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Work of Art (Andrew Eccles/Bravo)
Work of Art (Andrew Eccles/Bravo)

Lynn Crosbie

When pop culture becomes pop art Add to ...

“The only rule in art is what works. And none of your pieces did.”

This is what host China Chow – seemingly chosen for her passionate relationship with whimsical haute couture – says to the challengers on the elimination block in Bravo’s show Work of Art.

And it’s a good point. This year’s big pop events may have seemed important as they happened, but did they work? In Chow’s words, did they “create a true work of art”? Of pop art?

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If pop art is, as critic Lucy Lippard argues, a “conceptual triumph,” then most of the celebrity events of the year fall short.

This year, while pointedly disdaining the Muppets, Woody Allen, Harry Potter, Adele and Oprah’s never-ending departure as hopelessly low-middlebrow banalities, I choose, as stars, the following people/pop phenomena, in increasing order of intrigue and importance.

1) Work of Art. One must give executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker credit for attempting to fuse fine art and reality TV. Parker’s role on and behind the show is now well-defined: She appears to be the wealthy dilettante, something like Grace Kelly in her middle age, making and selling collages of dried flowers or reciting poetry in a flowing caftan.

Better than Parker’s belief in art is the amazing pseudo-event that is her reality TV show, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. The contestants are given little assignments each week (Make folk art! Re-imagine outsider art!) and ritually excoriated by a newly virile art critic Jerry Salz (“I’m gonna get medieval on you!” he snarled at one contestant), gallery owner Bill Powers and one floating guest artist per week.

The artists are vilified, hilariously, for not being authentic enough, not having chosen the idea to start with, and possibly not giving credence to the idea that “truth” and confession are the only criteria for great art. Better still, when the best artist, Young Sun Han, caved and made a wrenchingly personal exhibit for his final show, he lost. It was a bit of a heartbreaker, like watching a rigged carnival game, yet between the pompous art-speak and the contestants’ terrible confusion lies a very good attempt to show mainstream fine art as something else for all of us to talk about, foolishly, erroneously, and with constant reference to the word “disconnect.”

2) Glee, the Impending Disaster. The satirical and anxiously earnest dramedy is in freefall. Why? I blame all of the singing and dancing, and the played-out characters (Jane Lynch’s and Matthew Morrison’s in particular). Yet, as it starts to crash and burn, it is also starting to take emotional risks rarely seen on television. The big virginity-loss episode (featuring a gay male and straight couple) was tenderly beautiful; the show continued to produce moments of such naked, stabbing sentimentality that it seemed like a knife raised at our cold, cynical hearts.

3) Pippa Middleton. Her gorgeous, toothsome backside sashaying behind her sister’s scrawnier body stole the Royal Wedding, spawning gifs and memes and fan sites that still post stolen glimpses of the gluteus maximus. If Kate and William’s union promised to restore some much-needed decorum to the Windsors, Pippa’s swinging bottom reassured us that she will, single-handedly if she must, bring sexy back as well.

4) Lindsay Lohan. She named her clothing line 6126, cryptically after Marilyn Monroe. Several years ago and her galaxy of freckles aside, she posed quite convincingly as Marilyn on the cover of New York magazine. And this year, on the verge of being dismissed as a celebrity pariah (after ongoing criminal and legal troubles and no legitimate work), she body-slammed us all by posing for Playboy in the manner of Monroe’s iconic shots for the same magazine.

And what photographs they are: The starlet looks twice her age, and radiantly trashy, with waist-length brassy blonde-hair; a creamy, eerie complexion and a starved-thin body topped by two natural-looking listing assets. These are hot shots, like the unknown queen of the streets as envisioned by Nan Goldin and a maker of tacky calendars. If any publicity is good publicity, dirty and louche publicity is the best of all, as is the true (complex, daring, awful) art that drives it.

5) Charlie Sheen. He walked the plank after a summer of living like a pirate, and tried to make amends with the “trolls” he reviled to us in interviews, on weblogs and at sold-out concerts. And worse, he praised the comically worthless Ashton Kutcher . Still, when asked to produce a Work of (pop) Art, the Sucklord (far and away the most current and original of that show’s aspirants) went right to Sheen and his carnival of blood, black magic and goddesses.

Sheen’s meltdown slash one-man-wrathful-labour-strike was the pop event of the year. It worked, and it keeps working, as it falls apart and becomes a different story, about the demise of authenticity, something pop artists predicted years ago: “Those who talk about individuality the most,” Andy Warhol observed, “are the ones who most object to deviation.”

We once loved Sheen for being himself, and he shared our admiration. He was a complete deviant – last summer the Niagara Falls Criminals Hall of Fame wax museum sold Sheen T-shirts alongside images of Charles Manson. And he was a true artist, the maker of a conceptual triumph.

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