6.27.2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre

A blogalectic with Masha and Mr. Pond. Their most recent posts: Masha's The Artist as Other and Mr. Pond's Othering Beauty.

Unlike debate, which searches for a winning argument, dialectic searches for synthesis. But in this bloggers' dialectic, Masha and I—despite some agreement—have turned up a few seemingly opposite ideas. Last week, it occurred to us that in the pursuit of common ground, we ought to look around for the root of our disagreement. Neither of us is quite sure where it is. But Mr. Pond has a theory:
Whereas Masha directs us to the Good, the universal, Jenna directs us to the immediate, the particular. This is the distinction that divides Western thought between itself. The line may be a fine one, but it seems my compatriots are on opposite sides.
He's talking about kataphasis and apophasis, two words I had to Google, and which—after Googling—I'm convinced that a lot of people on the internet don't really understand much better than I do. I suspect Mr. Pond is on to something, but until I've educated myself a bit further, I don't dare try to say just what.

But I did love this, from his piece:
Artists... occupy that strange and liminal space of living within a communal role, as Masha notes, while being a voice in the wilderness. They dwell on the borders, on the third road between nature and supernature, between the people and God, and speak what they see as they turn from one to the other. Art is capricious and dangerous, as are all things in that perilous shade, and the artist dances a deadly step of mockery and wonder. They belong to neither world and to both. So they hold the Mirror of Scorn and Pity, the face of judgement, up to the people, while knowing irrevocably that the reflection is their own.
Also, this bit from Masha's, which inspired the above:
Beauty does speak, it triumphs, and this is the "ancient, communal role" (Kathleen Norris) of the artist - to delve deep into the experiences of his world and birth beauty, to "call forth" the riches of everyday. 

In so many ways, the role of the artist is similar to the role of the prophet, a "necessary other" existing and creating, not in "untrammeled freedom" but in an "exacting form of discipline" (Kathleen Norris) that submits the Artist to the demands of his vocation and demands from him not only talent, but devotion and commitment as well.
Which leads us into the topic for this week: if 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? What if the artist did the best they could possibly do, but lacked the training or resources to achieve high quality—yet an audience, perhaps a non-artistic one, is still moved by the work? I feel this way about a lot of my songs from, say, ten years ago. When your primary influence is Christian pop music, your abilities will be desperately stunted, and mine certainly were. Yet people were moved to tears by some of those songs, and my singing voice has never been that good.

I would call those songs mediocre. (And some of them, just downright lame.) But they served some purpose, they had spots of goodness, and they took the best artistic effort I could offer at the time. Good, bad, or indifferent? I don't think there's an easy answer.

What if an artist managed great success in one part of the work's creation, but failed in another? Or what if he or she created a beautiful piece intentionally to blaspheme the good—or conversely, tried to create a beautiful piece with the idea of defending the good, but sacrificed truth and/or beauty for agenda? Do these things create mediocrity, or something other—some mixture of good and bad?

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.

Nowadays, I still sometimes produce mediocre work. I do, much as I hate to admit it. But to the best of my knowledge and hope, I sometimes produce better. Art changed for me when life became a strange and dangerous liminal road, where my own reflection terrifies me, but the deadly dance is filled with wonder.

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