The Virus of Mediocrity

To comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable – Cesar A Cruz

There exists a conflict of idealized peaks in the world of art. Take a moment to chew on the following:

What you don’t read  (or watch, listen to, etc) matters as much as what you do read.

If you are like me, you think the above pretty much the case, that exposure to the lesser arts can only make you dumber, less interesting, corrupted, and soft. Many think that danger doesn’t exist, that one can move freely and without consequence between doses of  Goosebumps and Gore Vidal.

Imagine you are charged with picking one of two extremes for a high school student. In the first, the student is exposed to nothing but the lowest common denominator from the world of arts. Popular young adult situation comedies, top 40 radio hits, and mass market fiction. Their high school career spent ignorant of anything but what is easily digestible and then forgotten. In the other extreme is challenging literature, film, and music, all of which serve to enhance the students understanding and appreciation for the human experience. Your pick.

Now, those extremes are unrealistic and unfair, and it is obvious that one cannot spend 100% of their time in either the intellectually stimulating ivory tower, or caked in Pizza Pop residue and plopped in front of Melrose Place. However, if you accept that one extreme is preferable over the other (or even a more moderate version of the above scenario that nonetheless emphasizes one approach) then you must acknowledge that it matters what we watch/read/listen to.

However, the above is almost beside the point. The question at hand is whether anyone can be worse off for what art (or craft) they have been exposed to, not for what they have missed. Can the brilliantly erudite aficionado of the complete works of the artistic greats be somehow damaged for attending a Coldplay concert? I will argue he can.

Coldplay are catchy. They are also nauseatingly sentimental, two dimensional, obvious, uninspired, and totally lacking in anything  substantive. The fact that adults listen to this worthless and altogether trite dredge is a tragedy, but they are catchy. Catchy isn’t a problem, and nor is it easy. Many a band attempted little more than to compose a single head-bobber and failed. But Coldplay’s catchyness is the musical equivalent of thinly veiled propaganda serving as a vehicle for  shallow poetry and cynical contrivance.

But here I was not six months ago walking along and idly muttering a melody “Look at the stars, Look how they shine for you…” They got me. Stuck in my peon brain is this tired dreck. It took no conscious effort to summon the lyrics and melody – they are with me forever, potentially inserting themselves into whatever other endeavor I attempt, musical or no, and maybe even without my knowledge.

No artist exists in a vacuum is obvious to everyone. What might not be so obvious, is that maybe they should do their best to do just that.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

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6 Responses to “The Virus of Mediocrity”

  1. sarah Says:

    A) not really convinced of the high art/low art schism. i have met plenty of wangs who are unable to relate to others because they’re so caught up in trying to appear “smart” “cultured” or “cool”. in fact, while i generally enjoy many aspects of culture enormously, i have a hard time being convinced of the intrinsic value of culture and art besides for pure entertainment or smugness.
    B) “can one be worse off for what art (or craft) they have been exposed to.” probably not. in fact i feel without being exposed to a plethora of poor art one could not possibly distinguish the so-called good from the heralded bad, right?
    c) i dislike coldplay, but honestly i can’t see any particular difference between them and the likes of radiohead or arcade fire. using them as an example is flawed because they may well be enduring and proclaimed for exactly all the reasons you dismiss them for. shakespeare, dickens and tolstoy were are all the soap operas of their day.

  2. rockrobinoff Says:

    a) “convinced of the intrinsic value of culture and art besides for pure entertainment or smugness.”

    well, let me try and convince you. while i agree that mere snobbery, or the desire to appear smart and sophisticated by sheer association to that which is sophisticated and smart is a danger, the fact that some people fail does not diminish the cultural value of art. if you don’t have god or religion, then what you are left with is the arts to seek out meaning that can’t otherwise by successfully measured by science.

    b) “without being exposed to a plethora of poor art one could not possibly distinguish the so-called good from the heralded bad, right?” a pure vacuum is both impossible and a negative, but you haven’t addressed my point about the bad art worming its way into your…soul… for lack of a better word.

    c) “i dislike coldplay, but honestly i can’t see any particular difference between them and the likes of radiohead or arcade fire. ”

    you have to be kidding me. while i dont have much respect for arcade fire (i think i can safely categorize them as adult contemporary) i do have a a fair bit of respect for radiohead. hell, at least they are trying and don’t writesongs about stars. please.

