Fall 2004

Middle Men

The aesthetics of the mediocre

Eva Geulen

There is no such thing as mediocre art
In many areas of life, mediocre might just be that: middle-of-the-road and generally okay. But as an aesthetic judgment, “mediocre” is downright damning. In a culture such as the one we have inhabited for roughly 200 years that puts a premium on novelty, artistic mediocrity spells failure or worse. Originality need not justify itself against a given standard because it sets a standard by virtue of its newness. The mediocre, by contrast, presupposes a standard against which it is measured and, to the extent that it is measured against this standard, upholds and confirms it. Hence, mediocrity tends towards conservation. It is in this sense that the literary historian Ernst Robert Curtius calls mediocrity the medium in which the “unbreakable chain of tradition” was able to sustain itself from antiquity through the Middle Ages.[1] Longing for such a premodern sense of tradition, conservative art historians of the mid-20th century lamented the “Loss of the Middle” (Gustav Sedlmayer) under the tyranny of “The Demon of Progress in the Arts” (Wyndham Lewis).

If mediocrity in modern art signals failure, it is certainly not the glamorous kind that, according to Adorno, stems from the tragic flaw of all artworks, which can never keep the promises they make, simply because they are only artworks. Under modern conditions aesthetic mediocrity is worse than failure, for even a failed artwork can be identified as art, but whether a mediocre artwork still qualifies is questionable. While there are plenty of exhibits (and markets) dedicated to failed or ‘bad’ art, to Kitsch and Camp, forgeries and Nazi art, a museum for mediocre art is missing. Which is not to say that modern art has no room for the mediocre as subject matter. On the contrary, modern art has cultivated the average and the quotidian in many forms and shapes: from Duchamp’s ready-mades to Warhol’s Brillo boxes, from the heroes of distinguished mediocrity in the German Bildungsroman between Goethe and Thomas Mann, to contemporary Pop Literature, art seems to have entertained a veritable love affair with a certain kind of mediocrity, the very kind that was largely foreclosed to art when it was still governed by tradition, which is to say, when the topics were limited, the canon was restricted, and the mediocre was determined as meeting (and maintaining) a standard. Perhaps modern art is obsessed with this topic, not because it constantly seeks to expand its purview and to conquer the last taboos but because mediocre is the one thing modern art can never be.

What if all art is mediocre?
The point at which mediocrity fell into disrepute can be dated relatively precisely. The triumphant rise of so-called autonomous art in the 18th century consigned mediocrity to its fate of exile. Friedrich Nietzsche, who left us the most vicious and rhetorically anything but mediocre attacks on mediocrity, has described this rupturing of the great chain of tradition. Under the heading “Revolution in Poetry,” he faults German literature since Lessing and French Literature after Voltaire for having chosen the lawlessness of innovation as its mode of existence. According to Nietzsche, the secret of great art had always been its ability to evoke the appearance of complete freedom while actually being bound by the strictest rules of tradition. It follows that, for Nietzsche, truly liberated art, which has left all fetters behind, is no art at all. With few exceptions, the literature produced in the wake of Lessing and Voltaire is therefore denounced as insubstantial and even destructive “experimentation.” The sole effect of this revolution consisted in its irrevocable “rupture with tradition,”[2] which gave rise to an art whose particular mediocrity is said to have held sway ever since.

In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche dates the downfall of great art and the rise of mediocre art much earlier. As in so many other respects, Antiquity, the home of “great” art, also provides the model for this modern development. At issue is the death of Greek tragedy after Sophocles, and Euripides figures as its executioner: “Bourgeois mediocrity, on which Euripides built all his political hopes, now had its chance to speak.”[3] Nietzsche’s analogy is not as far-fetched as it seems. Not only in Greece but in Germany as well, modern art emerged as the determined will not to be mediocre, but rather to allow the mediocre to have access to art in the name of democracy. Particularly in Germany, the art system was established and for quite a while sustained by the newly emerging “middle class,” which staked all its political hopes and dreams in the aesthetic realm. Ideally, art was to be the harbinger for the political future of Germany as a democratic nation.

