambitious resin sculpture of a banana (“a novelty toy,” says Schachter). Visibly unimpressed, Pendleton dismisses Jamaal Barber’s vaguely charcoal cubist portrayal of a bi-gender nanny as “redundant” and criticizes Jillian Mayer’s hormone-releasing olfactory work for failing to “activate the space.” This critique is not only familiar, but also fails to offer a sense of vision and trajectory to its subjects. If the judges of “The Exhibit” themselves won’t even accept the show’s promise that the museum can play the role of kingmaker for a new class of artists, why should we?

Each competitor could have been awarded $100,000 for less than the production budget, and the show’s prize money doesn’t even match “Work of Art’s” inflation accounting. Baseera Khan, the most established artist of “The Exhibit”, already had a good reception solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. What can they win? The award-winning exhibition is a single work: the winner’s sixth commission for the season finale. While that’s not the “lifetime showcase of him” promised in the trailer, the show’s sanctuary is sure to be, in Pongo’s words, “career-defining.”

‘The exhibition: Finding the next great artist’

Where: mtv

When: 10:00 p.m. Friday

Transmission: smithsonianchannel.com

Classification: TV-14 (may not be suitable for children under 14)