What are we talking about? Who’s ‘we’ anyway?
Question by Raimi Gbadamosi
What is the role of the mediocre?
Society, in the face of difference, makes it difficult for new experiences to appear. In part this disavowal is systemic, but it is also a strategic defensive mechanism to protect established forms of cultural practice. As the argument that emerging works are of low-quality becomes untenable, the presence of acceptable, yet mediocre, works within gallery spaces raises questions and deserves scrutiny.
Does the mediocre act as a buffer, protecting entrenched interests from the 'new', the 'different', the 'transgressive'?
Mediocrity, often seen as an insult, is after all a marker for the undistinguished, for the 'normal' aspects of creative activity. Simultaneously mediocrity acts as a backdrop for excellence, especially where excellence stems from the desire to challenge the mediocre. Being of no exceptional value is the question mediocrity has to constantly address; that which is considered mediocre shifts with time and place.
What is the role of mediocrity as cultural gatekeeper? How do you see mediocrity in the future of the arts in relation to new and emerging practices?
Semantia wanted to answer like this: that postmodern theory has enabled a deconstruction of questions of value in art, which allows excellence to be seen not as a quality of the work, but as a function of the relation between artist, audience, tradition, innovation and expectations. And location and stuff. She would have explored how assumptions of value may be mediated by different particularities, commented on a kind of conceptual slippage between terms denoting ‘new’, ‘different’ ‘transgressive’ and ‘significance’; and sniffed a little at the tenacity with which academic privilege maintains itself using the very weapons - the language of deconstruction - seemingly destined to dismantle it. Ending with an exposition of how the explosion of current standards and definitions of value has led, in fact, to a fragmentation of discourse and much confusion. This is actually a difficult position from which to plead that some standards are better than others.
But I thought to myself, O for permission to be mediocre, without that being a blameworthy thing. To relax, to be myself, not to strive for anything. What would that be like? I sit here in the corner of the cafe, a small square table in front of me. I have ritually arranged in sequence the objects that will assist or distract (if I prefer) my contemplation: a white mug of strong tea, a packet of Benson & Hedges neatly in the same horizontal axis. Beyond is the salt and pepper, placed not to disturb my writing arm. Soon I shall have to put the ashtray beside them.
I sit forward. The edge of the black metal chair digs into the back of my thighs. One foot rests on the heel of the other, which is tipped up so that only the toe of the thick crepe sole of my boot keeps me stable, aligned in harmony with gravity. I lean my head on my left hand and my fingers are cool against the wrinkles on my forehead. I feel textures: my cotton shirt a ghosting touch, becoming more material in the stiffer fabric at my wrists. Clutching my pen, I feel the slight variations of resistance as the ink flows and sticks along with the curvature of letters forming on the page.
I see my hand, square, wrinkled, small. My too-long nails, ragged and nicotine-stained, flare out in a disreputable flourish at my fingers’ ends, at odds with these otherwise workmanlike hands. The sight reminds me of my uncle - his hands are the same shape as mine, though being better cared for are more elegant; and now in my head, not concrete but still real, is conjured the inter-continental tangle of family, loyalty, heritage and estrangement that brought me here to sit in the corner of the cafe, wrestling with intractable questions about what the hell art is, or truth, or reality, and why should anyone care?
What else nudges my awareness in this utterly mundane moment? How is it that I have selected, (without which the record would be unintelligible) before even being aware of it, which parts of the visual, sensory and mental stimuli I’m constantly blasted with will filter down to the page; the page which is the switch, the box, the intersection, the point of transference, the spark, the shock, the junction, the place where you and I touch?
There are things I am aware of that have influenced the selection. This sentence: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” (Hemingway, A Moveable Feast)
This sentence: “(Henry Louis) Gates yields too much ground.... in "Wonders of the African World" to a notion of "greatness" in human history and culture which has for far too long ruled out of hand much of the world's rich heritage in non-elite creative thought and action.” (Biodun Jeyifo, Greatness and Cruelty).
