10 August 2009

The Necessity of Mediocrity: A Satire

Mediocrity is good for art.
More specifically, mediocrity is good for artists.
It is especially good for Christian artists.

There are many reasons that every artistic group needs at least one representative bad poet (or novelist, painter, etc.). Now, he or she can’t be TOO bad. For example, it can’t be the work ethic that’s bad: if s/he never produces a work, that’s not useful. It might be best if the Mediocrity is the most prolific member of the group. So when you all get together to share, s/he always has something—maybe two or three somethings—to read or display. Maybe the really good members get writer’s block, or are their own worst critics and refuse to show any work below their own nearly impossible standards. But the Mediocrity will always pull out that piece of work. And it’s never a poor display, either. The Shakespeares in the group drag out creased, smudge, dog-eared papers from obscure pockets. The Picassos have their paintings stuffed indifferently between random pages of cheap sketchpads. The Austens print their insightful prose double-sided, or on the backsides of their father’s used sales records. But the Mediocrity: s/he always goes to Staples and has the awful stuff bound up in a lovely cover, framed in gilt, laminated, copyrighted, signed, sealed, delivered. As if the cover can make up for the book; as if the matting can improve the art.

But I haven’t yet told you how useful these fellows are. You see, we can practice kind white lies and secretly indulge righteous hatred, simultaneously. It’s very helpful. We artistic types need somewhere to vent our sense of insecurity and inferiority. We can better maintain our precarious sense of self-righteousness if there’s somebody else it’s easy to tear to shreds. And those kinds of criticism come easily, and sound quite erudite. If we’re talented, we can even do it to his or her face, framed in polysyllabic technical terms and surrounded by appeals to the common opinion. A real master of verbal analysis will use the same terms used for praise, but just but a little shortness of tone to show the Mediocrity is not in favor. That’s why the work can’t be totally awful. If it were, it would be easy to dismiss and/or criticize outright. But then we wouldn’t get the chance to hone our skill of esoteric, hermetic, elitist jargon: the kinds of speeches made in a stage whisper in a gallery full of strangers with the sneaking hope that someone will overhear and think how intelligent, how cultured, we are. We need our own home mediocrities to practice on.

But a Mediocrity never gets it. Whenever you plan a session, that’s the one person you know will come. S/he is unfailingly faithful. And criticism never hits home. All the other members of the group, who understand your nuances so well, chuckle into their sleeves. But the Mediocrity goes serenely on, sharing work after lousy work, never improving, blissfully unaware of the low quality s/he is imposing on the group, ignorant of the concurrent psychological suffering and comfort eddying around the piece as it is passed, or rippling from the reading into silence. How nice, that we know we’ll always feel good. Righteous anger is a cleansing flame. Self-satisfaction is an addictive drug.

It’s also handy to have somebody on whom you can always count to share a piece of work worse than yours. In fact, if you’re tired one day at your desk or in your studio, it’s good to know you really don’t have to push yourself to the next level, you really don’t have to revise that clumsy line, because s/he is sure to share a piece so much worse than yours that yours will look quite a bit better than it is. You’ll just have to manipulate the sharing time so s/he goes after you. Or maybe right before. Yes, maybe that’s even better: if the lame poem is read just before yours, the assembled members will be that much more amazed by yours and won’t notice the lack of structure, the inevitable repetition, the occasional amateurish prosody. If those poor cardboard characters strut their two-dimensional stuff before you read, well, your slightly caricatured dramatis personae will maybe come to life. If those watery, Pollock-could-do-better-when-he-was-five blots of paint circulate with yours on their heels, no one will notice that you painted over mistakes instead of beginning again. In fact, if you rehearse the right mental tricks, you can almost become a Mediocrity yourself, but just never quite as bad as the official one. If you enter your workspace or worktime chanting mantras about how awful s/he is and how much better your work will look, why, you might not even need to produce any new work after a while. Your one epic masterpiece, the one that’s not finished but really works better as a Romantic fragment anyway, so much more suggestive, will serve to circulate and reciculate many times. There are always new members of the group anyway, or ones who haven’t been there for a while, so if you just tweak it or show it in bits and pieces you can stretch it over a good half-a-dozen meetings at least, tuck it away, and sit in smug ease while the Mediocrity proves to your associates that if you can’t produce anything new, well, at least your one piece was so good that maybe you needn’t bother. As long as there’s such rot in the world, your piece can stand as a monument to Excellence. Or at least Excellent in Comparison. Isn’t that convenient?

It's kind of like sin. I can feel virtuous as long as I have at least one immoral friend around, to make me feel good about myself.

01 August 2009

August Poem of the Month

This is the second section of the poem I posted last month. I hope that a few more sections are forthcoming.


Up a dried-out river bed, along an almost panoramic ridge,
sudden burst of rain and hail. Temperatures turned.
And rounding a turn, the cone loomed bare: doom in the very rocks.
Nothing else so sheer, nothing so spare
with no trip to spare, no mercy between a slip and the air.
A crumbling peak was the only material reality against the intolerable sky.
A force of will the only wall against the mental fall.
Every step of my foot took one more foot of its steppes.
Whatever the body does, does something to the soul.
The enormous pressure of the empty space behind
nearly broke my little mind.
I panted to hold the panic back,
thought by not thinking, progressed by repression
and ignorance.
And I can see my body arc, out, curved like the rainbow through which it falls,
glorious in suspension. A waterfall of raven hair against the clouds, the color
of flesh in contrast to the Irish green and blue, a masterpiece
and a disaster. The crash of bones on distant stones, the spatter of blood
in penitence for insuccess. Whatever the body does…

But it did not. The mind must be enormous, to enclose in one ignored corner
such a massive swathe of space, undusted. If I can pack
a sidereal fear and my idea
of the entire size of the universe,
not ending with the atmosphere, on past planets, out past galaxies,
(all pressing, more than the heaviest pack, on my unstopping back)
into some tiny corner of my mind and hide it there
(just a nagging, unacknowledged noise: a dust feather in a draft),
then how huge is my mind!
Whatever the psyche does….