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Television Review

Questions about art get a jolt of reality TV

Contestant Trong at work on a challenge. Contestant Trong at work on a challenge. (Barbara Nitke/Bravo)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 9, 2010

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Andy Warhol, more than anyone, probably made it inevitable that we would one day be watching sexy young hipsters making art for the TV cameras in a Manhattan studio filled with other artists, all of them competing for their 15 minutes of fame.

Warhol was a visual artist. But amazingly, until now, none of the shows that have done such a good job of fulfilling his prophecy about fame (“American Idol,’’ “Dancing With the Stars,’’ “America’s Next Top Model,’’ and so on) have been about art.

That’s just changed.

The idea that great art can be made in the context of a reality TV show may well be a travesty, an embarrassment, a joke; but “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,’’ which premieres tonight on Bravo, makes for such good TV that I’m astonished something like it hasn’t been tried before.

The show has all the necessary ingredients. It’s fast-paced, it’s mildly sexy, and you don’t have to pay too much attention to get hooked — it just sort of insinuates itself into your consciousness. It has, in China Chow, the perfect host (a former acquaintance of Warhol, she has the impassive, unsurprisable glamour of all the best Chelsea gallery assistants). Its contestants — among them a healthy smattering of babes and hunks — deftly combine the bitchy, the earnest, the cool, the shy, and the potentially unhinged.

Meanwhile, the panel of judges invites couch-bound argument with its calculated blend of insight (New York magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz), weary platitudes (curator Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn), mercenary realism (gallery owner Bill Powers), and arrogance (Saltz again). And floating over it all is the magnificently imperious presence of French collector and auction house chairman Simon de Pury. (“Sank you ssso much!’’)

We’re even treated to a special drop-in from Sarah Jessica Parker (one of the show’s executive producers), who gives the whole preposterous exercise her dewy-eyed blessing: “Be brave, be competitive, and be yourself,’’ she gushes.

The contestants are set a series of challenges. In the first episode, they have 13 hours to paint the portrait of one of their fellow contestants. It’s a clever stroke, allowing us and the contestants a way of getting to know each other in pressurized circumstances.

If everything I’ve described so far sounds like a familiar ingredient in the depressingly formulaic world of reality TV, it has to be said that “Work of Art’’ somehow rises above the formula. What makes it so engrossing is the way it brings out into the open, with brisk, unblinking efficiency, all the questions about art that most people feel too intimidated to ask.

It starts with the obvious ones: How do we judge art? Are artists like you and me, or are they different? Is success in the art world about vision and skill, is it about knowing how to sell yourself, or is it just a lottery?

Even within the first episode, the questions get more nuanced. For instance: How on earth do you go about capturing someone’s “essence’’ (as opposed to their appearance) visually, in a portrait? Is it enough to be told that an artwork is underpinned by various ideas, or does the work itself need to express those ideas? And can the process of creating a work of art be as important as the finished product?

I scribbled down a list of at least a dozen such questions the first episode nonchalantly tossed out. It was refreshing.

The whole subject of contemporary art often seems surrounded by invisible tripwires. There’s an inside and there’s an outside; and those on the inside often protect themselves from the task of explaining it to those on the outside by feigning superiority. “Work of Art’’ makes great play with this inside/outside dynamic by simply striding right through those invisible tripwires.

In his brilliant book “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again),’’ Warhol said that at a certain point he stopped feeling emotions; instead of caring for people, he was fascinated by them. That describes more or less exactly where we are in our culture today. “Work of Art,’’ as well as any other reality TV show, taps into our need to be fascinated without the inconvenience, the risk, of further emotional investment. But curiously, within the show itself — in the tussle between Salz’s eggheaded passion and Chow’s erotic calm, and in the conflicting attitudes of the various contestants — we observe a struggle over the carcass of a deeper idea of art.

All in all, it’s fascinating — and certainly good for more than 15 minutes.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

WORK OF ART On: Bravo

Time: Tonight, 11-midnight