An art historian friend sends ranging reflections on last week’s unlikely art appreciation moment on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” (a show I’ve never seen, though I will cop to “Average Joe 2.” Hey, it can’t be all Henry James all the time, people):
Since the ludicrous finale of “Average Joe 2: Hawaii,” “The Apprentice” is now the only reality show that has me on the couch at the appointed time. I enjoy seeing all these wooden people turn against each other in the service of completing ridiculous tasks that bring to my mind the humiliation of selling band candy door-to-door when I was in junior high. The episode last week, with the competitors selling art at a gallery, managed to make room in my soul for both despair and a weird sort of elation. Despair first, of course. The assorted MBAs and “project managers” were assigned the project of selecting an artist to represent and then attempting to sell his or her work at a gallery opening. Each team chose one of two artists, and the team that made the most money in the one-night gallery hustle was the winner. Seeing these gladiators using their MBA tools to understand what they were doing was a debilitating experience. They showed up at the studios, they asked questions, they took notes. They stared blankly at the artists explaining their respective works and then came up with such insightful questions as “What would a typical price point for a work like this be?” I don’t blame them for this, of course, because it’s what they’re trained to do, but they were all so utterly adrift in the sea of genuine responsiveness that I feared for the state of cultural production as a whole. Trump put them on the wrong foot at the outset by standing on the steps of the Met telling them, in his introduction to the assignment, that all art was “subjective,” a view that they all parroted when it became clear that they were failing. Hatchet-faced Heidi misidentified a work as being constructed from a toilet seat when it was really a fireplace screen. Troy blatantly displayed his lack of knowledge as a sales pitch, as if buying, say, a car from a salesman who didn’t know anything about cars would be a good thing. Omarosa laid back and did “what people at galleries do–let the patrons experience the works on their own.” That was the smartest approach, even though it has an empirical edge to it that chills me. And she was fired at the end of the show to boot.
In the end, tonight was all sense and zero sensibility. In an era in which the reality dating shows consist of the same cliches–“I’ve never felt this way before”; “I feel you can really look inside me”; “I’m looking for The One”–I am starting to wonder if what constitutes being human now is just having a ready repertoire of stock phrases trotted out at the appropriate time. For these Apprentices, working out of the box is like speaking a click language, but I guess they don’t teach you much about sensibility in Who Moved My Cheese? Trump’s declaration of art as “subjective” gave these contestants the license to dismiss what they were selling as bottled water–last week’s assignment, by the way–only less comprehensible. So intent on proving their ambition and business-worthiness are these contestants that you wonder if there’s a genuine response out there anywhere among those who don’t hit the galleries and the museums. Or read novels or whatever. This sounds superior, and I don’t mean it to, but in the same week that Barenboim resigned from the CSO because he was tired of his “development” duties, I wonder what capacity our population has for anything that can’t be quantified.
The reason I found this cause for despair is also a reason for elation, because the works selected by the producers (or whoever) were actually worthy of a response. The artists were articulate and their works were–I’m going out on a limb here–good. Even the artists I didn’t have a particular taste for–the painter who embedded his own DNA in his bright, energetic works in the form of hairs and toenail clippings and god knows what else–had their positive qualities and they all had a thoughtful exuberance that I never thought I’d see on network tv. While one of the gallery owners fronting this scam was exhorting the Apprentices to “communicate” better with the artists, I found myself staring at the works hanging behind her in the background. The artists eventually selected were a woman doing, in a kind of John Currin idiom, a series of technically highly proficient and interesting allegories about womanhood (not usually my gig, but she won me over, and I laughed out loud when one of the Apprentices described her work as “medieval”) and a man whose abstract works–abstracted, he said, from landscapes–were gentle and spare and rich; the showcasing of these two articulate painters on primetime NBC made me believe, if only for a moment, that finally the specter of the horrendous “Contemporary Art on 60 Minutes” episode of the 1990s (or was it the 80s? God, I’m getting old) had finally disintegrated, rightfully, into dust.
To their credit, the Apprentices made the right choices for the work they were going to promote. But their utter inability to talk about the work, even if only to sell it, and their bemused indifference (“OK, I’ll try to speak a click language for an evening”) about what they were doing only consolidated the idea for me that visual art is a flummoxing agent of the highest order. And it deserves better. These works tonight deserved better, and with my enthusiasm for what I was seeing I could have outsold the Apprentices with my mouth taped shut. It wouldn’t have been hard, given the quality of the “product.” Why is enthusiasm so elusive these days?
Thanks to Our Friend on the Block (who previously opined for About Last Night here) for letting me share.