The purported concept of Work Of Art is a meritocracy, which for the most part is how it plays out. I’ll say for the sake of argument that the merit of the artists’ work is responsible for a solid 85 percent of how the game proceeds. Miles is the only artist, though, who’s playing the other 15 percent, by mugging for the cameras, currying the attention of the judges, inventing new character quirks each week, etc. Everyone else is playing within the spirit of the game; Miles is working the game. His goal is to make himself indispensable to the production.
This is nothing new to reality TV, but Miles is pretty good at it, which is enjoyable to watch. The other fun thing is that none of the other contestants appear to care about building their characters, which is rare for a reality TV show in 2010. Nobody respects the spirit of the game on a show like this anymore—everyone works all the angles—except for these artists. (It reminds me of the first season of Survivor, when practically everyone aside from Richard Hatch seemed so very innocent.) The only other person who has given off the stink of playing a character was Nao, and she tired of her villain shtick after a week or two.
Most of the artists appear to be overwhelmed enough with the task of producing compelling artwork each week. They don’t want to play a game where they also have to construct an elaborate character for TV. Miles threatens to ruin that for them, which is the root of why people like Erik and Mark despise him. Another big factor is that Miles would outshine them even if he didn’t resort to stunts, which must make his shenanigans all the more galling.
Of course, the makers of Work Of Art could defuse Miles’ strategy by declining to indulge him with screen time and storylines. The people in the control room ought to have ultimate control—that’s why the room is called that. In an unscripted format, though, they often don’t, because a canny contestant like Miles presents a package too enticing for them to resist.
Issues of control, especially as they concern Miles, were the focal point of this episode, Work Of Art’s best yet. While the first team challenge devolved into pettiness, this week's pairs format created some fascinating personality clashes. Each team of two had to create separate but complementary works that explored themes of conflict: male/female, chaos/order, heaven/hell.
Jaclyn said in a testimonial that she was happy to work with Miles on the male/female project but worried because he had a tendency to implant his ideas in other people’s heads. She was going to resist that, she insinuated, like a deer insisting it was not going to look into those bright, shiny, beautiful, oh-wow-they're-getting-bigger-by-the-second headlights. Miles then went to work, gently and creepily bullying Jaclyn into getting naked and painting a picture of herself masturbating. Then, as time ran out, he discarded those elements of her piece (like a mirror whose purpose I never fully understood) that he thought interfered with his work. For his part, he created a pair of tar-covered walls through which he put his fist a couple times.
The insane topper is that Miles did all of this while convincing Jaclyn that she was creating a work about a female asserting control. I know opinions are mixed in the comments, but from seeing some of her more recent work on the show and reading her blog, I believe Jaclyn is a thoughtful artist. That makes it all the more staggering that Miles could so effortlessly snow her like this. What’s more, he did it while also bending the show to his whims, recasting himself as the evil genius just in time for the final stretch, because of course the show will need a villain for the finale. He bragged about how easy it was for him to convince Jaclyn to remove her clothes, and the producers eagerly aired it all, playing him up as a predatory shitheel. This is a guy who just a few weeks ago was reading the part of the naïf, mumbling that a cute girl like Nicole would never pay attention to him because he’s too much of a goshdarn dweeb.
There was a struggle for control on Peregrine and Mark’s team (hell/heaven), as well. Mark’s opening gambit was to ask Peregrine if she would please disrobe for their collaboration, but he failed, because Mark is no Miles. Peregrine turned it right back on him: she wanted to photograph Mark topless and make a work centered around his stomach scar—from emergency diverticulitis surgery when he was 18 years old. Mark lost the battle and acquiesced, because the only tool in his arsenal was passive aggression (“I still don’t see how my gastrointestinal problems factor into heaven and hell, but cool”) while Peregrine was motivated by a fear of what might happen if she went along with Mark’s “light vs. dark” idea and got sucked into his vortex of hacky obviousness. Well, she still got sucked in a little bit—the final piece was essentially light vs. dark—but she managed to save herself, at least.
The third team of Abdi and Nicole (order/chaos) was the only one without a power struggle, so they were relatively boring. Abdi looked tapped. He’s out of ideas, and the sleep deprivation is getting to him. His lifeless painting of a lifeless clay sculpture deserved all the flak it took from the judges. “I don’t trust your vision anymore,” Jerry said, which was painfully on-the-mark. But Abdi also deserved to stay because he’d shown that he does have a vision; he just couldn't find it at the moment. Mark earned his dismissal with a predictably literal, magazine-ad interpretation of heaven. As every season of a reality competition nears its end, there’s the one guy who makes you say, “How did he get this far?” Mark was that guy.
His dismissal was a predictable affair until what the hell China CRIED? Yes, the same China who has appeared consistently uncomfortable and uninterested since the beginning of the show. She shed actual or maybe robot tears, definitely fluid of some sort. After the shock wore off, it made sense. As passive-aggressive and uninspired as Mark was, he did overcome a great deal of self-consciousness to reveal himself on such a large scale in this challenge. In that context, his dismissal felt sort of cruel. So even though last week I was glad that Ryan didn’t cry while recounting his sad story, I’m also glad that China did show some emotion. It was the first indication in eight freaking weeks that she gives a crap about what happens on this show.
— I like all of the five artists who remain, but if I had to call the final three, I’d say Miles (the only obvious lock), Jaclyn, and Nicole. Peregrine’s work has been patchy, and Abdi has lost his mojo. I’m pulling for Abdi, though, and not really rooting against anyone.
— Ryan McGinness was trying a little too hard as the guest judge. His question to Jaclyn—“Do you masturbate standing up?”—was obnoxious.
— Also obnoxious: The montage of artists using big words, set to goofy, can-you-believe-these-assholes music. Because using words longer than two syllables to talk about art is so pretentious! (By which I mean, of course, that it is dumb and jerkbutt.)
— “Welcome to hell!”
— Ryan McGinness: “Order and chaos. How do you tackle that?” Bill: “It tackles you!”
— “A lot of times we make mistakes that we don’t know until after we’ve made them.”
— China’s dress with the bow on the belly. Yikes.
— This was posted late to the comment thread last week (by Son of Mecha Mummy), so in case you missed it: Emma Allen of ArtInfo.com conducted an interesting exit interview with Ryan, including an update on his relationship with his mother and the most specific behind-the-scenes examples yet of why the other artists hated Miles:
Well, when he would be in the studio, if he noticed he wasn’t getting any attention from the camera, he’d start throwing shit around and making a bunch of noise just to get attention. And then they’d get there and he’d be like, “Oh, this work is so... ugh. Oh, it’s so deep.” He would just put on this whole act. And then it’d be downtime, and we’d be eating, and I’d be conversing with Erik or something, and Miles would be there, mimicking us. Like totally doing really rude things. So he had this way of being either the cocky guy in the studio, slash asshole, and then when he was in front of the judges, he would sit there and almost break down into tears, and he’d start making his body shake, and all that sorts of stuff.
Also posted late to the comment thread last week: crazy Jehovah’s Witness stuff! I was so hoping the show would continue upsetting various Christian sects so that the wackiness wouldn’t have to end. (Had my fingers crossed for Oneness Pentecostalism this week.)