Saturday, January 12, 2013

In Praise of Mediocrity

There are two ways in which art affects a culture. One is that the artist, never out of nowhere, but perhaps not widely known, does something that changes perception. It comes at you like a cataclysm, it is a "black swan", an unexpected thing - even if it is what were are looking for ("the next big thing.") Yes, its "Anarchy in the UK" or "Reservoir Dogs", or - as importantly, those works that prove the potential, take it to a next level: "Pulp Fiction" then; or "Money." In a dynamic culture we are always looking for this, and are more surprised if it doesn't occur than if it does. A brief lull in the culture is the vacuum in which the new art will shine. Nobody was expecting the Smiths or Tarantino but the culture wasn't surprised when they appeared; and, as importantly, had the structures in place (independent record labels; Sundance festival) to quickly adapt to the new dynamic.

The other way, is where the cultural actor (it could be an artist, but as I'll explain it could be someone else), is where we have invested our cultural interest to such an extent that we are primarily looking in that direction. The structures we have - and more than that, the "tastes" of the nation - are as predictable as a military parade in North Korea. When the "event" happens then we have already put in place the receiving mechanism. It will be anything except ignored. A healthier culture would not invest so much in these cultural bombs; but we are not a healthy culture - too much depends on respecting the status quo, and without a demographic, political or technological shift to signal the need for the new, we can do nothing other than offer faint praise for the mediocrity. This is the world where the BBC gave over so much of its programming to the launch of the (now forgotten) U2 album "No Line on the Horizon" that Andrew Marr referred to working for "the U2 Broadcasting corporation." (Get well soon, Andrew.)  This is the world into which The Phantom Menace (and possibly The Hobbit) dropped; this is the world where "Be Here Now" is the fastest selling album ever, and this is the world where a mediocre, and possibly slightly strange portrait of an otherwise uninteresting person is front page news because she is married to the heir to the throne.

Its eminently possible that something culturally remarkable may have happened in the last few weeks, but our culture is now programmed to praise the mediocre to such an extent that it would not have the structures to do anything other. On a minor level, this is the Guardian only ever interviewing or reviewing poetry at any length when it has the imprimatur of Faber, Picador or Cape; it is the excitement over a new Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan or Martin Amis book; it is X-Factor, and the Olympics and the Premiership. It is, also, ironically, why there is such much interest in the new David Bowie single/album though his last real "hit" was nearly thirty years ago. For Bowie, like Tarantino, or "Star Wars" or Martin Amis  has enough cultural capital to make any return, any return-to-form, anything not too dreadful, a welcome one. We praise the mediocre because it has a familiarity which has already been approved. Kate Middleton's (I have no idea what her real name is nowadays, the royals make these things up as they go along) portrait will be the most talked about work of visual art this year and it is an irrelevance whether it is good or bad. It is meant to be mediocre; it could not be anything else. Or rather, if it transcends its origins, (as a good soundtrack album might adorn a poor film), then it is an accident.

For wherever we look, the most important work - the most important cultural work - is happening outside of these media bursts; and despite the availability of everything on the internet and elsewhere, the mainstream press and television have to show a willingness to look beyond the expected if they are to remain valid. There seems, I think, to have been some abdication of responsibility - not helped by our utilitarian leaders - in an age where the mainstream is able to set the agenda almost immune to failure. When a film crashes it used to bring down a studio, but even an absolute turkey like 2012's "John Carter" brought in enough box office to cover its production budget (if not its real costs.) Of course, away from the mainstream there are many things that do bloom, but to go back to my previous posting, artists need to find a way to live, publishers need to be able to make enough money to survive and grow, and audiences need to be able to access less publicised work.

The critic doesn't become mute in an age of mediocrity, but he or she knows that his voice cannot be heard above the deafening mainstream. That an okay single by a great artist, and a mediocre portrait of a woman famous only for who she married, are our two cultural signifiers this week is a sign of the times we live in - and bloggers, writers, friends-on-Facebook, tweeters end up all becoming part of that conversation, even though this week and next my own cultural experiences encompass new electronic music, poetry launches, and experimental performances.


Unknown said...

Great post Adrian.
What an upside-down, back-to-front world we live in. At least there's something to fight.
Jones Jones

Freddie B. said...

A very stimulating blog post that captures that nagging feeling I get from the way our mass media report on culture.

'The Culture Show' is the perfect example of this. Andrew Graham Dixon and his fellow presenters like Mark Kermode all strike me as clever people with many interesting things to say, but somehow the format conspires to make everything seem, well, you said it, mediocre.

Reading your post has crystallised why I feel this - what 'The Culture Show' gives me is that sense of cultural consolidation you describe: ie. this is the film / book / art show that the combined forces of commercial promotion and critical consensus deem to be 'important' right now and which any right-minded, culturally literate person needs to take note of.

Personally I find it stultifying. There is so much terrific and surprising music, writing and art in the UK - and worldwide - yet somehow its energy and imagination is muted by this suffocating sense of politeness and promotion that surrounds our cultural conversations.

Everything is simultaneously explained and celebrated - ie. rendered accessible and consumable. Yet most people I suspect turn to art / music / literature to get something a bit of mystery, or wonder, surprise, horror, anything other than the humdrum mediocrity of nice people talking in reasonable voices... it makes me long for the days of the Sex Pistols telling Bill Grundy to f*** off or the Gang of Four refusing to censor their lyrics for Top of the Pops.

But those days are not coming back to our beloved media any time soon. In 'England's Dreaming', Jon Savage makes a very compelling case for the idea that the origins of punk coincided with the reinvention of news as entertainment - a cultural shift that ultimately neuters anything of its power to shock or disturb the status quo. I don't really do his brilliant book justice here, but I dare say you get the point.

The question I keep asking myself is whether the web has the power to reinstate some of culture's power to disturb, or whether it is simply more of the same. Any thoughts on that?

Adrian said...

What I notice Freddie, is that when you read rock criticism from the 70s or lit crit from the 50s how demanding they were of artists, and how brutal about their failure. A critic's job was to criticise. Now it seems that we apologise for the work's failings.

Freddie B. said...

As a broad rule, there's a good deal of truth in this. I grew up reading the books pages in Sunday Times / Guardian and record reviews in NME, and they were all very combative and cerebral environments.

You could argue that we are well rid of this posturing and willy-waving. But personally I miss the wider frame of reference brought to bear on works of art - that sense that they are part of wider sociocultural currents of debate. You have to turn to a specialist publication like the LRB to find that these days.

As a wild guess, I wonder if this has something to do with the way in which culture is now PR-ed. I'm guessing that Martin Amis, say, back when he was tearing chunks out of Norman Mailer, was largely immune to the blandishments of Mailer's UK publishers publicity department.

Thanks to digital and social media, the equivalent reviewer today is far more likely to be somewhat closer and more accessible to the process of softening up and cultivating friendly media contacts that PR excels at.