mediocrity, n.

A blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha.

Today we’re going to have a bit of fun.

This week, the blogalectic is discussing, as Jenna put it:

[I]f the artist’s vocation demands talent, study, discipline, and the wisdom to survive the ‘perilous shade’, what happens when the result is mediocre? Every artist, no matter how great, has created mediocre work at one time or another. No one reaches greatness without it. Is mediocrity good, or evil, or indifferent?

And what is mediocrity, exactly?

Now that’s a question. After a few anecdotes of songs she wrote and loved but now considered mediocre, Jenna explains:

Sometimes, mediocrity happens simply because we artists have not yet delved deeply into the experiences of our world. I remember that time in my life. The idea of mediocrity didn’t trouble me much; I simply thought of doing my best and doing well. I’d advise any young artist to think likewise. Let perfectionism always encourage you to outdo yourself, but don’t let it bully you into suffocating comparisons. Polish your talent, feed your devotion, hold to your commitment.

Masha, however, finds this conclusion untenable:

I am certain we are working from different understandings with regard to mediocrity.  I checked to be certain that my definition is a legitimate one, not merely my own reactions and responses to Kierkegaard and Christ in their united disgust with the mediocre, and my little dictionary confirmed me when it provided synonyms such as "indifferent," "mean," and "non-person." […]

Mediocrity in my understanding is the failure of the person to be a person, to be an active participant in his own life. It is the pursuit of the "good enough" and not the Good – attempting Purgatory, not Heaven, and in doing so, failing to reach either. Mediocrity fails to create Art because it is indifferent to Beauty, and uninterested in effort – it lacks not only talent but desire.

So we are left with the question of What Mediocrity Is. Is it simply, as Jenna implies, doing not-quite-the-best, an inevitable phase of the creative process? Is it, as Masha suggests, a forfeiture of one’s humanness for the damning mundane?

Since we’re talking dictionaries, let us put the question to the Learned Clerks of Oxenford. I’ve cheerfully raided OED.com, and what treasures I’ve found appear below the jump.

Mediocrity, n.  earns no fewer than six definitions, with three subdefinitions for 1. I won’t burden you with them all, but they’re interesting. For instance, 2 offers us mediocrity as a synonym for temperance: ‘measured conduct or behaviour’. This hasn’t been used since the 18th century, but was used from the 16th, when, in The boke name the Gouernour (1531), Sir Thomas Elyot raised the rhetorical question:

Some men wolde saye, that in mediocritie, whiche I haue so moche praised in shootynge; why shulde nat boulynge, claisshe, pynnes, and koytyng be as moche commended?

There is that.

Definition 3 is also obsolete, and refers to a ‘moderate fortune’, what I guess we would now call ‘middle-class’ or ‘bourgeois’, depending. So a translation of De Imatatione Christi (1500) declares that:

It is mannys felicite to haue temporall godes in abundaunce, but mediocrite sufficiþ him.

And S. W. Singer, writing in his 1816 Researches into the History of Playing Cards, gives us the unfortunate news that:

John Gænsfleisch […] was constrained by the mediocrity of his means to quit his native city of Mentz.

While Thomas Hardy, in The Return of the Native (1878), encouraged us all that:

Its [sc. a well-proportioned mind’s] usual blessings are happiness and mediocrity […] enabling its possessors to find their way to wealth, to wind up well, [etc.].

Mediocrity can also be a concrete noun, as 6 explains accordingly; it appears to be derogatory. J. R. Green decried one Mr ‘Spencer Perceval, an industrious mediocrity of the narrowest type’ in 1874, whereas in 1983 Clive James insisted that ‘The TUC is run by shambling mediocrities who are an insult to their own heritage.’ Mediocrity in rhetoric appears to bite.

But it’s 4 that seems the most common usage, and I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a bit of smugness in the Clerks’ smiles as they wrote this:

The quality or condition of being mediocre.

In near constant use since the 16th century, and illustrated in this scathing sentence from Marshall McLuhan, in a letter from 18 April 1960:

I shall always remember my shock […] to discover the ordinary mediocrity of the ordinary Cambridge undergraduate.

While the Marshall fumes, this St Andrews postgraduate has clicked over to the entry for mediocre, and there discovered that it means ‘That which is mediocre; mediocre people as a class’. Sir R. Harrington, writing in the Law Times in 1884, encouragingly declares:

The mediocre […] always form numerically the largest portion of every profession.

And a columnist in The Speaker, writing on 17 October 1903, foresaw this calamity arising from something or other:

The result would be a kind of nightmare of the mediocre, a universal Brixton.

Call it the gift of prophecy. But the primary definition, mediocre as an adjective, is ‘used chiefly of literary or artistic works’, and means: ‘of middling quality; neither good nor bad’.

Well. That’s a right weasely definition. The examples—

  • A very mediocre Poet, one Drayton, is yet taken some notice of […] (1742)
    […] the style of the engraving […] is but médiocre (1797)
    We enter the suburbs, and pass through mediocre streets of brick. (1847),
    Captain Ross’s Welsh cow gave 46 lb. of mediocre milk. (1884)
    In a US television season of many mediocre new shows, some miracles do occur […] (1990)

—don’t help all that much. It’s an escape word, a noncommittal word, the sort of word good-guy-bad-guys use in those movies where they’re trying to please everybody and not get arrested. The mediocre is middling (to switch one root for another), amoral, rats feet over broken glass.

The mediocre is C average. Unremarkable. Uninspired. Merely acceptable. Blah.