A peculiar asymmetry governs the modern art system: on the one hand, it is exclusive with respect to who may participate—as artists and critics—and on the other it invites an internal democratization of its subject matter and forms. In short: the disruptive innovation known as the rise of autonomous art in the latter 18th century consisted above all in discovering and claiming mediocrity as the content and form for aesthetic projects. Lessing, credited with the invention of the “bourgeois tragedy,” explicitly recommends “middle characters” as an alternative to the aristocratic protagonists of French classical tragedy. In his most famous play, often deemed an enlightened plea for religious tolerance, the central Jewish figure Nathan (known as the Wise) claims his Christian counterpart is “middle good, like us.”[4] To assess the genuine novelty of this aesthetic and political elevation of mediocrity, a comparison with the ethical valence of mediocrity in classical antiquity is helpful. Whereas the rise of mediocrity in the wake of Lessing figures the mean or middle, quite paradoxically, as a measure in its own right, Antiquity’s golden mean still needed to be determined by a set of measurements, namely by the equal distance from polar extremes. The existence of extremes is acknowledged, and they remain in place as important points of orientation. Moreover, the ancient sense of “mean” in Aristotle and beyond generally depends on a cosmological order in which humans have to find their measure and their mean but are not, at least not explicitly, challenged to found a measure in the first place. When the poet Hölderlin writes around 1800 “There is no measure on earth,” despair has eclipsed the hope that the heavens might hold a measure after all. Positing, as the Enlightenment had done so proudly, the middle as measure and as the only measure, is a modern phenomenon. It is thinkable only on the basis of the enlightened focus on man as the measure (and measurer) of things, that is to say, on subjectivity as the origin and end of all measures.

It did not take long for the tensions in this modern concept of mediocrity as measure to manifest themselves. By 1830, the poet Heinrich Heine famously enunciates the “end of the artistic period.” In Heine’s retrospective account of the more recent literary and artistic history, the very mediocrity championed by Lessing and others now serves to stigmatize the heyday of German art known as Idealism and Romanticism. Already for Heine, Lessing and the Enlightenment mark the turning point when “the most wretched mediocrity began to play havoc more disgustingly than ever, and triviality and insanity swelled up like the frog in the fable.”[5] Even Germany’s acclaimed poet-prince, the icon Goethe, is suspected of having produced mediocre art. The younger, politically inclined generation to which Heine belongs views Goethe as “a Ludwig XI who suppresses spiritual nobility by elevating the nobility of the spiritual animal, beloved mediocrity.”[6]

But even here, the verdict against mediocrity is accompanied by a positive re-evaluation of the same concept, once again in the name of democracy. Heine himself (whose own elevated status as a poet is in the eyes of many experts not justified by his supposedly “mediocre” poetry) dedicated his literary energies to the exploration of a new medium. In the feuilletons and journals for which he primarily wrote, high literature went mainstream; Heine developed a new art form intended to bridge the gap between high art and the emerging popular magazine culture. His prose pieces document his attempt to seize upon a new and positive notion of mediocrity. This attempt coincides precisely with the formation of the modern masses, the emergence of “the lowest estate,” and the restructuring of communication through mass media. With the advent of statistics a little later, mediocrity can be quantitatively determined as the average. This dual development paves the way for the disdain that the “middle class” begins to harbor for “the average.” Displaced from the central social position by the rise of the “the lower classes” and, in particular, “the fourth estate” or proletariat, the bourgeoisie dismisses mediocrity as the taste of the masses. Shortly after Heine’s singular attempt to meld old (idealist) art and modern journalism into a new, democratic art form of the middle, mediocrity becomes a symptom of mass culture. In their famous chapter on the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer issue their verdict against courting mediocrity: “The heroization of the average belongs to the cult of cheapness.”[7]

In the late 1820s, while Heine rebelled against one kind of mediocrity and practiced another, the philosopher Hegel also turned against his predecessors, Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, who had done so much to endorse art’s superiority. Whereas Heine held out hope for the emergence of a new art, Hegel irrevocably abandoned the strange hope, sustained from the Enlightenment through Romanticism, that the aesthetic sphere would be the key to all riddles and would even usher in a democratic age. Like Heine, Hegel claimed that art had come to an end, overgrown and infected by what Hegel liked to call “the prose of life.”[8] And yet here too, it was Hegel’s belief in an intimate connection between art and mediocrity that led to his famous enunciation of the end of art. As remote as he is in many respects from his predecessors between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, Hegel’s very notion of an artwork is premised on a certain middle position, which can be sustained only by art maintaining an equal distance from merely mirroring the everyday, on the one hand, and getting lost in fantasy, on the other. The famous exception to Hegel’s dogma on art is his affection for the realism of Dutch painting with its immersion in the quotidian.

