Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Emperor's New Challenge

Having been an early adapter of quite a few annoyingly modish phrases in my youth, I try not to be blimpish about our language's constant and endearing effort to stay Forever Young. But as I get older the list of words that annoy me gets longer, and "edgy" has to be near the top of the list. "Challenge" is also up there.

Not the old "edgy", of course, which is something people used to feel in John Buchan thrillers, but the new one. You know: "This edgy new installation challenges the lazy idea that a poke in the eye with a sharp stick is always the more painful option." I'm just not sure what it can mean when so much contemporary art or entertainment is routinely described as "edgy" and/or "challenging." Even less so, when so many people use these words about their own person or work.

Does edgy art make you feel "on edge"? Are the artists that create it close to the edge? ("Don't push me, 'cos ...") The edge of what? Sanity? Bourgeois convention? Making a living? Or maybe they're close to The Edge (his brother, perhaps, or his best friend from school?) Come to that, is The Edge edgy? In one sense, by definition, extremely; in another, not at all (though you have to wonder what he keeps under that hat). I need to know.

The dictionary, as always, is helpful. The "new" edgy means something "that challenges received ideas or prevailing aesthetic sensibilities; at the forefront of a trend." Ah, as I thought. And notice how "challenge" has got itself in there, too.

I think my problem with these words, and the people who claim the attributes they denote, is that you cannot simply decide that you are (or would like to be) the kind of person who "challenges received ideas or prevailing aesthetic sensibilities", any more than you can decide to be six feet tall (you can trust me on that one) ... You have to do the spadework. There is more to being Francis Bacon than hanging out at The Colony Room. Of course it helps to be born a misfit with a tragic or bizarre family life. But it helps even more to produce a body of work that goes into places no-one ever thought of going before. Call me a cynic, but I don't think merely being a trustafarian with a few piercings or tattoos and a mockney accent counts (though this may meet the second part of the definition, i.e. being "at the forefront of a trend").

Conceptual art has a lot to answer for in this regard. The sheer cunning of the conceptual approach is that you have to take the artist's statement of intention at face value. If, say, I place a single pound coin in the centre of a room and claim to be "challenging prevailing notions of the distribution of wealth", then that's precisely what I'm doing. Just as if I were to step outside and, in a very loud voice, challenge the entire population of Moscow to a game of Rock Paper Scissors. These may not very effective challenges, true, but then I always have the Irony Clause to fall back on.

However, even by playing the conceptual-ironic Get Out Of Jail Free card, I surely cannot get away with claiming, out loud and in public, that a thing has qualities which it self-evidently does not? Why would anyone want to go along with the deception? What's in it for them? Do they all just want to be part of the Edgy Gang?

But, on reflection, that's exactly what some people seem to have been doing left, right and centre. Some really edgy conceptual artistry has been going on, right in our faces, but in the last place you'd ever think of looking for it. Talk about cool.

"See this worthless debt? This one here, where some other guy has loaned a house-worth of money to someone with no income at all? I'm going to give it a Triple A credit rating... No, really: trust me, we're all going to be rich!"

Now that really is challenging and edgy...

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