Fall 2004

100,000 Average Joes

Paul Fleming

The one thing that by its very nature should offer a middle ground—the average—seems to allow little consensus. Americans have a particularly confused relation to being average. As a self-proclaimed group identity, “average” is the magic word: “I’m just an average guy” can confidently glide across the lips without the implicit wish for a corrective ego-boost; one gladly allows oneself to be addressed as an “average American”; whether rich, poor, or in-between, everyone wants to identify themselves as “middle class.” On the other hand, nothing is more repulsive than being called average, good, nice, or okay. When it comes to being judged by others, one wants to be singled out, deemed excellent, exciting, or, when all else fails, then at least a jerk or asshole. Anything but average. Alexis de Tocqueville already diagnosed this particular psychosis of America: we suffer from two conflicting pathologies—the cult of equality (“I’m an average guy”) and the cult of individualism (“I’m different from everyone else”). Unfortunately, the desire to be normal runs counter to the fear of being nothing to write home about.

The classical world had a much clearer relation to the average. For Aristotle, the good life requires avoiding extremes, which denote deficiency or excess, and living the “mean” or “intermediate.” Horace dubs this Aristotelian ethics the “golden mean” or, more literally, “golden mediocrity.” Although such a philosophy sounds like the blueprint for ruling the world with a limp fist, Classical ethics had a completely different concept of the average. Unlike Christianity, Aristotle rejects the notion of an absolute law. The extremes are not fixed mathematical points or objective standards applicable to all, but intensities relative to only oneself. Anger, for example, is not to be condemned, but carefully calculated according to one’s individual extremes: If you tend to be an angry guy, you should not use your first big moment on national TV to scream like a madman (Howard Dean); and if you come across as a dispassionate technocrat, you shouldn’t express your principled opposition to the death penalty in the hypothetical case of your wife being raped and murdered without first expressing the wish that the culprit be quartered and boiled (Michael Dukakis). Some need to scream more, others less. In this version of finding your own private average, you can never be average or mediocre, because there is no better or worse in relation to others; they have their own average to deal with.

The Classical golden mean differs not only from person to person but also situation to situation. One does not have a fixed, life-long average; rather, the mean constitutes a moving target that permanently shifts in each new context. This constant need to re-calibrate one’s mean produces some interesting calculations of measured ethical behavior. In the spirit of the golden mean, Horace argues against adultery and for the sacred institution of the brothel: “Seeing one such, a person whom he knew, issuing from a whorehouse, Cato gave forth with this godlike utterance: ‘Praised be you for your virtue! When lewd lust swells the veins, here is the place where young men should go and not seduce other men’s wives.’”1 In the last great revival of the golden mean, Montaigne explains the at once ridiculous and consistent logic of seeking a sexual average in the name of anything but average sex: Since marriage is “a religious and holy bond,” whose “principal end is generation,” “the pleasure we receive from it should be a restrained pleasure, serious, and mixed with some austerity.” The limits of sexual exploration within marriage are set by its purported institutional and biological functions, which do not apply to other sexual constellations. In the name of “moderation” (the title of Montaigne’s essay), one must know where immoderation is allowed:

The kings of Persia used to invite their wives to join them in their fests; but when the wine began to heat them in good earnest and they had to give completely free rein to sensuality, they sent them back to their private rooms, so as to not to make them participants in their immoderate appetites, and sent for other women in their place, to whom they did not have the obligation of respect.

In order to respect and maintain the golden mean of marriage—“discreet and conscientious voluptuousness”—one must create a space exterior to it in which “immoderate appetites” can be fulfilled. Thus did one once display moderation. For this and other examples of adherence to the golden mean, Montaigne writes: “a fine and noble example of marriage.”2

If the golden mean was anything but average in our modern sense, this does not mean that Antiquity had no notion of the mediocre as a judgment of relative skill and ability. In fact, Horace already pinpoints the roots of being average as a double-edged sword:

Remember this as an important truth; there are some things in which mediocrity is allowable and even esteemed. A lawyer or pleader may fall short of the eloquence of Messala and yet be much valued; but neither Gods, men, nor the pillars of the booksellers will allow mediocrity in poetry.3

Cover of sole issue of People magazine (no, not that one). Note repeated figures.

