The Jeffrey Deitch television venture Artstar has received a lot of hype for a show that is one of the last to jump on the reality band wagon. There are a lot of good reasons for this though because in theory it has the potential to be one of the few recent artistic endeavors that legitimately bridges the gap between the public and the art world that has come with the rise of modernism(+). If successful, Artstar would help make the profession more accessible to the public, work to place the artistic practice of emerging artists within a historical context and provide a critique of reality television while nurturing the careers of the cast members.
It’s anyone’s guess what the next episodes are to bring, but the first has proven to be a large scale disappointment even by the enjoyably low standards set by trashy television. This is a shame because in as much as one can tell from the footage selected and the number of highly intelligent professionals who were asked to participate in the project, it seems the material must have been present to put something much more engaging together. The show is full of cliche commentary on the art world – most of which is provided by Jeffrey Deitch himself, and suffers from such basic problems as decent scenic transitions. Further more, while most of us are aware that this is also a giant Deitch Project venture in gallery promotion, it reads as slightly disingenuous not to acknowledge this aspect of the production while simultaneously attempting to give the show more noble intentions by calling it a reality documentary. Unlike television that legitimately qualifies as such, Artstar provides no “disinterested voice of narration” (as is done in the very successful Frontier House, Colonial House etc), and no supporting shots of canonical artists that are mentioned throughout the course of the episode, though it does use an excessive amount of interview footage of the gallery owner. Some of this commentary is filled with obvious ploys to plug Deitch Projects including one attempt to make the tenuous connection between the work of Keith Haring (a show that was up during the audition call), and Artstar. The fact that Haring might have had a television show were he alive as Deitch suggests, is a thin commonality at best to be drawing and is the art equivalent to the giant Nokia product placement in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy*. The real message here is clear: We can buy the work of Keith Haring from Deitch Projects.
Following a formula made popular by American Idol, the first episode of Artstar features the work of many of the hopeful artists auditioning their work at Deitch Projects in what can best be described as a portfolio review. As is mentioned by one of the judges, many of these artists set out to defy convention but do so in very conventional ways. Predictably, there are countless applicants with large numbers of piercings, matchy-matchy outfits, and oversized sunglasses who have all brought art that somehow matches their clothes (another observation about artists applied broadly by one of the judges). Unending shots of bad art are featured, perhaps the most memorable being the keyboard-piano-penis-collage which was apparently inspired by a dream. This artist never did identify which art movement she connected her art to. In another scene an androgynous performance artist makes his art by “feeling” and closes his eyes and lets his marker flow over his Bristol board. It’s impossible not to laugh while watching this footage, a humor that would appear to be lost on the film makers since this footage was butted by the very serious commentary of Jeffrey Deitch.
One of the more interesting aspects of this show for insiders will be that many of the New York art scenes more active emerging artists such as Eric Doeringer and Trong Nguyen made the first cut, but their combined footage in this first show equaled 30 seconds at best. There are a number of questions that one might ask about this, such as did the judges choose artists whom they thought might stand to benefit more from the experience, is the exclusion of artists whose careers could potentially take off in the next couple of years something they did not want to necessarily highlight, was the footage they had of these artists simply not that exciting? Thankfully, I had the discussion moderator and Museum of the Moving Image staff member to rephrase this question for me, so when I asked about the rational that was behind this decision making and he turned to the panelists and said “So what was the conspiracy behind the editing?” Now, it’s not like I came wearing my t-shirt that reads “Hi I write a catty art blog, and intend to eat your young“, nor did I ask a particularly aggressive question, so this is not a response that was warranted or deserved. Even after explaining that this was not what I meant, the reply I got from the panelist was something along the lines of “The editors did a very good job“. Even if this was the case, this was not an answer to a question I had posed.
There must have been asshole in the air that evening because similarly when the woman beside me asked for comment on the relative quietness of the female judge on their panel, Jeffrey Deitch replied coolily, “There was no casting of judges, it was simply who was in our circle of friends“. Now, in a theatre that holds probably 200-300 people, it can be difficult to call someone on evasive and blatantly untrue statements. But that’s what blogs are for, so let me address this matter here. Since when does anyone just randomly choose the most high profile of their friends to participate in a TV show? We all have plenty of great and talented friends, but no one is blindly picking their friends to participate in a business venture. This is what is widely regarded as a stupid practice.
In the end, the eight artists chosen seem to be mostly interesting, (potential exceptions to this being the girl whose clothes were more engaging to the judges than her work, and the old dude whose art was excellent in a derivative Henry Moore kind of way). I suspect we are for the most part past the point of watching “desperate artists doing their best to flatter art world honchos as they watch their dignity being stabbed out like a stale cigarette“, though plenty of potential exists for gay assignments so who knows. From here we will get to see the artists collaborate on some art project, and presumably through a series of challenges or points awarding, the producers will somehow determine the winner of the Deitch Project solo show. The artists are smart, so assuming the Jeffrey Deitch footage can be kept in check, there might still be something worth watching here. I’m not saying to count on it though.
*In this movie we are graced with a shot of a giant Nokia phone that fills the entire screen as it floats away into space. (Notably this film also inspired the comment “I thought Aliens vrs Predator 2 was the worse movie ever made…until now.)