On The Inevitable Pettiness Of Creative Work

By Noah Berlatsky

As all fans of Project Runway know, the winner of Season 8 in 2010 was a travesty, a farce, a scandal. Gretchen Jones, insufferable neurotic control freak and designer of bland earth-tone hippie-ware, unaccountably defeated Mondo Guerra and his joyfully clashing prints. Immaculate show mentor Tim Gunn later said in despair that the judges were “smoking crack.” Some fans wailed that the season had been rigged, and that the integrity of the show was compromised.

When I binge-watched the season recently, I thought Mondo should have won too. But I understood why he didn’t. During the early judging, designer Michael Kors and Marie Claire fashion editor Nina Garcia told Gretchen to polish her styling, and take a step away from her earthy aesthetic. She did so, noting that she was going to give the judges what they wanted, regardless of her own preferences. The judges also told Mondo to back off on his prints, and in particular to cut the sleeves off a fabulous body-hugging gown with a circle pattern. Mondo thought this advice was dumb, and stuck to his sleeves.

And so, surprise surprise, the judges went with Gretchen, who diluted her vision for them, and penalized Mondo, who refused to compromise.

It’s easy to sneer at those who sell out and the people who reward them for it. In most fictional presentations of the creative process, sticking to your own avant-garde vision is almost always presented as a moral necessity, rewarded on a cosmic scale, if not always with immediate funds. In Basquiat (1996) or Pitch Perfect (2012), left-field genius (in highbrow painting or gauche accapella harmonizing) is acknowledged as genius, and (through victory or canonization) wins the day. And when art doesn’t win the day, as in Barton Fink (1991), that’s presented as a bleak, gothic, soul-destroying nightmare.

On Project Runway, artistic compromise is not a nightmare — just a mundane, everyday reality. This is much more true to my experiences as a working writer than any Hollywood version of events. If you want to get anything at all into print, you have to take the sleeves off your piece when the editors say, “take off the sleeves.”

Sometimes you can write something unusual and unexpected — but in general, whenever I finish something and think excitedly, “I can’t believe a mainstream site is going to print this and pay me!” it means I’ve been too clever, and the editors are going to reject it. If you want to get published, you suually need to give the editors a news hook, and/or a thesis that can be summarized neatly in a punchy, click-worthy headline. “This Thing Is Horrible!” will work. “This Thing Is Awesome!” can work too. “This Thing Has Good and Bad Bits, and Is Overall Okay!” — back to the drawing board.

Making a living as a writer isn’t about reaching deep inside and accessing your true, unique self. It’s about jumping through a series of hoops. If I could be paid to do anything at all, I’d maybe write children’s books about Ice Age kangaroos, or watch all the rape/revenge films there are and write a book about them. Or maybe I’d write a book about Project Runway. Who knows? But you can’t get paid to do anything at all — so you say, okay, I’ll change the styling, and write 1,000-word think pieces about Jessica Jones or Beyoncé.

And you know, I like Jessica Jones and Beyoncé. Writing think pieces about them is not a fate worse than death. For that matter, there’s a long, illustrious tradition of artists giving the public, and/or their patrons, what they want. Dickens wrote long novels because serialized long novels were what the market demanded. Shakespeare flattered King James, and royalty in general, which is why the usurpers in his plays are always the bad guys. Gainsborough painted the local bourgeoisie because the local bourgeoisie were paying the bills. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg is working on Jessica Jones because Marvel superheroes are all the rage.

Everybody’s artistic vision is constrained by time and place and what the judges and/or the public think. If a hack is anyone who cuts off their dress sleeves, then every artist you’ve ever heard of, practically, is a hack — even Mondo, who did trim the sleeves when Heidi Klum wore an altered version of the dress on the red carpet.

Project Runway critics, not to mention the designers themselves, often complain about the show’s arbitrary time constraints and ridiculous challenges — making dresses out of candy, or making outfits for the postal service, or designing a dress for $15. For that matter, most designers don’t even have to do their own sewing. Why should people on PR be penalized so harshly just because they’re not great seamsters or seamstresses?

But the truth is that creative work, like any work, is often about arbitrary hoops, stupid rules, and the questionable concepts, preferences, and deadlines of gatekeepers. I wish Mondo had won season 8. But I love the way that Project Runway captures the pettiness of creative work, and the way that so many aspects of making art are about catering, not to your own creative inner spirit, but to someone else’s predictable or inscrutable preferences.

The great thing about art, often, isn’t that it’s an expression of your true self, or your pure vision. It’s that sometimes, despite the fact that nobody cares about your pure vision, or even because nobody cares, you end up making something beautiful.

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Lead image: flickr/Dwayne Bent