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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Do We Live In An Age Of Mediocrity?

The Fashion Editor of the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman, has written an article about mediocrity (11.2.14) and how we seem to be mired in it.  Everywhere she looks, she sees nothing but reruns and cultural retreads in art, fashion, and literature.
That feeling of browsing your Kindle, or standing in your local Barnes & Noble, faced with yet more young adult trilogies about dystopias and tough-girl heroines, or soft-porn-for-grown-ups trilogies (or just trilogies, period), and thinking, “What is there to read?” The new mediocre.
That harrumph when you peruse the movie listings and find yourself choosing between comic-book-hero action films and old-guy action films — unless you want to go way, way across town to the one surviving and obscure art-house cinema that values conversation over abs? The new mediocre.
But is she right? Are the 2000’s any more mediocre than the Fifties?  The Great Depression lasted over a decade and the Thirties were about as single-minded as any decade.   The Roaring Twenties were great for F.Scott Fitzgerald’s crowd, John D. Rockefeller, and J. Paul Getty; but have never been characterized as the efflorescence of American culture.

The Eighties were not so much creative than an era of expressive if not aggressive energy after the lassitude and disappointments of the Seventies.  “It is morning in America”, said Ronald Reagan, ushering in an era of neo-laissez-faire capitalism.



The Sixties were by no means mediocre; and America has not seen such a dramatic shift in cultural, social, and political values since. Musicologists consider the period to be perhaps the greatest of all. Revolutionary fashion, open sexuality, avant-garde music, individualism, and civil rights all characterized the Sixties and early Seventies. 

If one is selective – i.e. looking at one area of creativity – then every decade was creative. The Seventies produced some great Hollywood movies. Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I and II, Nashville, Chinatown were Academy Award winners. The Forties had classics like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Great Dictator, and Citizen Kane. Fashion in the 40s was classic, European-American in grace, simplicity, and elegance.

The Fifties, although characterized by a general social conservatism are also  remembered for Abstract Expressionism, and the paintings of Pollock, Kline, Motherwell, and Rothko were anything but ordinary.

What about today? If one looks at Hollywood, Broadway, and Barnes&Noble it certainly looks as though we are living a derivative, copy-cat culture, devoid of much inspiration and creativity. But perhaps we are looking in the wrong places.  Who said creative energy must come from the arts alone?  The incredible technological advances of the early 21st century will change human society if not human nature in fundamental, incontrovertible ways. 

The cracking of the genetic code will take creation out of the hands of God.  Any one of us will be able to select the offspring we want from an archive of DNA strands from Marilyn Monroe, Einstein, and Michael Jordan.  Scientists will be able to weed out the bad genes of cancer and schizophrenia and replace them with high intelligence, visual acuity, and sensual sensitivity.


Virtual reality is only just beginning, and within a few decades complete mind-computer interface will be possible.  We will not be confined to the ‘real’ world but will be able to wander in a virtual world of our own making.

Taken together – recombinant DNA and virtual reality – represent fundamental, structural change in human nature.  We will soon no longer resemble any human generation before us. If this is not an explosion of creativity, then what is?

Friedman talks of zeitgeist and how fashion among other things reflects culture.  The lines and styles of catwalks are reflective or social and economic realities on the street. Hems go up and down according to the stock market.  Suits may be full or trim, dresses sexy or demure depending on the attitudes and conditions of the times.

So it is that the most creative people in America today are writing code, and mobile phones, social media, and virtual landscapes are the new fashion. Silicon Valley is yesterday’s Seventh Avenue.  Cyberspace is the new Milan, New York, or Paris.


There is no one ‘mired in mediocrity’. Those who live in the worlds of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Vermeer, Bacon, and Kiefer know nothing of mediocrity. They live in Spring Valley, Pacific Heights, Park Avenue, or Sausalito and never have to even be exposed to popular culture.

For anyone who is interested, the greatest works of art, literature, film, and thought are available within minutes. 

On a scale of mediocrity, there are three classes in America – the well-bred, well–educated, and affluent for whom historical culture will never be boring and is never mediocre; the creative geniuses of Silicon Valley, bio-engineering, genetics, and IT; and the rest of the consuming public who, because of socio-economic constraints are limited in their choices.

High culture – excellence – has always been the preserve of the wealthy and high-born. The Church alone with its bottomless treasury commissioned some the greatest art works of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The nobility has always supported the arts and appreciated the results.  The courts of kings were rich in high learning, music, fashion, and artistry. Private wealth built Florence, Venice, and Paris. The Roman nobility taught according to the educational precepts of Cato the Elder studied philosophy, mathematics, science, and literature – elements thought to be necessary for the future leaders of the Empire.  Wealth generates culture and then purchases and enjoys it.

          
The tens of millions of Americans working two jobs, with a community college education at best, with little in the bank account and with few economic prospects, are necessarily consigned to a mediocre existence.  Who knows how many of them, with a little of the privileged education and some of the trust funds enjoyed by their Fifth Avenue fellows, would not be listening to Bach, painting in a loft in Brooklyn, or designing revolutionary software on Route 128?

In certain quarters of American society excellence is alive and well. There are those who demand it and consume it; and those who create it. For most others, life is ordinary, predictable, conservative, and routine.. This is how it has always been.  If one were to look at the feudal world of Henry VIII, most of England was ‘mediocre’. During the glory of the Florentine Renaissance, most people in Italy let alone Northern Europe lived in penury, and subjugation – lives solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

There are only three lessons: First, mediocrity has always been and will always be a feature of human society.  Second, there will always be pockets of extreme creativity and excellence, but not necessarily in the same sectors of society; and third, there will always be an intelligentsia or highly-educated elite who have grown up in a tradition of intellectual excellence; and for whom living among history’s greatest works will never be mediocre.







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