The art of public ridicule

The latest 'reality' wheeze is a show that involves the humiliation of budding artists, using a tried and tested formula from the worlds of music and dance.

A new reality show, Work of Art, is destined to follow the formula of victims and villains.
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It's been precisely 10 years since Big Brother and Survivor transformed voyeurism into a mass marketing concept. These shows operated on the principle that there is nothing people won't do when presented with the chance to acquire cash prizes and fleeting celebrity. Allied with this belief, meanwhile, was the presumption that other people would tune in to watch this stuff. Oh, how right those early pioneers turned out to be.

The past decade has seen reality game shows blossom into a multi-billion dollar industry, with the format being tortured into just about every imaginable permutation. We've had seagull-voiced singers withering under salvos of calculatedly cruel criticism. We've had mothballed celebrities munching on the larvae of exotic insects. We've had fashion designers, chefs, gardeners, dancers, financiers, gold diggers and geeks, all of them casting their dignity and moral codes aside for the benefit of the viewing public.

Taken together, these shows represent the most acute satire of 21st century life yet produced - even if this particular aspect wasn't necessarily intended. Last year, the BBC added a new twist to this already mangled genre, bringing us School of Saatchi, in which the adman and art svengali Charles Saatchi conducted a nationwide search for the next Tracy Emin or Damien Hirst. Now comes Work of Art, which premiered on Bravo last week and which, if the first episode is anything to go by, has more in common with Fear Factor than Saatchi's well-meaning, BBC Two-tinged contribution to the reality genre.

The show, brought to us by Sarah Jessica Parker's production company Pretty Matches, invites 14 hopefuls to battle it out for the title of "Next Great Artist". Along with the eternal glory such a designation suggests, the winner also receives a $100,000 (Dh367,000) prize and a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Presumably, the coming weeks will see contestants claiming that the show represents their one stab at success, the culmination of their lives' work, the chance to finally get grandma that iron lung she's been needing.

There's an understandable urge to want to grab these contestants by their shirt collars and tell them to quit their bellyaching and try doing something worthwhile. But then this sort of sofa-thumping indignation, of course, is a large part of these shows' appeal. All reality game shows aim to inspire two fundamental emotional responses in their audiences: sympathy and antipathy. We are sympathetic with contestants we admire, or to those who are so pitifully inadequate that they trigger the nurturing impulse, like baby birds that have fallen out of a tree.

The more enduring and engaging emotions, though - and what does this say about us as a species? - are anger, hatred, scorn. The history of reality game shows is littered with personalities who have excelled at eliciting the above-mentioned responses: Jade Goody, Carrie Underwood, Timmy Mallet. In this respect, the producers of Work of Art clearly know their stuff. As the first episode made patently clear, the show will provide audiences with the villains and victims they demand. Falling squarely into the pitiful category was Erik Johnson, who chose to enthrall the judges by painting - wait for it - a clown (described by one judge as being reminiscent of a John Wayne Gacy self-portrait). In the villainous corner we had the backstabbing Nao Bustamante, an outré performance artist who heaped scorn on her fellow contestants the moment the cameras started rolling. Boo! As for who might eventually fill the role of teary, Who-me? mouthing victor - well, that doesn't matter. Work of Art, as with every one of its predecessors, is a series of must-see moments that culminate in a single anti-climax. We don't really care about who wins. What we want is people being voted off, preferably with a harrowing put-down from the judges, who are in turn derided by us for being stupid or biased. Because we, too, are here to judge, which is a human predisposition. Herein lies the genius at the heart of these shows, and possibly this one in particular. The very premise of Work of Art invites a woeful shake of the head, an uttered disbelief that culture should fall so low as to make a lurid spectacle of this sacred human pursuit. The big, overarching question raised by the show, however, is this: When can we watch it here?