Why is “challenging” a dirty word?

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I go to a lot of theatre, film, and art galleries by myself, for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes, there are certain experiences that call for solitude, in order to better reflect on and soak in the moment.  Sometimes, a play or a movie or an art exhibit is on its last weekend, and I have to run to go see it before it ends, so it’s impractical to round up people to come with me.  At other times, I just feel that when I invite people to join me at the theatre, at a film festival, an art exhibit, or at a musical performance, there is some tentativeness, some reserve, some meta-looking-around-for-some-other-things-to-do-as-an-excuse-not-to-go, before the coup de grace, the soundbyte, the very polite, very respectful, but very firm turndown…”Well, I think (insert name of play/film/artist/composer/opera here) is a little too challenging.”  Over the years, when friends, co-workers, and various associates use the word “challenging”, I view it as code for “I’m probably not going to enjoy myself”, so I graciously back-off.  Last Sunday, I went to see James Thierree’s spectacular “Au Revoir Parapluie (Farewell, Umbrella)” at Chicago Shakespeare, by myself, since I knew people were going to view it–with its lack of a narrative storyline and dialogue and its meticulous set pieces combining acrobatics, pantomime, and even magic-as “challenging”.  As I sat there enthralled at the myriad ways in which theatrical boundaries could be expanded, I regretted that I wasn’t sharing the experience with anyone I knew. What was dismaying to me too was that Chicago Shakespeare, despite being standing-room only, had very few audience members of my generation.  Where were all my peeps? 

“Umbrella” is world-class theatre that is very much apart from many of the productions currently running in Chicago.  Thierree, the grandson of Charlie Chaplin, is acclaimed as one of the leading artists of the theatrical avant-garde in the world.  He is a graceful, engaging, technically dazzling performer and he has brought with him to Chicago an international ensemble of dancers and physical performers who could perform at his level of artistry.  ”Umbrella” had no discernible plot, but over a series of magnificent theatrical moments involving dance, song, mime, acrobatic acts, gymnastics, circus acts, even fencing, and using such eye-popping set pieces such as giant ropes, a stylized wheat field, a circus tent, a couple of cylindrical iron contraptions, and a tennis ball “meteor shower”, themes around the importance of family, coping with deep loss, and dealing with the unforgiving harshness of the world, emerged.   In order to fully appreciate these themes though, one had to pay attention to the work; one had to accept being intellectually challenged

Which brings me back to my initial observations- where is this reluctance from many people of my generation (the late 20s, 30s, and early 40somethings), to being challenged and provoked by art, coming from?   Why do we have a need for straight-through narratives, clearly defined heroes and villains, and pat resolutions in theater and film?  Why is being entertained more important than being unsettled?  Why is ambiguity obnoxious?  Is this the cultural impact of living in a time where many people have always, and only, known prosperity and material achievement?  Is it the impact of a society where technological advancement reduces time and space but also attention spans?  Is it the impact of the social conditioning that people who fill in the silences, who talk rather than reflect, are perceived as “high performers”? Why is “challenging” as applied to art, theater, film, music, seen by some of my peers as not cool, unhip, even, roll-one’s-eyes-pretentious?

To read the raves from Chicago’s critical royalty, click here and here. The Chicago engagement is the US premiere for “Au Revoir, Parapluie”, and it runs at Chicago Shakespeare until December 1.  After Chicago, it travels to New York, for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Next Wave Festival, one of the most significant performing arts festivals in the world.  “Parapluie” can be seen in New York from December 4-16, 2007.

5 Responses to “Why is “challenging” a dirty word?”

  1. Joel Says:

    It is sad that very few people in our demographic are going to all of the artistic events and possibilities that Chicago has to offer. I don’t think people are worried as much about the “challenge,” but rather that our friends and coworkers have commitment issues. To commit to going to a play a week in advance seems to be quite scary. I’m not sure why. We are a bunch of commitment-phobes.

    Joel

  2. tom sherman Says:

    In my view, many people seem more willing to have their opinions and assumptions challenged (it’s only fashionable to be open-minded, right?) than to have their notions of order challenged. People truly are programmed, culturally or perhaps even genetically, to gravitate towards orderly notions of time, cause/effect, etc. In a way, I think alterations to these basic notions can be the most challenging aspects of a work of art.

  3. francis Says:

    Hi Tom. I agree with your insightful observation that it is the ability of an art work to unsettle, to go against, people’s sense of order and structure, which is challenging. I am intrigued, though, by the generational question: what are the drivers in our socio-cultural environment today that makes many of us shy away from having our sense of order and structure disturbed, “altered”? (It’s an anthropological question which I think you will have a lot of good points to say about). Because I do think there is a generational aspect that comes into play here, since in the past, more conceptual, less linear, art, was more readily embraced (think the 1960s/early70s which saw the rise of, say, Andy Warhol in visual art). As a corollary question, if it is indeed the socio-cultural conditioning which our generation is used to that is driving the reluctance to embrace ambiguity and perceived disorder in art, are we then, as a group, more artistically (for lack of a better term) “deprived” than older generations? It was a dismaying question for me, as I looked around during the performance of “Au Revoir Parapluie” that I attended, where the median age of the audience was probably 60.

  4. tom Says:

    I guess that my immediate reaction is that a fundamental notion of art is to rebel against cultural norms. In the ’60s and ’70s, this meant rebelling against a conservative, straitlaced society.

    But today, in 2007, the baby boomers rule the country. At least for me, the idea of rebelling for rebelling’s sake has completely lost all sexiness. My parents seem enamored of that idea; it’s boring to me. I feel that a lot of people my age rebel against their parents by being more traditional in their outlook.

    I know I’m conflating “parents” with “society,” and my point is not very well expressed, but hopefully you get the drift. :)

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