Creativity and the Culture of Shame

When I first started watching it, I could not turn away. Near the end of every show the contestants sent their clothing designs on models out on a runway for a competition. Afterward the designers were evaluated for their artistic efforts by a panel of judges.

The contestants who failed to impress had to defend their decisions before a panel of renowned fashion experts, including the stunningly beautiful and doe-eyed supermodel Heidi Klum.

I am talking, of course, about the reality show Project Runway. I am not interested in fashion at all, but I am interested in creativity. The show was a lab experiment in which a group of creative people were put into high pressure situations and asked to perform.

The judges, among them the snarky fashion-designing icon Michael Kors, were likable and intelligent, which made it all the more humiliating when they flagellated a hopeful contestant for his appalling creative offense. Sometimes contestants were reduced to tears as they were shamed before Heidi Klum and millions of television viewers.

As for the contestants who had impressed them, the judges hailed them as geniuses and did all but throw flowers at their feet.

The show disturbed me. Not just a little, but down to the marrow of my bones where a cold ache settled.

This is because, in many cases, the derided designers had been genuinely excited about their imperfect creative efforts. The process had felt good to them. They had poured all of themselves into it, watched it grow from a seed of an idea into something finished that resembled the idea that had prompted the product. They had loved what they were doing, and they had done their best.

But the worst thing you could do was tell the judges this, who were always appalled at the effrontery of anyone who would suggest that the process of creating a “sub par” product had any value in itself.

Curiously, while it was taboo for designers to defend themselves, so was admitting to any flaws unless the judges had pointed them out. Either way, the offending contestant was deemed to have “personality issues,” whether of arrogance or a lack of confidence. The consensus among the judges: good riddance.

I got to the point that whenever the show came on I felt my stomach sink. Every time Michael Kors curled his lips in contempt and made a snarky comment, I cringed. It somehow felt personal.

Let me say that I expect no one to heap praise on inferior products. Excellence should be exalted above mediocrity or a poor performance. But ineptitude that comes from not caring is different from producing a flawed product despite having done your best.

It is one thing to give constructive criticism, quite another to deride creative people on a stage in front of millions of viewers for the purpose of schadenfreude.

Something else bothered me. Beyond the humiliation was always a feeling that the judges were morally offended at the product the designer had presented, saying things like “how could they?”

There were easy answers to that question, such as absurdly stringent time limitations and the habit of forcing incompatible contestants together for group projects. But those factors were never mentioned in the critiques. And it did not stop the judges from asking, “How could they?”

I had seen this indignation a lot in the writing world, too. On Amazon there is always a reader who accuses a book as being an affront to all human decency and a blight on the human race, and suggests that the book should be shredded, burned, and consigned to a sewer. Even if the book is on how to knit a sweater.

I saw in Project Runway the risk every artist takes when he creates something original, untested, new. I saw myself in it. I saw my fears of ridicule that for many years kept me blocked as a writer.

I have to wonder about the impulse that makes the final part of the show so appealing. Is it a kind of psychological bloodsport? A substitute for the fight-to-the-death mentality that characterized ancient gladiatorial fight-to-the-death competitions?

But the spectacle of creative people being humiliated is not just about a culture that loves to see others suffer for entertainment.

For any artist, whether a writer, designer, or painter, fear of ridicule makes creative efforts seem risky. Might as well watch television than even attempt them; few people will ridicule you for that.

Block is common because ridicule is a reality, and while it may not happen everyday, it becomes internalized over time. For me, block came not just from having my own writing criticized but from reading numerous sneering book reviews that diminished the writers with educated contempt.

Those kinds of reviews became part of me and when I would sit down to write, certain phrases would come back to me: “Shamelessly self-indulgent,” “shoddily constructed,” or “cloyingly sentimental.”

There is no way to make the trolls slink back under their bridges, no way to stop critics from demolishing artists, no way to prevent readers from reacting strongly to a book they hate. And even if that were possible, it would be wrong. A big part of why readers read is to form an opinion, favorable or unfavorable. Censoring critics or anyone else is certainly not the answer.

But the ever-looming threat of contempt explains why, at least for me, getting over my creative block required a violent act of detachment from the opinions of critics and experts on writing. My block ended with my resolution to write for myself, however I wanted to write. I even stopped reading articles about writing, deciding instead to learn from my own experience. My philosophy has worked remarkably well for me.

It also explains why I will not be watching Project Runway this October when the new season begins. Though the reality show is not about writers, it embodies a cultural spirit of shaming that puts unnecessary emotional barriers in front of artists who must experiment and take risks for their work to remain vital.

Mark Twain could have been talking about most any creative pursuit when he said that if people learned to walk and talk the way they learned to write, “everybody would limp and stutter.”

Granted, Project Runway is a competition and contestants know what they are getting into when they sign on.

But the show exposes something I dislike about the way society treats artists, one minute hailing them as geniuses, and the next belittling them. If I want to see something disturbing, there will be plenty of horror shows during the month of October which will be more fun to watch.

To creative pursuits, I say in the immortal words of Spock,“Let them live long and prosper.” To Project Runway I say in the famous parting words of Heidi Klum: “Auf Wiedersehen.”

8 thoughts on “Creativity and the Culture of Shame

  1. I remember the moment I had this epiphany myself. I was watching an episode of X Factor auditions, and like a lot of people, I cringed when the really poor singers started their songs. But the audience wasn’t cringing — they were booing, heckling, jeering. I’m not a very emotional or empathetic person, but I felt horrified and ashamed as I watched the culture of shame and collective bullying as entertainment become clear to me in that moment. As a person who is comfortable giving and receiving honest, blunt guidance with good intentions, I’m saddened by this cultural fascination of watching creative spirits crushed rather than encouraged to develop.

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting!:) Glad I am not the only one who has noticed how vicious some of the attacks on creative people have become. For me creativity is a huge part of what makes life enjoyable. The cultural habit of ridiculing and humiliating artists creates a barrier for many people to even try. Too many people seem to find the bullying of artists perfectly acceptable, and some of these people are artists and writers themselves who should know better.

    • I once sang at a karaoke bar and halfway through the song I choked and couldn’t sing in tune. The audience had a pained look on their faces, but All cheered and clapped when the song finished. I think they all knew it could’ve been one of them up there instead of me.

      I’ll always appreciate those people, even though I don’t know any of them. They were at least kind to me.

  2. Artists (catchall for creative in this context), are sensitive and vulnerable people who have the ability to conjure something out of nothing. Be it writing or visual or aural or whatever. It takes guts to put one’s self esteem on the line and allow the world a window on your work.
    Artists are brave and courageous creatures with magical powers of insight and translation.
    We interpret the darkest recesses of the universe for those who follow. We shed the light of supernovae on the finest filaments of imagination and bring into being a spark that lights up the world.
    We create something where before, there was nothing.
    Artists are we, in our many stripes.
    Minstrels, scribes, sculptors, crafters, and creators of things whre before there was but A Void.
    This is my manifesto, but to all who would share the spark and create with me, new and better worlds, I extend my hand in respect.

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