Why?

All these definitions seem to exist concurrently at one time or another. My initial theory—we’re seeing a sort of social history, as the medium is abandoned for the extremes, the Romantic and then the Nihilists challenging the decorum and balance of the Humanists and the wild adventure of Civilization—needs much more development than a blog post can give it. But it does remain that, at it root, mediocrity suggests the middle road, the third way, liminality and balance.

Returning to the page for mediocrity, we’re left with 1b, which tells us that mediocrity is ‘the quality or condition of being intermediate between two extremes; an intermediate state or condition’. In other words, it’s a mean—equidistant between two points. This definition seems to have been common in the 17th century, petering out during the 19th and ‘Now rare.’ It is a ‘quasi-technical term’ derived from Hoarce’s aurea mediocritas, or ‘golden mediocrity,’ which, the Clerks tell us is in turn derived from Aristotle, ‘who esp. in the Nicomachean Ethics (1106b.27 and elsewhere) associated virtue or goodness (ἀρετή) with such a middle position or mean (μεσότης).’

Fascinatingly, disturbingly, they offer with this example from Thomas More’s Works (1510):

The golden mediocrite, the meane estate is to be desired.

Balance, harmony, synthesis, mediocrity—it’s a quest, an ideal, a mad and perhaps unattainable ideal to find the inner centre, the eye of the soul and the calm of the heart, perhaps even ‘a state of complete simplicity | costing not less than everything’. We’re uncomfortable with it, now. We like to think of ourselves as living on edges, at extremes. But even Wordsworth, for instance, put forward the golden mean as part of the ‘quiet flow | Of truths that soften hatred’. Something that seems painfully lacking in today’s discourse.

Have we, perhaps, forgotten how to be mediocre? And might that account for how much mediocrity that pains us in Arts and culture today?

What is mediocrity, exactly? It depends on how you’ve angled your spectrum. Masha is using what I might call a vertical spectrum, with Ultimate Good as the zenith for which we can and should strive, as artists and as individuals. On that scale, the middle point is not enough, is insufficient, and should be rejected.

But what happens when, if you’ll forgive the reductiveness of the analogy, we use a horizontal spectrum? And the goal is balance at the centre point. Then the desirable point is mediocre. This, in fact, is the Medieval view of the world, more or less—the Earth and her inhabitants were the extremity (distorted to appear as the centre) and God, the Ultimate God, was at the centre (which seemed to us the extremity).

If this is the case, then perhaps what we should be striving for is mediocrity, the aurea mediocritas. This becomes the third road, the middle way, ‘Where thou and I this night maun gae’. Are we, in fact, not mediocre enough?

The question may be entirely lexical, but it’s there.

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2 thoughts on “mediocrity, n.

  1. A quick note about Aristotle on “the mean,” which is virtue (e.g., bravery) as the “intermediate” between two “extreme” vices (cowardice and rashness): While virtue does reside in striking upon this intermediate condition, it is the phronimos–Aristotle’s rare and excellent person of practical wisdom–who can see this intermediate point, and “that is why virtue, as far as its essence and the account stating what it is are concerned, is a mean, but, as far as the best [condition] and the good [result] are concerned, it is an extremity” (NE 1107a7-9). Hence, Aristotle’s “virtue as the mean” account is much closer to Masha’s view, since the one who hits upon the mean as a way of being is an extreme of goodness.

    Seeing mediocrity as part of the creative process is helpful, I think, since we all know (unless you’re Mozart) what it’s like to go through many rough drafts, sketches, etc. (depending on the artistic medium) before seeing one’s gem emerge from the dross. Getting it “right” is hard work, so I’m generally inclined to agree with Masha on this–one should press onward really hard before saying “Yes, that’s it!” And one should be willing to say “I can’t do this” after really trying one’s hand at something and then trash it rather than let it go public (I’ve totally been there on some creative efforts that I simply haven’t figured out how to pull off–either in the trash or on the shelf).

    However, there’s also an important developmental point that Jenna raises. There is the best that one can do at a point in time, and from that vantage point it might look really good–only to revisit it years later and “see” all that you had missed because you weren’t “there” yet. Does this mean that the creation was always mediocre, despite its being one’s best at at an earlier stage in development? And how does one evaluate that fairly? I think that I’m trying to pry apart an intentional condition (I tried my best in all good faith to the utmost of my talent, not merely “settled for good enough”) and a success condition (it’s really excellent [or not] as measured against the True and Beautiful).

  2. Carrie-Ann, thanks so much for all your contributions to this discussion! That was very helpful, especially given that I’d cobbled together my understanding of the aurea mediocritas mostly from the OED!

    What I do want to draw out from you explanation, though, is (guess what!) the paradox of the mean being the extremity. The mediocre, in that sense, is thus liminal. And the liminal is thus essential. The Good and the Beautiful lies in the centre–the mediocre.

    This, of course, is ‘quasi-technical’, and counter-intuitive to our normal definition of mediocrity. Which, to be fair, has been the dominant definition for 500 years or so. But I remain fascinated by the centre and the extremity being the same locus point. Not sure where to go with that, but it’s there.

    In re your last paragraph, speaking as a critic here I’d have to say yes, regardless of personal standards and successes, there is an objective artistic standard (mean?) to which any work must be held. ‘The best I’ve ever done’ may still be not-very-good as far as the aesthetic of a given medium is concerned. And it takes a lot of guts to admit that about one’s own work, I think, especially if it’s still a work-in-progress.

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