Mediocrity is something most of us don't aspire for.
We may simply resign to be content with it. Or we may not want to think about it and don't. Extending between excellence and failure, it accommodates a wide spectrum of conditions which we describe as good enough -- not the best but not bad, good enough at least for now, hopefully better the next time, later, or eventually. Failure is far worse; mediocrity is so much better.
Still, mediocrity bothers me a great deal. It bothers me in myself as well as in others. I don't detest it but it depresses me. It's not so much the mediocrity in itself that depresses me, nor its ubiquity in our world today, not even its ever prevalence. The prevalence of mediocrity is inevitable by definition; failure thankfully is not so frequent; excellence is rare. Everything between is commonplace and comes in abundance.
What depresses me sorely is the general acceptance of mediocrity in goods and services and deeds as more than good enough, but as something a good deal better and deceptively presented as much better or even as good as the best and sold or delivered overvalued or overpriced in relation to their real quality.
This is the phenomenon too familiar today not only in the world of manufactured goods and services but also in the landscape of cultural accomplishments.
Making a round of the galleries in Chelsea, dutifully walking through the Whitney Biennial, and visiting PS1, in an effort to keep up with the changing art scenes, as I have been doing these years, I am pained to see that mediocrity commands the arena. What grabs is novelty for the good reason that novelty stands out; it shouts and kicks and grabs our attention that way. Quality is rare. Perhaps that is to be expected inasmuch as excellence is by definition a slim minority; it is rare everywhere.
My observation, I fully realize, may be a lament of the old generation. Things were better in the old days; they are so much shoddier today. Artistic creations rarely have depth these days. They don't make movies the way they used to. Bookstores carry piles of new books; bestsellers (with some exceptions) are often less than mediocre. I've been foolishly tricked into thinking that bestseller books are significant; some are but most aren't. Every generation of the elderly in every age no doubt denigrated the present and extolled the good old days. It's not just old folks who deplore the films the industry delivers today; young film buffs do, too. Who knows the old folks in Shakespeares days probably deplored the Bards plays as cheap and vulgar and just sensational.
Art dealers, publishers, and film studios are merchants. Profit making is their primary goal. So, it is understandable that they search out saleable talents to sell; and in their efforts toward this end, if they don't find great talents that are saleable, they swoop down on mediocre talents and elevate them to stars. Elevated to stardom, lesser talents are sold as something better than their real value. Success in marketing presupposes eager buyers or, rather, it means creating buyers who can be unsuspectingly led to believe sales records as a mark of quiality. Those who sell the most are touted as the best. Gullible clientele is a boon to marketing. Collectors of art without discerning taste rely on the names that galleries flaunt as today's stars. Then, the mediocre artists begin to delude themselves that they are great artists. They may be leading artists in terms of revenue but not necessarily artists of significant vision and creativity. Once discovered,a new talent is forced to produce quanatities to meet the demand of the galleries and, prostituting whatever talent she or he came with, leaves behind as legacy an oeuvre of mediocre works. The retrospective of Jean-Michel Basquiat at Brooklyn Museum of Art, I thought, vividly demonstrated the case. He started out as a young artist of considerable talent but, discovered early, he was robbed of time to grow and died a slave to the market.
The force of the market also accounts for the fashionable revivals in classical music and theater, multiplying interminably the list of forgotten composers, many of whom are better left forgotten, and putting on the stage the long-shelved operas and plays that are best left on the dusty shelf. Again, the efforts are not entirely futile. There have been treasures fortuitously rediscovered; revival efforts were necessary for these exceptions. We have seen some superb discoveries. Some of Handels operas, for example, Siroe in particular among them, come to mind; Jonathan Bank of the Mint Theatre has been revivinag fine plays of Schnitzler, Barrie, Milne and Maugham. But I witness a tendency among those who promote revivals to refuse to admit that many of them are mediocre. The public is led to believe then that whatever is writ large in publicity is a worthy work that merit the qualification to be called noteworthy. The retrospective of Childe Hassam at the Metropolitan Museum of Art did disservice to this artist of limited talent, imitative or otherwise derivative, jaundiced in his sense of palette and uncertain of the art of composition. The museum, giving a platform to a mediocre artist, gives the public a deceptive message that she or he is an artist to reckon with. Here is a forgotten master; take note we are told. Hassam no doubled delighted some but lets not pretend that he is the tops. Museums have a duty to evaluate and judge and be selective and inform the public of the knowledge they possess.
So, mediocrity reigns supreme, and it is alarming. For it now permeates the realm of higher learning, as well. Some professors, dare I say too many of late, reject the canon of great books and indiscriminately teach great and mediocre books without distinguishing them. Authority is what they are fearful of excercising, though who are professors but those who devoted years and decades and eventually a lifetime to a pursuit of knowledge in a given field and thereby possess the authority that others don't. If they didn't evaluate, select, and pass judgments, who will? In my seminar teaching, I value students' opinions and learn much from them; but I take the responsibility of sorting out the good from the poor and the best from the better. The professor's unwillingness to evaluate and judge results in the inflation of grades; they refuse to separate the sheep from the goats. Then, we will be left with the wrong impression that one opinion is as good as any other, and a judgment is finally no more than a personal view. So, too many critics today also consider meciocrity is only a matter of personal opinion.
Canon is a dirty word today in the academia. It smacks of elitism. This is because the canon of great books, musical compositions, and works of art, was initially established by the power-wielding white males in the West who constituted the ruling class, the class enpowered by wealth, aristocratic lineage, or intellectural prowess. Elitism is distasteful to many because it is mistakenly perceived to be undemocratic. Opportunities should be given to all equally; but it is an ineluctible fact of life that there are those who know and those who don't, and some know more than others. So, some deliver better goods and services than others. As a matter of fact, in everyday life, we do exercise critical judgment, in choosing a school, a restaurant, a physician, a computer, and a myriad of goods and services. We are somehow losing any sort of official sanction in this matter.
Those who have been trained to discriminate quality should know better; and yet they refuse the hierarchy of values as elitist and celebrate and promote mediocrity. In so doing, they downplay excellence by viewing mediocrity as being just as good, only different. Curiously, celebrating mediocrity is no less elitist than elitism; only it does injustice to the best.
I dont discredit mediocrity; we all have some qualities of merit. But masquarading mediocrity as excellence diminishes the best in us. That sorely depresses me.
T. Kaori Kitao 08.01.05