Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Runway Art in the Media (or how to take criticism)

I love science, but I love art too, perhaps even more.  So let’s take an integral look at media and technology, this time from an artistic and not just scientific perspective.  We’ll start with an example that I never thought I’d write about.

Image of Fashion Show, from Wikipedia

Not to perpetuate gender stereotypes, but I’m a typical guy, which means I know nothing about clothing or fashion.  One of the greatest benefits of getting married is that you have a savvy wife to tell you whether or not your tie goes with your shirt.  My wife is especially keen in this matter, because she has degrees both in Apparel Technologies and in Economics, which means she can combine quality and efficiency better than I ever could.

I only mention this because one of her favorite show right now is Project Runway, a reality TV show where fashion design contestants compete to create the best wardrobes under insane time pressure and with limited materials.  The show is hosted by the famous Heidi Klum, who judges the contests with three other judges.  Now although I have very little interest in fashion design, I found the show pretty entertaining.

Here’s a little taste of one of its past seasons:

A striking characteristic about the show is how evidently you can identify bluff from expertise.  Even I, knowing next to nothing about fashion design, can usually predict which contestants will be eliminated and which will win.

Another interesting thing about the show is how quickly an eliminated contestant will complain about the judges not understanding his or her art.  Those judges, they just don’t understand me, my aesthetic!” an eliminated contestant will decry in protest.  I find this complaining interesting because it highlights a failure to distinguish between two qualities in any art:

1)    Skill Set: Like all art, designing clothes with apparel technologies involves a specific set of skills or techniques.  (Interestingly, the Greek word for art was techne, the root word for both technique and technology).  Cognitive psychologists sometimes call this know-how or tacit knowledge.  For example, fashion and clothing designers may possess pattern-making, seamstress, and textile-designing skills.

2)    Vision and Style: When artistic skills are well cultivated, artists can channel these energies into an artistic vision and create their own aesthetic style.  As the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty observed, an aesthetic style is a unique way of expressing your skillful activity, your particular mode of existence or being-in-the-world.

So here’s my take on the matter.  An eliminated contestant in Project Runway may complain that the judges don’t understand or appreciate his or her artistic vision or aesthetic style.  But really, the judges typically eliminate folks due to poor design skills or techniques.  The moral, of course, is that no artist can develop an insightful artistic vision and aesthetic style without first developing the appropriate skills and techniques, which requires lots of practice, feedback, and learning from those who preceded us.

As a writer who occasionally hangs out with like-minded artists, here is how I’ve tried to make use of this distinction.

On one hand, we need to study our cultural heritage and learn from the elders, respecting their authoritative know-how and being open to feedback from their expertise so as to build our own.  Otherwise, we never grow our skill set, nor do we grow as artists.  And while this artistic path to perfection develops and matures, it never stops.  As maestro singer Tony Bennett says, "I always feel like I'm just starting out.  I never want to stop learning."

On the other hand, after we develop a mature set of artistic skills to make our own way in the world, it’s OK to contradict convention and go against the crowd, as poetic writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Soren Kierkegaard encouraged us to do.  In the end, it’s imperative to find your own aesthetic.

So when I receive feedback and criticism, I try to take seriously any critiques of my skill set.  When developing technique in any art, there’s always room for improvement.  

But when it comes to disagreement over my aesthetic style, I try to take it with a grain of salt, because, well, you just can’t please everyone.


  1. Some nice insights, but I wish you had elaborated more on what exactly is the relationship between art and technology. Perhaps you can do that for a later blog post?

  2. Love this post, Chris. The great American novelist, Willa Cather, at the height of her powers, wrote in an unpublished letter that "when it comes to writing, I always go into it like a newborn--naked, shivering and without any bones." She was formidably skilled, which gave her the freedom to go back to where she knew nothing.