Yesterday Kristen Kish beat Brooke Williamson on the season 10 finale of Bravo’s popular and award-winning reality cooking competition Top Chef. Kish’s victory was gratifying for series fans who have lamented the fact that the show had awarded top honors to a female contestant only once before in the previous nine seasons; but it also capped a final set of episodes in which the drama has been almost entirely related directly to the quality of the food being cooked. Over the past month, Kish and Williamson, along with contestants Sheldon Simeon, Josh Valentine, and even the sometimes prickly Stefan Richter got along with one another remarkably well. Besides the aired episodes, Top Chef retained an innovation from last season, Last Chance Kitchen, a set of brief webisodes in which eliminated contestants could battle their way back for one more shot at reaching the finale. Additionally, this year saw the addition of a new wrinkle, Save a Chef, in which a fan favorite was retained to compete in the final Last Chance Kitchen, marking the first time Top Chef fans could have any potential influence upon the outcome (other than voting for the consolation prize of Fan Favorite).
If the Save a Chef feature is retained in future seasons, it raises an interesting question, because for the first time, contestants would have a clear motivation for being on their best behavior; after all, viewers will be unlikely to consider an unlikable chef as a potential favorite. Yet Top Chef has throughout its run followed the standard reality television line of hyping up conflicts between contestants and making “villains” out of the less personable or hyper-aggressive individuals. This is hardly abnormal for the Bravo network, which has only retained a few reality competition series and is now populated largely by shows that simply follow eclectic groups of people: Real Housewives of Orange County and its spinoffs, for instance. In shows like these without a competition involved, the only conflict is interpersonal, and Bravo’s advertising markets the shows’ human drama, however staged it may be. It should come as little surprise, then, that as a rule, Top Chef is often marked by contention between the competitors. As a result, however, viewers as a whole will find themselves rooting for the chefs who present themselves the best, who seek to cook good food and win without alienating the other people around them. In response, chef “villains” often assert that the show is competitive by its nature, that their desire is to win and not to make friends, and that they if they are the best chefs on the show, they should win regardless of how they present themselves.
Are they right? Great chefs are artists whose medium is food, and so I think to a degree that this brings up a larger question about art that may trouble Christians (or, at least, it troubles me): to what extent ought the likability—or the sanctity—of an artist affect how we understand, appreciate, and learn from art? I enjoy reality television competitions, including several other cooking shows, as well as Project Runway; and on a visceral level, I cannot help cheering on those contestants who I find present themselves as thoughtful, loving, or considerate, as opposed to those who come across ambitious, spiteful, or cutthroat. But is this reaction appropriate, or should my support be with the contestant who produces the best, most beautiful or well-wrought work of art, whatever that person’s character?
Ultimately, my thoughts on this issue are not easily resolved into yes or no categories. On the one hand, my own background in literature forces me to concede that wise and profound artists are quite capable of being thoroughgoing jerks. One could quickly assemble a substantial list of writers, painters, musicians, and chefs (Christians included) who have been unpleasant in person. And indeed, it is good for us all that the best art can transcend the limited human frame that accomplishes it; for the ability to create art is itself is a product of God’s radical grace, working through fallen men and women. King Solomon’s writings show him to be a wise, intelligent, and exquisite artist, yet even he was led astray during his lifetime. The best of us, even in the church, are sinners, and for this reason, we are fortunate that the value of the art cannot be measured alone by the moral quality of the artist.
Does this mean that virtue is irrelevant in the artistic realm? I would not go so far. Even if we acknowledge that art can work beyond the character flaws of the artist, there are certainly pragmatic ways in which artists can hurt their craft if they present themselves in an unlikable manner. Technology has reduced our privacy to a degree, so media can easily magnify or direct attention to faults that, in turn, can cause a backlash against even a legitimately thoughtful or beautiful work of art. And that, in turn, can affect the artist’s future production, since in a capitalist country like America, the ability to market oneself and one’s products is vital. While some people might revel in the role of rebel or villain, for most, it will prove a hindrance to marketing the art produced and possibly result in limiting future resources (since the best artists in many fields will naturally seek out the best, and often most expensive, materials with which to work).
For Christian artists in particular, however, this concern takes on an added dimension. Certainly, Christian artists ought to strive to honor God through creating the best art in their medium possible, regardless of the sins and transgressions with which they struggle at any given moment. Yet the call of sanctification upon Christians, the yearning that ought to be within us to look more Christ-like over the course of our lives, should cause us to seek to present ourselves well, among ourselves and in the world. Non-Christians will probably always think Christians hypocrites—and they are, to a degree right; non-Christian artists may always think Christians make bad artists—and they are often right about that. But neither of the realities are excuses for Christians to throw our hands up in despair of ever moving closer toward godly holiness or great art, or, in that rarest of confluences, somewhat sanctified artists.
Great chefs are great chefs, whatever their personalities. Great writers are great writers; great painters are great painters; great musicians are great musicians. God’s grace is sufficiently mysterious that many rotten people produce substantial works of art, and many people who strive for righteousness produce poor imitations. Yet we can respect character when we see it, and hope to find (or, in some of our cases, even embody) that rarest of all qualities: a Christian who shows others the face of God both in virtue of character and in quality of art.