Is the Mannequin Challenge our contemporary form of genre painting?



As we all know, there have been endless challenges and other fads trending on social media, such as planking, necknominations, the ice bucket challenge, and many more. The latest one to go viral is the Mannequin Challenge, and I have to admit it’s one of my favourites. The concept entails a group of people holding their pose like a mannequin while a hand held (phone) camera walks around and music plays in the background (usually Rae Sremmurd – Black Beatles ft. Gucci Mane). Not only is it simple — i.e. doesn’t not require pouring an ice bucket on your head or drinking absurd amounts of alcohol — but it also brings people together in creating real-life “paintings.” From teenagers to celebrities and politicians, everyone seems to be doing it.

The videos show people in their everyday situations. There have been many high school editions, but also some at the gym, in locker-rooms, or you know… on Hillary Clinton’s airplane. There was even a Destiny’s Child Mannequin Challenge at Kelly’s son’s birthday party, and one from when the Cleveland Cavaliers visited the White House (ft. Michelle Obama). These videos create snapshots of our contemporary lives (have you noticed the number of people taking selfies?), just like classical paintings used to. There’s something quite Caravaggio-esque about these scenes frozen in time. They are reminiscent of crowded scenes in Art History, such as Caravaggio’s religious scenes, but even more so Dutch genre paintings showing their everyday life. I’m not trying to equate these very low-fi and extremely short videos with the talent of Old Masters, but I can’t help but think of some kind of 3D projection of a painting being zoomed into when I watch these Mannequin Challenge videos. Theres something really quite uncanny about them, almost like a Mme Tussaud museum. More importantly though, there is also potential for social commentary. Most recently, the Black Lives Matter activists created a particularly poignant version depicting a reenactment of recent police shootings and overall racial tensions in the US. It truly demonstrates the power of images in our society, conveying so much for the BLM movement and the need for social justice in just one minute.

As any viral trend, these will soon by overdone and pretty much forgotten, but while they last we can try and appreciate this challenge for its originality, its creativity, its political potential, and how it brings people together without the awkward and absurd cultural appropriation that was the Harlem Shake, or the never-ending cheesy lip-dubs. 


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