Contributed by Adam Simon / I only watched parts of The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist – the six-episode MTV/Smithsonian Channel reality show in which seven artists compete for an exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and $100k in prize money. Not having an MTV account, my viewing was repeatedly interrupted by ads, and I bailed after watching a few episodes. I was sorry to bail in a way because there were things I liked about The Exhibit. The artists were impressive as thinking, creative individuals and I was taken with how supportive they appeared of each other, remarkable given the stakes. If there were times of cutthroat competition, they were carefully edited out, happened off camera, or just weren’t in the bits that I saw. I’m guessing the camaraderie I witnessed was genuine. That said, there is a striking degree to which The Exhibit, as a reality TV show, resembles any other reality TV show, whether it’s American Idol, The Apprentice, or Top Chef. A quick scan shows over 400 reality TV shows listed on Wikipedia, dating back to my favorite, the British Up series in 1964.
In a sense, the producers of The Exhibit did everything and nothing to distinguish their show from all the others. An extensive search resulted in contestants that were credible as serious artists, four of the seven are persons of color and the only white male, Misha Kahn, doesn’t present as heteronormative. No one was eliminated, the contestants were given weighty themes to work with (gender, social media, the pandemic) and the interspersed interviews with the artists felt unguarded and frank. This last point made me wonder. Shouldn’t some of the artists have seemed a little bit guarded? The closest I saw to this sentiment was when Jillian Mayer jokingly responded to a question from Kenny Schacter, about how she obtained testosterone and estrogen, with “Are you a narc?”
Formally, the footage follows the usual reality TV sequencing; sequences of the artists interacting or making their work, testimonials on how they feel about the process, sequences of personal history and of the judges conferring. The camera work is typically bland, designed to reassure the viewer that this may be art but, not to worry, nothing about it is particularly strange.
I don’t know whether the producers of The Exhibit were hoping to rise above the level of most reality TV shows by focusing on the creative process and the diversity of their contestants. The fact that format trumps (do we still say this?) content — a given in the age of social media — has been true for a long time. In the 1990s I ran a series of public conversations between artists that took place in galleries in NYC. My interest stemmed from the realization that interviews are all the same. The interviewer/interviewee roles are fixed as subordinate/dominant figures. Anyone being interviewed distinctly resembles anyone else being interviewed. The opening scene in Tar is a case in point. My hope was to subvert that model; conversations, not interviews. (There is a fascinating exception to this sameness in which Jean Genet refuses to answer the questions of a BBC interviewer and instead interviews the cameraman. I once found it on You Tube but it seems to have disappeared.)
My guess is that for these mostly young artists (the oldest is Frank Buffalo Hyde at 49) there is no contradiction between a reality TV show and an exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum, they amount to the same thing, public exposure — purportedly the primary goal of any artist. The operative idea is that visual artists are not so different from contestants on America’s Got Talent and it’s pretentious to think otherwise.
At one time I would have claimed that this contradicts the experience of most artists, the majority of whom spend their working time alone, immersed in activities without a clear destination or legitimation. I would have said most artists inhabit states of mind framed by the sheer inutility of what they do, and the accompanying alienation is the price of freedom. These ideas may no longer hold. For most artists, it is enough to make the work, without worrying about the context in which it will be received. It could also be argued that artists in the past were more likely to create work that was overly cloistered or solipsistic or merely therapeutic, unlike the contestants on The Exhibit. Maybe so. Still, as important as it is for an artist to connect with their public, whether through social media or a reality TV show, can there be hidden costs to achieving that connection? What does it mean when an exhibition at the Hirshhorn is the prize on a reality TV show?
The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist. MTV and the Smithsonian Channel, 2023.
About the Author: Adam Simon is a New York artist and writer. His recent paintings combine corporate logotypes, stock photography, and tropes of Modernist design.