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The New Challenge Movement: A Manifesto

by Christopher Chantrill
August 14, 2004 at 8:00 pm


OK, THAT’S it.  I’ve had it.  It’s time to declare that the decadence of liberal “challenge” art is terminal.  Somebody take it out and shoot it.

Exhibit A is Singing Forest, a tired liberal play by Craig Lucas that recently premiered in Seattle’s Intiman Theatre.  It’s about an aging Jewish matriarch and her dysfunctional family—you know, the Holocaust, psychoanalysis, a Nazi rapist, a cameo appearance by Freud, gays, slackers, and Starbucks baristas.  Like, we are supposed to care about a retread narrative like this?

Exhibit B is the new Seattle Public Library designed by Rem Koolhaas.  The New York Times loved it.  And you can see why.  The building utterly negates what you’d expect in a library.  There is no solemn hardwood paneling; there are no scholarly nooks, no strategically placed desks where a spinster librarian can fix teenage boys in a withering glare.  The meeting room floor is a rabbit warren, done in rounded red plastic.  You get to the book stack on an up-only escalator that dumps you out in the middle of a continuous ramp.  But how do you get out of the stacks?  Thank you, Senator, I’m glad you asked..  There are floating platforms on which are arrayed platoons of computers, and black lightning bolts of columns and diagonal stiffeners crash out of the glowering thunderhead of a ceiling.   Railings are done with galvanized gratings, and metallic stairs boom like fire escapes.

Well, these exhibits certainly are “challenging.”  They challenge the notion that the challenge movement has anything left to say, assuming for a moment that sophomoric challenge art ever did have anything to say.  But who will challenge the challengers?  Who gets to judge who is the smug self-satisfied bigot, and who is the creative idealist?

Imagine a theater that “challenges” liberal hypocrisies. 

Fiona, the twentysomething daughter of a lesbian has just found out that her mother mixed together the semen from two gay friends when she decided to conceive her daughter.  When her lesbian relationship broke up, she responded by marrying a man—after her daughter had grown up.  What does it mean for a young woman to know that her father was chosen in a mix-up?

Imagine an architecture that “challenges” liberal hypocrisies.  It’s hard to imagine what that might look like.  Maybe it would respect the middle-class people that used it instead of slamming them in the solar plexus.  And maybe it would be in love with the architecture of the past instead of sniggering at it with oh-so-clever inside jokes.  And maybe it would restrict galvanized guardrails to outdoor applications where the zinc was needed as a sacrificial anode.

The whole point of transgressive art has been to negate the middle-class culture of order, harmony, and discipline.  Its creativity is the negation of order and rules.  Down with rules, genius is its own inspiration! 

But let’s get Hegelian for a moment.  How about a movement in art that is the negation of the negation.  Instead of assuming that creativity occupies the opposite pole from order and rules, let us challenge “challenge” art with the revolutionary idea that creativity and hard-earned expertise go together like peas and carrots.

The new art will be a return to beauty.  Beauty, it turns out, is not exactly in the eye of the beholder.  All humans tend to respond with pleasure to certain shapes and representations because our brains are wired that way.  The new art will be a culture of hope.  Obviously it will negate the art of the twentieth century that believed in the end of values, and swirled downwards in a spiral of nihilism and despair.  Instead it will return to the eternal hope that throbs in every living creature.  Instead of abstraction and expressionism it will return to a natural classicism, in which humans will investigate the peculiar resonance between the elegance of artificial surface and the pulsing throb of chthonic life. 

It’s time for a new generation to arise and smash the tired shibboleths of liberal “challenge” art.  Down with edginess!   Down with transgression!  Down with artistical black!  Ever since the 1960s budding artists have been taught that the way to creative signature is through transgression, through rejection of society, through celebration of the authentic voice of marginalized voices, through the power of raw talent, through the challenge to established ideas and economic power.

But what if that is all wrong?  What if there really is a standard of beauty, programmed into our brains?  What if creativity dwells at the union of preparation and inspiration?  What if “challenge” is not about challenge but merely about power?  If this is true, then it can’t be too soon to start a movement to sweep “challenge” art aside and start challenging the challengers.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

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