    “shakespeare, dickens and tolstoy were are all the soap operas of their day.”

    i am sorry, but i cannot accept that. yes, in terms of the events that might take place in shakespeare play or in a dickens or tolstoy novel, that comparison works. but, as word smiths dickens and shakespeare were *fucking brilliant* and cannot be mention in the same breath as another world or general hospital. in other words, everything that makes shakespeare or dickens count has made them enduring – what about coldplay suggests to you they will last other than their current popularity?

  3. sarah Says:

    a) i love culture, (art, music and literature especially), and used it as my meter stick with which to measure my fellow man for most of my life. but in my admittedly limited experience i can’t say there is any work or art that someone would be truly substandard without. a lot of the people i admire most aren’t particularly attached to cultural artifacts and it makes me wonder if they’re so great despite – or because of it. so often culture is used to segregate and isolate rather than to unite and include. it’s a luxury a not a necessity. it’s great for expressing ideas, but generally i wish there were less shitty artists, writers and musicians bleating on about their inconsequential ideas and more people making small and necessary contributions to the real world. (me 10 years ago would want to give me a thorough conceptual drubbing)

    b) i have really generally little idea what bad art is. very little solid, concrete, empirical, proof on what is good, what is bad and what really separates them. one year i abhor soft pop, the next year i can’t get enough of phil collins. it’s all contextual and subjective, forever in flux. there’s a tremendous danger in certainty. i have seen plenty of art that i consider to be derivative, overly polemical, fucking stupid and/or inexcusably megalomaniac-y, but it has only served to heighten my enjoyment of the inspired and sublime. some of the more infective bad art has aroused debate and constructive thought. without the insipid, the overblown, the unoriginal, the inept and self serving, my critical faculty would not have been able to truly sharpen it’s teeth.

    c) radiohead is just prog. and really melodramatic, self congratulatory, holy-cow-sentimental. it’s just my opinion and i’m not in the least bothered if you disagree or think less of me for thinking it. it remains my opinion for now. i also admittedly have trouble liking things that i’m “supposed” to like. i’m adorably contrary.

    maybe you would be more comfortable with me comparing dickens, tolstoy and shakespeare to the wire or sopranos? same difference in my mind, it’s all fairly standard narrative. the vernaculars were different in those respective times then they are now. it doesn’t make valley girl speak or rap or leetspeak better or worse than iambic pentameter. had you lived in the mid 1800’s, or late 1600’s maybe your appreciation of their language would be more appropriate, less mired in the respect that has more to do with something being old than it’s value compared to peers. i would argue (and this is hardly a groundbreaking thought) that these writers are so prolific because they are so accessible, not because of any particular verbal or ideological superiority. which is exactly why something like coldplay might well persevere, much to your horror and my ambivalence.

    • rockrobinoff Says:

      i first want to compliment you on the brilliant closing sentence “which is exactly why something like coldplay might well persevere, much to your horror and my ambivalence.”

      “it’s great for expressing ideas, but generally i wish there were less shitty artists, writers and musicians bleating on about their inconsequential ideas and more people making small and necessary contributions to the real world. (me 10 years ago would want to give me a thorough conceptual drubbing)”

      anyone can say “i wish people were doing something more useful with their time to save the world.” but why single out artists when almost everybody is guilty of the same sin of narcissism? i’ll grant you that perhaps many artists imbue their art with an undeserved sense of import, but that is a personality flaw, not a failing of art, and not a reason to insist or suggest someone do something else.

      “have really generally little idea what bad art is. very little solid, concrete, empirical, proof on what is good, what is bad and what really separates them. one year i abhor soft pop, the next year i can’t get enough of phil collins. it’s all contextual and subjective, forever in flux. there’s a tremendous danger in certainty”

      i’d argue that you are putting blinders on and hiding behind the inescapable “you cannot prove that such and such is bad.” to my mind, that is a card you can’t play. people can go ahead and like anything they want, but as soon as we step into the world of criticism, liking something is neither here nor there, and proof is not the standard (otherwise, there is nothing to talk about and you reject the whole conversation before it starts). if i want to call something shit because it is *overly* derivative, saccharine, uninspired, and is even lacking in execution, then you can’t come back and say “yes, but i like it (or they like it) and you can’t prove its bad.” you must either come up with reasons why that something is original, edgy, inspired, and well performed, *or* that there is something else at play that makes it worthy despite its faults – and to deny that unoriginal and uninspired are faults is the equivalent of ending the discussion before it starts.

      hell, i like star trek. i think star trek absolutely indefensible porridge and wouldn’t dream of trying to convince someone that is worth their time, and not because i am embarrassed, but because i agree with the criticism. i just like it anyway, but my liking it doesn’t have anything to do with a discussion of its faults or merits.

