Last Thursday marked the season 11 premiere of Lifetime’s popular reality TV fashion series Project Runway. This season, however, viewers have been promised a new twist: While the series will still have only one champion, every design challenge leading up to the finale will be, in some way, a team challenge. All designers on the winning team will retain immunity from elimination, and only designers from the winning team will be eligible to win that week’s competition. Surely, then, one would expect this added wrinkle to increase harmony and community among the contestants, perhaps establishing bonds of camaraderie and friendship and that will last their whole lives. However, as every longtime viewer of Project Runway knows, team challenges are infamous for the rancor, vituperation, and backstabbing they produce.
This paradox—that team challenges contribute to hostility rather than harmony—is manifested in a rather blatant disjunction between the premiere episode itself and the way in which the season has been marketed. This commercial promoting Project Runway firmly declares, “Fashion has never been a team sport”:
In the episode, however, hosts Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn repeatedly assert their excitement for the upcoming season precisely because fashion is a team sport. Yet in the same episode, Klum slyly indicates her obvious awareness of the reputation such challenges carry; indeed, despite the hosts’ protestations, viewers may be forgiven for suspecting that the team component of the season was added not so much to teach the designers about the reality of collaboration in the fashion world as it was to generate tensions that would make for more dramatic television.
This seemingly contradictory perspective leads to a significant question: To what extent is fashion (or any other artistic endeavor) a “team sport” produced in community and to what extent is art the product of the individual artist? T. S. Eliot tackled a similar question in relation to his own primary artistic medium, poetry. In his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot argues that while the poet is necessary to the production of poetry, true poetry taps into something much greater than the personality of any one individual, interfacing with the work of the past—“the tradition”—to generate new works applicable to the present. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” Eliot contends, concluding his essay with the assertion that “[t]he emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.” In making these claims, Eliot was in some ways at odds with the prevailing views of the nineteenth century into which he was born, when the poet—or any other artist—could be held in reverence as an almost mystical genius.
The question is further complicated when it is asked specifically about the Christian artist. The writers of the Bible were often great poets, but operating under a specific inspiration of the Holy Spirit, their experience is hardly normative for the Christian artist. But Scripture does discuss other artists. One notable example comes from Exodus 35:30–36:2 (ESV):
Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer. Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the Lord has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded. And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work.
On the one hand, Bezalel and Oholiab are mentioned by name, in a book of the Bible where many laws and regulations are given corporately or impersonally: Their role as individual artists with distinctive skills is very consciously noted. Yet the source of their talent derives from God, and it is to be used in the content of His covenant community. This passage, then, suggests a dynamic interaction between the individual artists and the impersonal task of placing works of art into a grander, divinely ordained tradition.
But the Parson’s New School for Design is hardly ancient Palestine. It is certainly possible that some Project Runway contestants may have a genuine faith in God’s sovereign work and seek to glorify Him through their art, but it is unlikely that all of them do, and either way, a reality TV series is not primarily a faith community. Even so, we do well to acknowledge that art of any kind, including fashion, derives in some sense from a God who is perfect in beauty (cf. Psalm 27:4, Isaiah 4:2), either from His direct grace upon us or the presence of His image within us. Poetry is perhaps an even more solitary art than fashion, and if Eliot could claim that it too depends on an acknowledgment of influences beyond the “individual talent,” how much more might this be true of fashion, whose practitioners are dependent on others for the fabric, the equipment, and the artistic movements that bear upon their designs. Even in the Church, Christ’s own body, we can readily recognize conflict and discord, so it is reasonable to expect that viewers of Project Runway season 11 will see these dissensions manifested over the coming weeks. Yet we may hope that in the midst of it, seeds of shalom may appear, beauty may be produced, and somehow, however improbable, God may be glorified as designers reflect His creative image.