These sentences: ”Many students block their imaginations because
they’re afraid of being unoriginal. They believe they know exactly
what originality is, just as critics are always sure they can recognise
Suppose Mozart had tried to be original? It would have been like a man at the North Pole trying to walk north, and this is true of all the rest of us. Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.” (Keith Johnstone, Impro)
And this memory: my child comes in from playing in the sun. I press my nose to the back of her neck, the colour of caramel pudding. A sparse fleece of body hair tickles my nose. I smell salt, and a hot smell with a scorch round the edges, and person, meaty but not heavily so. Where I touch her I can gauge the thickness or her skin. I sense the slight electric charge about her, and the eddies, turbulence, where it glances against mine. I tell her, “I love the way you smell.”
So here, I attempt to demonstrate to myself, because I had forgotten, the things that bring to bear on the recording of a most ordinary moment, a mediocre moment. Before I get sick of the didacticism of it all, I may derive precepts from the example: that it strikes me that what I find worth communicating is awareness, openness, rigour in selection, and a certain amount of risk, i.e. not being afraid of what presents itself as worth noticing. In recording it, I try hard to use what expressive skills I have as best I may. I try to be aware (I have done this, a sort of daydreaming, for as long as I remember) of what comes to mind and how it got there, what it sparks, where the tangents go; I know that my culture and history act to define the immediate moment of consciousness before I can notice it. I try to track this here, to demonstrate, as Semantia would say, my own particular situated subjectivity . How you react depends on yours. There may be pragmatic reasons why I should want to talk to you: I might want you to go somewhere, or look at something, or - god help me - fund something. But why I should want to do this - why people in general talk to and touch and play with and fight with one another, why I’m not happy to stay alone with myself in my own head (a condition fairly close to autism, I should think) - why I want you to know what’s in my head and I’d like to know what’s in yours, and if we communicate, we’ll end up having new stuff in both our heads - I have no more idea of why this is inherent to being a person than using language or laughter is. But, having reduced this to the simplest possible language, suddenly I see that the pleasure is in the change, the development from imaginary to real and back again, and start wondering (with a nod to Levi-Strauss and co.) if this is the basic human transaction, from one person to another.
“Imagination is how we create a reality.” Hannah Cox. Which of course cuts both ways, we could create Hell; though for Hannah, imagination is truth, and a bad reality is one without enough truth in it.
It is useful for me, just at this moment, to conclude that maybe art, making something from what’s real that also makes huge ripples in imaginative space, is an act of witnessing what it is to be a person. Whether I succeed, I am actually unable to judge. It is a completely different activity to reach out, to communicate with you, to try to touch you, than to think about how and why and whether it worked. I do have aspirations towards effectiveness, internalised standards of what communicates meaning, and what holds interest - I may have failed to live up to them. How will I understand failure? That the reader (if there is one) has not felt the ghost of the slats of my chair across their own arse? That the reader remains irritated at this inconclusive unresolved ramble? Actually, what I would take as failure, more so even than someone stopping reading at the very first sentence, would be the reader who didn’t retain an interest, however slight, in puzzling over the process of finding value in art, after reading this. So I have some questions, ways in to approach a consideration of the function of mediocrity, which is all about what art is and what it does and why, and who gets to say what's good or bad and why anyone should let them -
- What has to happen to make a person have a mediocre experience of Shakespeare?
- As technological options available to artists keep getting more and more elaborate, does that make it more difficult to distinguish the quality of having excellent production values from the quality of being ‘excellent’?
- How vigilant should one be about the possibility of misreading the signifiers of ‘high art’ (as, for example, being very large, being in a prestigious venue, being looked at by a lot of people, having essays written to explain it and being by somebody already famous) as an infallible guarantee of quality? I tried to turn this question round and came up with: under what circumstances would a person find fascist art to be meaningful, true, relevant, moving? And apart from the obvious answer (“You’d have to be a fascist,”) there is something about collectivity, community, the visual manifestation of shared ideals and an implicit yearning towards transformation, that is uncomfortably close enough to themes explored in certain forms of public art to be worth interrogating.
- Does it make any sense at all to draw examples about art from one method of expression, the verbal, to apply to a completely different method of expression, which may be non-verbal?
(With thanks to Hannah Cox, Blake Gifford, Biodun Jeyifo, Cathy Poole and Annie Warburton)