If one adds the politician to the list of lawyer or pleader—and this is not out of place, since we are talking about the art of persuasion—the cards fall into place: While the mediocre artist “sinks below contempt,”4 the mediocre politician can occupy an esteemed place in the world—the head of state. In both cases, mediocrity marks a judgment of relative ability, a comparison with the rest and especially the best. From beginning on, being mediocre or average has had an ambivalent value: politics (especially in its modern, democratic form) is unthinkable without reference to the average, while average art is simply unthinkable. One doesn’t have to be the most eloquent, talented, and skillful politician to be successful. In fact, when the goal is to win the immediate approval of the average man, one must not be too intelligent, too complicated, or too “patrician.” Or, at least, a good politician must know how to be average when it counts: in identifying with the common man, feeling his pain, speaking his language, and being the kind of guy he’d like to drink a beer with. With art, everything is different. The crucial rule in Ars Poetica happens to be the absolute prohibition of average art. Horace’s epistolary treatise ends with the first great rant against the mediocre artist: he warns the young bard that since “every ignorant pretender will be meddling with poetry,” it is best to keep his poetic attempts “in [his] hand nine years at least” so that he does not walk around “vomit[ing] up his pompous lines.” The last sentence of Horace’s epochal work says it all about the mediocre poet: “Whoever he can seize upon, he is sure to hold him, and to read him to death; like a leech that once fastened sticks close to the skin, till ready to burst with blood.”5 So ends the Roman version of Letters to a Young Poet.

Cicero further elucidates this fundamental difference between the politician and the poet with respect to the average and, in fact, provides a mathematical formula for calculating it:

Once upon a time he [Antimachus] was reading to a selected company that lengthy poem of his and before he finished everybody left except Plato. “I shall proceed nevertheless,” he said; “to me Plato is worth a hundred thousand.” He was right, of course: a difficult and involved poem cannot be expected to make a wide appeal, but an oration which is to be delivered to the public must merit the applause of the public.6

In politics or court, all that matters is the immediate effect on the greatest number of people. The math is easy: add it up and see who gets the greater approval. In art, opinion is weighted. Ergo, the math of art is not “one man one vote,” but rather one Plato equals 100,000 average Joes. The artist only needs an audience of one (if it is the right one), whereas an orator by necessity must win over the crowd. Long before the “great communicator,” Cicero knew that you don’t even need to listen to a politician’s speech to judge its quality. You need only to watch the audience; if the majority is moved, the speaker is good—at least in appealing to the average man. A lawyer or politician, however, whose speech is so involved and complicated that it pleases Plato alone, is a failure. One could say that for the artist, the inverse is true: an artist’s problems begin when Plato hits the exit and everyone else stays. Successful art immediately raises the suspicion of mediocre art. Either the average Joe has morphed into Plato or one has failed miserably as an artist. What makes the successful politician or orator so esteemed—a piquant touch of mediocrity—also provides the true meaning of the damning nature of “mediocre” as an aesthetic judgment. In the art world, the labels “average” and “mediocre” are trump cards: one doesn’t waste them on some run-of the-mill, garden variety drivel penned by an average Joe. Rather, average and mediocre are the only words that remain when one is confronted with art that has a resonance, is popular, and belongs in some way to the canon. The judgment “mediocre” says: yes, it is successful, precisely because it appeals to base, popular standards. Mediocre art is the art of the politician: made to please.

Our ambivalent relation to being average derives from its differing political and aesthetic valences. Democracy cannot live without the average; art cannot live with it. As a group or political identity, one wants to belong to the majority and the normal ones; as an individual evaluation of worth, one wants to stand alone. The following section concerns the average and its related terms—the mediocre, the masses, the everyday, and the normal—and it goes without saying that its aim is quite common: to please.

  1. Horace, “Satire II,” in The Complete Odes and Satires of Horace, trans. Sidney Alexander (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 197.
  2. All quotes from Montaigne, “On Moderation,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 147.
  3. Horace, Ars Poetica, in The Works of Horace, trans. David Watson (London: T. Longman Press, 1792), ll., pp. 369-373.
  4. Ibid., l., p. 378.
  5. Ibid., ll., pp. 415-475, passim.
  6. Marcus Tullius Cicero, Brutus, On the Nature of the Gods, On Divination, On Duties, trans. Hubert M. Poteat (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), p. 125.

Paul Fleming is assistant professor of German at New York University. He 
is currently commencing a book project on the aesthetics and politics of