Anyone curious about the identity of the next great artist will surely want to tune in to the new TV reality series, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.

In last night's debut, host and judge China Chow (ranked #54 on the Maxim list of the Hot 100 Women of 2001) welcomed a gaggle of artists who will be pitted against each other as they claw for celebrityhood. In the first phase of the competition, Chow told the artists how to create "a successful portrait."

"Chow: show the inner essence of the subject"

Art lover Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex in the City) then exhorted the competitors to "be brave."

But nothing quite compared to the the moment when the oleaginous, double breasted Simon de Pury, described as a "leader in the international art world," purred inappropriately over a nude portrait of a contestant half his age ("I seenk eet loooks vehreee appeeling").

The cumulative effect reminded me of Ambrose Bierce's observation,"So scurvy a crew I do not remember to have discerned in vermiculose conspiracy outside the carcass of a dead horse."

It's not like we didn't smell this state of affairs coming. Mid-way through the 20th century, artist Raphael Soyer looked ruefully over his shoulder at the path fine art had recently taken:
The art world of the 1920s and 1930s was different from today's art world. Art was not the big business it has become today. It did not have the air of glitter and commercialism. Art was less sensational, reputations were not so rapidly made and lost. There were about 15 or so modest art galleries in New York, several of them filled with paintings by Eakins, Homer and Ryder. The well known, in fact, famous artists of that time-- Bellows, Sloan, Hopper-- were not celebrities.
Saul Bellow had a similar view of the way a foolish prosperity had undermined potentially serious writers:
Nowadays when a young man thinks of becoming a writer, first he thinks of his hairstyle and then what clothes he should wear and then what whiskey he's going to endorse.... The depression bred compassion and solidarity between people instead of breeding crime and antagonism. They were much less harsh or severe than in time of prosperity.
Even Soyer and Bellows didn't anticipate the path art would take. One of the contestants on Work of Art: The Next Great Artist created performance art where white males in her audience were invited to apologize for oppressing indigenous people by biting a burrito attached to her substantial hip.

Decadent, superfluous art seems especially difficult to tolerate because of what art has the potential to be. As Shakespeare noted, "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds."

But the purpose of this week's post is not to shoot fish in a barrel. There is actually an interesting point here. It is worth considering why illustration has largely escaped this type of putrefaction. Illustration admittedly has many limitations, but it also seems to contain antibodies that protect it from the decadence and self-indulgence which have infected much of the fine art field in recent decades.

The relentless efficiency of the marketplace strips illustration of a lot of potential qualities, but at the same time it seems to scrub away a lot of pretensions and illusions. Art in the service of robust commerce doesn't have as much latitude for the vices that we see on display in so many of today's temples of fine art.

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