"Work of Art," autobiography, and inspiration

This summer I've been watching Bravo's Work of Art, which is a reality TV show dedicated to finding "the next great artist." It's both ridiculous and engrossing. If you haven't seen it, Work of Art is basically like Project Runway, except instead of clothing, the contestants make art. Next Wednesday is the finale, and I'm really curious to see what kind of show the three finalists put on.

A few themes crop up in every episode of Work of Art: inspiration, process, and autobiography. What's interesting to me is that these are the themes that crop up all the time when I'm interviewed about writing. I can't count the number of times I've been asked where I get my inspiration, or to talk about my writing process. I'm also amazed at how repeatedly I'm asked if Ash is autobiographical.

I know that lots of people are fascinated by artists. I think there really is something magical and mysterious-seeming about the act of creating something meant to be art, whether it's a painting or a sculpture or a novel or a poem. And I admit that I've been completely fascinated by watching these reality show contestants make their art on television.

Are their final products good? I don't know. Some of them are, but they mostly suffer from the thing that reality TV derives most of its drama from: time constraints. I think that it's certainly possible to create on deadline (I've done it many times), but if your aim is to make something that is multi-layered and complicated, you can't always rush it. Ideas take time to settle, and sometimes they turn into something totally different than what you started with.

What's most intriguing to me about Work of Art is the fact that these artists go through a kind of speeded-up version of the creative process. Every challenge, they're given a day or two to make something loosely inspired by a vague theme such as "nature" (Episode 9) or "male/female" (Episode 8). Each episode, the artists grapple with this snippet of inspiration and try to wrangle it into something physical: a statue, a photograph, a weird art installation involving nails and bleach. And each artist seems to channel that snippet of inspiration through their autobiography. There's a scene in pretty much every episode in which one of the artists muses about how he or she can focus that idea through their own experience, whether it's of being obsessive-compulsive, or of being leered at by men, or of growing up in an art commune.

It struck me that autobiography, here, is presented as practically the end-all-be-all of inspiration. Maybe this is because it's a reality show, and reality TV focuses heavily on the personalities of the cast. But in actual, real-world reality, I don't think that autobiography is everything.

I think that the artists on the show are actually trying to take an externally imposed idea (e.g., male/female) and make it their own. It seems as though the concept is then refracted through their personal experience, but I don't think that the end result is actually autobiographical — at least not all the time.

In Episode 8, contestant Jaclyn Santos, who has become known during the show for her nude self-portraits, painted an image of a woman masturbating to represent "female" in the male/female binary. (Her teammate, Miles, made an installation representing "male.") During the critique, one of the critics actually asked her if she had ever masturbated standing up. She seemed stunned and bemused by the question, but ultimately said, "Sure, yeah."

The thing is, what does it matter if she's done that before? I think a lot of the time we read an artist's autobiography in their work, but that's not always an accurate reading. In that episode, Jaclyn started off by photographing herself nude, and then making a painting from that photograph. She covered up the photos with draperies while she was painting because she didn't want others to see images of her naked. I remember one of the artists wondering why she bothered, because everyone was going to see her naked in the painting in the end, anyway.

[Edited to add: On Jaclyn's official blog, she states that she hung the draperies in order to protect her painting from the flying sawdust in the studio, not because she was embarrassed.]

I disagree, though. By the time the photos — which definitely were of her body — had been translated into a painting, the image was no longer of Jaclyn. She had no self-consciousness showing the nude painting, unlike the photos, because the painting was not of her. It was a painting of a concept of "female." Whether or not she personally had ever done the act depicted in the painting was pretty much irrelevant and only revealed that the person who asked the question was thinking with parts other than his brain.

My experience as a writer, working alone at my desk, is obviously very different from the experiences of the cast of Work of Art. But in the autobiography theme, I see an interesting parallel. I do think that personal experience is important in being a writer. I think the best preparation for becoming a writer is having a life. But that doesn't mean that one uses those experiences directly in one's work.

For me, at least, all of my experiences become tools that I use in the service of telling a story. The feelings that are written down on the page in a novel may have been felt by me, but probably not in the situation or context presented in the novel. I'm kind of bemused by these questions, as well, because if I wanted to write an autobiography, I would. I've written autobiographical essays before, and someday I might very well want to write a memoir. ((Of course, a memoir wouldn't necessarily be "real," either, but I digress ...))

Anyway, I'm not sure if I really have a point here, except that I've been hooked on this show. The prurient interest in Jaclyn's personal experiences aside, it's the first time I've ever seen the creative process depicted this way on television. It's packaged for a reality TV audience, sure, but even with that frame around it, I think there are some truths in there about making art, and about finding inspiration.

I feel as though the lesson of the series (if you're looking for lessons), is that inspiration is a slippery beast, and sometimes it wriggles out of your grasp and escapes entirely, but sometimes, if you keep working at it, something unexpected comes out and sticks to the wall in the end. It's not really such a bad lesson.