The Enraging Banality of MTV’s “The Exhibit”

Despite the network’s proven history of engaging with contemporary art—see Andy Warhol’s mid-’80s “Fifteen Minutes” talk show, the early animation showcase “Liquid Television,” and masterpiece “RuPaul’s Drag Race”—MTV stumbles while trying to find its Next Great Artist.

The contestants. Image courtesy of MTV

On the first episode of “The Exhibit,” the MTV reality competition show set adjacent to the art world, lead judge Melissa Chiu boasts about the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the DC institution she directs and which will host the titular prize. “Some people think of us as the wild child of the Smithsonian,” she says. Then smirks. “A bit wild.” But whatever wildness it might have didn’t make it onto the canvas of “The Exhibit,” in which seven artists compete by making zeitgeisty work for a chance to win $100,000, exhibit their work at the Hirshhorn, and earn the title of “the next great artist.”

The show had talent. Take Frank Buffalo Hyde, an accomplished painter leading the way in an “Indigenous renaissance”; zany maker Misha Kahn, a wizard with VR and inflatables; and show winner Baseera Khan, already a bona fide star. They and four other contestants readily faced each week’s challenge (or “commission”) with concepts and supplies. They made friends and fought a little, but offered little evidence of coming out of the experience changed.

The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC

As a host, Chiu was prim but up for a few scrapes: take a remarkably unembarrassing debate with painter and NFT-booster Kenny Schachter over the role of beauty in the success of an artwork (She felt it didn’t have one, mostly.) These brief minutes were both the highlight of the series and an illustration of why “The Exhibit” failed.

Reality television has proven adept at staging craft competitions and has platformed the queer theater and performance art traditions of drag with such revolutionary vibrancy that Republicans are literally trying to make them felonies. It has also established new critical frameworks. On the drag competition show “Dragula,” which consistently platforms more adventurous artmaking than “The Exhibit” ever managed to, hosts Dracmorda Boulet and Swanthula Boulet begin each judge’s panel with a manifesto: “We are not here to judge your drag,” they say. “Drag is art and art is subjective. What we are judging you on is your drag as it relates to this competition.” On “Drag Race,” the best drag is also entirely subjective—basically, it’s whatever pleases RuPaul at any given moment.

“The Exhibit” established no such internal framework for success. Chiu gives lip service to the criteria of “originality, quality of execution, and concept of work,” but does not explain how the artists she namechecks, including multiple mentions of Ai Weiwei, meet them. Hirshhorn trustee and guest judge Keith Rivers repeatedly states that art is something that changes your life, but nobody ever explains just how, or establishes why it must. Digital strategist and guest judge JiaJia Fei twice insisted that she most likes art that most “looked like art.” Chiu says art “makes us think and feel.” The banality is enraging at a time when art forms including literature and drag are under attack and public funding for art has evaporated.

To make “The Exhibit” work, MTV should have courage in its convictions and be able to share them. If the art world can’t quickly and clearly communicate why some art works and some doesn’t—if it can’t argue that contemporary art, despite decades of mainstream media deriding it as elitist or worse, is valuable and that its values can be shared—those who think art is only a force for evil will succeed in canceling more than “The Exhibit” itself. 

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