"Gallery Girls" Post-Mortem: What I Learned From the Art World's Bad Object
“Colossal garbage.” “Claptrap.” “Why is this in my newsfeed?” “It's a major dent in your cred as a source for art info that you bother with this crap.” “Chantal, bring your own fucking soy milk next time you're a guest in someone's home.”
These are some of comments I’ve received throughout my ongoing coverage of Bravo’s intermittently outrageous and largely dull docudrama, “Gallery Girls.” Now that the skinny girl has sung, I would like to take a moment to posit that writing about “Gallery Girls” might not be the biggest insult to the sanctity of the art world and art journalism.
This year has been the Year of the Girl: The over-sharing Brooklynites of “Girls,” the cutesy antics of “The New Girl,” the swan song of “Gossip Girl,” the comedic sputtering of “Two Broke Girls,” the gendered minefields of #ShitGirlsSay and #WhiteGirlProblems. The titular girls of “Gallery Girls” — Angela, Claudia, Chantal, Maggie, Amy, Kerri, and Liz — mirror a lot of tropes of their Girl neighbors. The contrived Brooklyn vs. Manhattan class war is straight out of the world of “Gossip Girl.” Lines such as, “Like, don't get béchamel sauce all over my clothes,” and, “You smell like a big condom” echo the frivolous chatter of #ShitGirlsSay.
But while “Gallery Girls” semi-successfully capitalized on this new fascination with girldom (and the comedic potential of vagina humor), it also missed an opportunity. Super-collector spawn Liz never metastasized into the delicious bitch we hoped her to be (though, luckily, the impish Chantal picked up some of the slack). Asian art dealer Eli Klein, and his signature used car salesman charm, regrettably fell into the background after a few episodes. This, you could say, is reality reasserting itself in this reality show, since real people aren’t actually stock villains. Still, most of the personal conflicts felt excruciatingly forced.
By and large, the art world response to the show has been one of hysterical disidentification and disavowal. Newsweek’s Blake Gopnik’s frenzied pre-debut assessment (“Gallery Girls Misrepresents the New York Art World”) pretty much spelled out the art media’s collective thesis in advance: “I’ve spent years living on planet art-world,” says Gopnik, “and I couldn’t see any trace of it in a program that’s supposed to be set there… Your average intern at a major gallery has written an honors thesis on ‘Alterity and Othering in the Performative Self: 1963–1967.’ Whereas our Kerri’s engagement with timeless aesthetic concerns extends to such statements as ‘I want to work with boutique hotels, but I don’t have the art background.’”
Piper Marshall’s smart Artforum essay reiterated Gopnik’s point, while intelligently teasing out a feminist critique: “Gallery Girls offers up a devastating model for future generations: the Stepford gallerist…their ‘struggle’ to find a fledgling voice is broadcast to the masses. But these aren’t the Paula Coopers, Barbara Gladstones, or Florence Bonnefous of the art world — women whose acumen and sensibilities built institutions.”
Paula Coopers, they aren’t. But Marshall argues that the young women of Gallery Girls are exploited victims, “marinated, grilled, and served up to a hungry public.” She doesn’t allow for the possibility that appearing on a reality show may be a shrewd business stunt in a relentlessly image-driven art world (in the case of the EOC women), or even a launching pad for a job (see the curious case of Amy Poliakoff).
The overwhelming response to “Gallery Girls” is a little precious, as if being offended by "Gallery Girls" were a shortcut to asserting ones own authenticity and sense of place in the “real art world.” Did anyone really expect a Bravo reality drama to be a sober ethnography of the New York art world? The art world has long been subject to caricature and misrepresentation in pop culture, where it’s used as a catch-all signifier for urbanity and glamour, and/or pseudo-intellectualism and pretentiousness. It was used as a sounding board for New Yorker affectation in “Manhattan” (see the scene where Diane Keaton talks about the “marvelous negative capability” of a steel cube), the domain of a Sapphic cabal of power lesbians in “Sex in the City,” an ivory tower of cartoonish white privilege in Waka Flaka Flame’s recent video for “I Don’t Really Care.”
Does “Gallery Girls” do a better or worse job of representing how art really works than these examples? For all of its cooked-up bromides, abortive attempts at artspeak, planted characters, and manufactured personal conflicts, “Gallery Girls” does reveal some small truths (and perhaps some unflattering ones) about the world of art. As much as we may all want to pretend that we work in a bohemian meritocracy governed by benevolent gallerists and curators, the beautiful dilettantes who are more interested in downing free wine at openings than in figuring out the curatorial thesis of Documenta 13, the daily tedium of so much gallery work, the tiresome parade of fairs and openings and cocktail hours in an event-driven art economy, the downwardly mobile class of privileged liberal arts grads, the ubiquity of unpaid labor represented in “Gallery Girls” are not altogether unrecognizable. It's easy get sanctimonious about how little art or artists matter in the “Gallery Girls” televerse, but when was the last time you heard anyone talk about art at a gallery opening?
The pop culture view of art and art’s view of itself are not totally divergent; the fantasy feeds the reality and vice versa. After all, it is that fantasy view that that leads many people to the field in the first place. “I grew up watching Sex in the City,” says Angela, explaining her art aspirations in the very first episode. The critics will say that Angela is a doofus, with no credibility — but do you really think that loads of young woman aren’t drawn to work in art galleries because of “Sex and the City”? Do you think there aren’t Angelas out there?
On September 18th, Bravoratings.com reported that “Gallery Girls” was averaging 590,500 viewers per episode. As a point of comparison, last year’s blockbuster museum exhibition, “The Magical World of Escher” at the Centro Cultural Banco de Brazil attracted a total of 573,691 viewers. More people watch “Gallery Girls” on a bad Monday night than the most popular museum exhibition of 2011. Rather than rail against the veracity of “Gallery Girls” and expel it like some Kleinian bad object, might it be more productive to ponder its accidental critique?