      “maybe you would be more comfortable with me comparing dickens, tolstoy and shakespeare to the wire or sopranos? same difference in my mind, it’s all fairly standard narrative.”

      i’ll accept that what is to my mind the best american dramatic series ever, the sopranos, is founded upon a fairly standard narrative. however, i will also argue that the sopranos is not hampered by this, and is brilliant for reasons that have nothing to do with the narrative. performance, dialogue, the unique take on gangster life as it is expressed in a domestic setting, etc. in other words, i am denying that your comparison of the sopranos to the tired stories of yesteryear is at all meaningful beyond the obvious and simple fact that stories rife with conflict and insight into the human experience are enduring.

  4. sarah Says:

    “i wish people were doing something more useful with their time to save the world.”

    i see your point. but good lord there is an awful lot of unremarkable garbage out there. i don’t think anyone need stop making said garbage. only that they should have to make it without grants and sell it just like any craftsperson. i’m sick of seeing pompous grant flunkies and trust fund brats polluting the liberal arts just because they’ve got a flair for filling out forms or being wealthy.

    “hell, i like star trek.”

    with this point i concede on some level. i love dialog, but my tendency towards bitchy relativism generally brings a soggy end to many a debate. so lets say this point goes to you. but i still want to know: do you really believe in an absolute good and bad in terms of taste? in terms of technical proficiency nickleback may outshine beat happening, but beat happening are personal heros because of their initial lack of musical prowess. how do we tabulate such a score? can millions of nickleback fans be wrong? i’m happy to break the news to them, but i’d like some unshakable terms with which to bring reason to their savage misconceptions.

    “conflict and insight into the human experience are enduring.”

    what then should i be comparing the classics to? not soap opera’s, not decent dramatic series.. (and i agree. the sopranos’s are a masterpiece. for me it’s the idea of mafia as a metaphor for domestic familial relationships is so inspired it never fails to thrill me. but i find the wire utterly overrated. did you like it?).. what then?

    • rockrobinoff Says:

      “do you really believe in an absolute good and bad in terms of taste?”

      no, of course not. this discussion doesn’t lend itself to speaking in such terms. millions of nickelback fans aren’t wrong, but again, what one likes or doesn’t like isn’t a question that criticism addresses.

      if technical proficiency were the only yardstick by which to measure the validity of musical performance and composition, then yes, nickelback defeats beat happening. fortunately for us, technical proficiency is but one component among many that we can use to measure bands. i think it inescapable that the nickelback mob is uninterested in questions such as: what is art? how does this music fit in with what came before it? how will it influence what comes next? is nickelback ultimately derivative or original? is the music contrived i.e. designed with cynical intentionality, or does it flow effortlessly – the product of inspiration?

      now, valuing original and inspired and caring about art history and the nebulous definition of art isn’t for everyone, and caring doesn’t make nickelback bad, or nickelback fans wrong, but it does mean that when speaking in such terms, nickelback doesn’t count for much, and the nickelback fans don’t deserve a voice. to say otherwise is to deny your own ears and to shut off your brain.

      “what then should i be comparing the classics to? not soap opera’s, not decent dramatic series.. ”

      in terms of story and the reasons why the classics have lasted i think the comparison to sopranos (or whatevs) totally fair. the fact remains: stories of love, betrayal, murder, greed, lies, sex, blood, war, misery, triumph, and wit, are the only stories that are at all interesting to most everyone. that’s what we like. so, the only thing that counts when it comes to the new stories we write is the execution, the new take, etc. so, if someone tells me “yeah, the sopranos are good, but it’s nothing new under the sun” i say “what the fuck are you talking about? there is nothing else to write about.”

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