From Hegel’s exemption of Dutch painting one can draw a line to all subsequent attempts to vindicate for art a concept of realism that takes the everyday as its subject matter. The varied aesthetic and critical theories since 19th-century realism share a common denominator that reflects the paradoxical consequences of aesthetically elevating the mediocre, average, quotidian, and whatever else may be said to lack privilege and nobility. Some German realists of the second half of the 19th century negotiated the problem by claiming programmatically that their interest in such subject matter was neither an expression of subservience to the mundane world nor a mere mirroring of its banality. On the contrary, they said, the point was to transfigure the quotidian by virtue of its artistic presentation. However, the ultimate (and politically symptomatic) purpose was to lend aristocratic glamour to the quotidian thanks to its aesthetic refinement. And so it comes as no surprise that those phenomena determining the times—the increasing administration of the world, new mass media—only marginally gained admittance to the realist universe of German writers, who cultivated the mediocre as the unobtrusive element that escapes from view and needs to be found just like children might find semiprecious stones among the common rocks they collect.[9] In the end, German realism dedicated itself to the aesthetic rehabilitation of a mediocrity that had already begun to disappear in the wake of statistics and mass media.

What is consistently remarkable about the shifting fortunes of mediocrity in the aesthetic sphere is that every turn against one kind of mediocrity is accompanied by a turn towards a different kind. The concept seems strangely volatile and uneven; rather than neatly obeying the logic of opposition (mediocrity vs. genius; rule vs. exception), mediocrity seems to produce counter-concepts from its own midst.[10]

What if everything is mediocre?
Even in Aristotle’s ethics, which elevate the mean to the supreme ethical goal, one intimates that another sense of mediocrity—as lukewarm compromise and the path of least resistance—encroaches upon this highest virtue. Mediocrity seems pursued by the suspicion that it might be below par. Perhaps the latent fear that the “golden mean” is not enough causes Aristotle to emphasize in turn that the mean is not mediocre but in certain respects actually extreme: “So, in respect of its essence and the definition of its substance, virtue is a mean, while with regard to what is best and good it is an extreme.”[11] The mean may be considered an extreme because it is not given but must be chosen, selected in accordance with the criterion of equidistance from extremes. According to Aristotle, passions can be distinguished from virtues by the moment of choice. Because “the mean is not in the thing itself but relative to us,” it must be chosen.[12] This choice is the ethical act, and what is chosen in the choosing of the mean is the best as such—i.e. the extremely good.

Nietzsche echoes this affinity between the mean and the extreme when he demands that we acknowledge the cost of any virtue: “To make clear to ourselves how much a virtue will cost us: and that virtue is nothing mediocre and desirable, but a madness, a beautiful exception….”[13] Compared to Aristotle, Nietzsche radicalizes the notion of the mean as extreme by emphasizing the very moment of choice and selection. In Aristotle, the mean is an extreme to the extent that choosing it is tantamount to choosing the extremely good; in Nietzsche, it is solely the operations of selecting, choosing, and ordering that occupy the highest value: the privilege to determine values—that is, to determine the value of virtues—in the first place. In Aristotle, the ultimate virtue (and value) lies in choosing and achieving equidistance from two poles; in Nietzsche, it is distancing as such: “distance; the art of dividing without making inimical; mixing up nothing, ‘reconciling’ nothing; a tremendous multiplicity which is nonetheless the opposite of chaos.”[14] In the absence of a cosmological order that establishes and underwrites values as somehow given (though not necessarily accessible), positing values becomes for Nietzsche the one value beyond all values.

