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Competition Series The Exhibit Makes a Fascinating Attempt to Define Art

In this art world series, nobody pretends to be objective.
  • Baseera Khan, a competitor on The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist (Photo: MTV)
    Baseera Khan, a competitor on The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist (Photo: MTV)

    Dresses fit or they don’t. A high note is flat or it isn’t. These are solid, dependable facts, and they’re an integral part of reality competition shows about creative professionals. When it’s time for judges to choose the winner of a season (or viewers to root for a favorite), it helps to have this kind of objective criteria. We might not agree on whether a baker’s bread sculpture is beautiful, but there’s no arguing with a soggy bottom.

    But there’s nothing so certain in The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist. Co-produced by MTV and The Smithsonian Channel, the series features seven visual artists competing for a solo exhibition at The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, but it’s not like they’re sewing skirts in order to win. They’re painting canvases or building sculptures, then asking a panel of judges to decide if their pieces qualify as art. This is a disorienting premise, and it makes the show incredibly interesting.

    The series never stops acknowledging that art is subjective. In fact, this idea comes up so much in the two episodes screened for critics that it’s like an existential refrain. In the premiere, when the artists are asked to make a piece “about gender,” host Dometi Pongo explicitly says that gender is a fluid concept that can’t be pinned down. Unsurprisingly, the resulting works are about as similar as handbags and hand grenades, ranging from humorous sculptures to autobiographical paintings to abstract collages. All of the artists get time to explain what they’re going for, and the judges, including Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu, sometimes see something altogether different.

    It’s fascinating to hear how the artists and the experts talk about the work, just as it was on similar predecessors like Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist and Oxygen’s Street Art Throwdown. On The Exhibit, all the participants manage to speak thoughtfully without sounding pretentious, and anyone who’s spent five minutes in an MFA program can tell you that doesn’t always happen. Casual viewers may even pick up some tools for appreciating modern art, or at least understanding their own responses. And that’s another great thing: Because the work can only be judged subjectively, the episodes give us plenty of time to look at the pieces. We’re invited to be at-home critics, cheering for or arguing with whatever has been made.

    To that end, nobody gets kicked off, with all seven artists making work for the entire season. (This is a notable difference from the earlier Bravo series, which also awarded a museum exhibition, but eliminated a competitor every week.) That mitigates some of the pressure on the judges, who can assess an entire body of pieces when they pick a winner. It also lets the audience get a more robust understanding of what these sculptors and painters can do. Otherwise, though, The Exhibit is structured exactly like Project Runway and its many descendants. Chiu, for example, is both a judge and a mentor, walking through the room to ask questions and provide feedback before the weekly presentation. At the end of each episode, the judges get in a huddle to choose a challenge winner, making impassioned statements about what they like or hate. Meanwhile, the contestants fret that they don’t have time to finish their projects, and they have the typical hang-ups about who should win, who doesn’t have enough training, and how winning the competition can justify their sacrifices.

    There’s an element of performance art here, as the familiar rhythms of a reality competition butt against the mysteries of what makes a successful artwork. When the sculptors form a little clique, identifying themselves as the cool kids, it plays like self-aware commentary. These people might be trying to tease out the meaning of the world around them, but they can be just as venal as everyone else.

    That points to the show’s most compelling contribution. For some people, modern art might seem forbidding or strange, and it’s sadly quite easy to get through a year without encountering it in a meaningful way. But by putting modern art into the same container that holds shows about clothes, food, and singing, The Exhibit is inherently arguing that this work can be legible to a general audience. By filtering this discipline through the familiar lens of two-day challenges and testimonial interviews, the series may encourage more people to realize that we’ve all got what it takes to care about, think about, and talk about art.

    The Exhibit: Finding The Next Great Artist premieres Friday, March 3 at 9:00 PM ET on MTV and Tuesday, March 7 at 9:00 PM ET on The Smithsonian Channel. New episodes air Fridays on MTV and Tuesdays on The Smithsonian Channel.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist, MTV, The Smithsonian Channel, Dometi Pongo, Melissa Chiu