Pitting artists against one another is inherently disobeying an unofficial moral code. This code entails that art is subjective, that the viewer and creator form their own opinions on a work. In today’s art competition TV shows, art is “objectively” judged based on qualities such as creativity or craftsmanship. On these shows, art is ridiculed and made out to be better or worse, when in reality, the quality of the art should personally be determined by the viewer.
A show that has gained a lot of traction recently is called The Great Pottery Showdown, and it features this exact type of objective art judgment. Potters compete against one another to get the best rating from a panel of judges, based on certain criteria. The judges can also downvote craftsmanship based on the most specific qualifications. In episode 1 of season 4, a contestant named Lee is told that his cheese dish could have been slightly taller, allowing for more food. This messaging tells young artists that they will be criticized in a one-size-fits-all standard and should adhere to the mainstream, otherwise they will not be considered great. Instead, art is a message to be interpreted, not a book of guidelines or rules.
Another show that highlights why competitive art as entertainment leads to unrealistic expectations was Works of Art: The Next Great Artist. Unlike other content in this genre, this show held competitions for artists who work in many different mediums — performance artists, painters, photographers, and others. This variety, while interesting to watch play out, was inherently tilted in the direction of one medium. For example, in episode 1 of season 1, contestants were given an assignment to make a portrait of another competitor. How might the performance artist create a portrait while salvaging the technical integrity of the piece? While it can be done, it is silly to expect every form of art to be able to compete with one another.
Expecting different artists of the same medium to compete against one another runs into a similar type of issue. People have different ways of communicating meaning, and tailoring perceptions of beauty and skill to a standard is impossible. If you faced a cubist against a realist in the early 1900s, of course the realist would be considered better. Objective art judgment has changed with the trends of the time and the perspective of the viewer. Therefore, examining art will always be a subjective activity.
In American society, the idea that capitalism breeds innovation emphasizes the artificial need to be the best at whatever it is you may be pursuing. If you are not the best — or rather, the most commercially successful or rich — you will be swept away by better, more innovative companies. This idea has been translated into the world of art, which is abundantly clear based on these kinds of competitive art shows.
Are the trials and tribulations of going head to head with another artist making people better at their art? Does this competition foster an environment for creativity and experimentation? The answer is no, because it instead provides entertainment, yet takes away the truly beautiful side of the creation of art.