Even though Nietzsche incessantly questions the value of values—including that of the mean—he does not escape entirely the shadow cast by the premodern order. He preserves a sphere that maintains the old sense of mean and demands the strictest measure. In Nietzsche, the cosmological order is replaced by the economy of one’s body. To be sure, Nietzsche is rightly celebrated for having reintroduced the body into philosophy, and for having rehabilitated the bodily senses which—so the story goes—the Platonic-Christian tradition managed so successfully to suppress and devalue. However, Nietzsche reinserts the body into philosophical discourse under the rubric of asceticism. From dietary restric tions to meteorological considerations, philosophizing is coordinated with a physiological economy that demands extreme measures. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s famous autobiography (in which he tries to account for, among other things, “Why I am so Clever“), he returns frequently to the dangers inherent in disturbing the equilibrium of the bodily household: “In my time at Basel my entire spiritual diet, the division of the day included, was a perfectly senseless abuse of extraordinary powers without any kind of provision for covering this consumption, without any reflection on consumption and replacement.”[15]

Even though a sense of measure rules the physiological economy, the key value in this sphere is once more selectivity and distance. It is in their name that Nietzsche places mediocrity at the center of his multifarious attacks on modernity. For him it is “the great mediocrity,” rather than corruption, that constitutes “the other danger of our age; never before have so much righteousness and benevolence existed.”[16] Nobody else has condemned the “the herd animal with its profound mediocrity”[17] more sharply than Nietzsche, whose objection to the mediocre is above all an aversion to the desire to please the crowd and especially those who succeed. Mediocrity incarnate is therefore perhaps the popular writer David Strauss, to whom the second Untimely Meditation is dedicated. In this text, Nietzsche excels in castigating the reigning “idolization of mediocrity.” His memorable descriptions culminate in the prototype of the “cultivated philistine.” In opposing the instinct of the masses to the “pathos of distance” and the heroic cult of the few, Nietzsche seems to mobilize the distinctions that mark him as the prototypical enemy of the mediocre. The genius, the artist, and other representatives of selectivity are placed opposite the many, the average, and the democratic, who seek to avoid distinction and risk.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, Nietzsche does not preclude the possibility that mediocrity can serve strategic purposes for the few and the exceptional: “Mediocrity is the happiest mask which the superior mind can wear, because it does not lead the great majority—that is, the mediocre—to think that there is any disguise. Yet the superior mind assumes the mask just for their sake—so as not to irritate them, nay, often from a feeling of pity and kindness.”[18] Acquiescing to the taste of the many can also be a protective measure. That such protection on the part of the few and noble is necessary points to an important premise underlying Nietzsche’s invectives against mediocrity in the name of exception and genius: the latter are not in a position of power. What was once the privilege and prejudice of the strong few has lost its prerogative to dictate values. Instead what Nietzsche calls “slave morality” rules supreme. Since the so-called “slave revolt,” the genius, the rare, and the select have become an endangered species.

The shift in power relations which resulted in the suppression of the strong and few by the many and mediocre (this shift is also known as the advent of Christianity) renders ambiguous Nietzsche’s disdain for mediocrity that caters to the masses. He confronts the paradox that mediocrity in the position of power is no longer mediocre. Once mediocrity gains the right to determine values, it must begin to deny itself. It turns ironic. In Nietzsche’s view this is what the future holds: “The mediocre alone have a chance of continuing their type and propagating—they are the men of the future, the only survivors: ‘Be like them! Become mediocre!’ is now the only morality that still makes sense, that still gets a hearing. But this morality of mediocrity is hard to preach: after all, it may never admit what it is and what it wants. It must speak of measure and dignity and duty and neighbor love—it will find it difficult to conceal its irony.”[19] Mediocrity in power must deny its will to power and is forced to adopt postures of dissimulation. That is the irony of mediocrity. But this self-opposition within mediocrity is also mediocrity’s chance for refinement contre coeur, its chance for a culture of mediocrity that would not be mediocre: “mediocrity attains spirit, wit, genius—it becomes entertaining, it seduces.”[20] This is how mediocrity could be tricked, as it were, into becoming sophisticated and cultured.

In this culture of mediocrity, where the resilient mediocre have a greater survival chance than the delicate few with their cultivated taste, Nietzsche envisions not some superman or blond beast but something more familiar—the type of man we have largely become or better become quickly if we wish to survive in the global market economy: “Thus an essentially supra-national and nomadic type of man is gradually coming up, a type that possesses, physiologically speaking, a maximum of the art and power of adaptation as its typical distinction.” However, this very modern culture whose project is the “leveling and mediocritization of man to a useful, industrious, multi-purpose herd animal” provides, in turn, the ideal breeding ground for “exceptional human beings of the most dangerous and attractive quality.” From the midst of its own mediocrity, democracy has the potential to produce its other: “But while the democratization of Europe leads to the production of a type that is prepared for the subtlest form of slavery, in single, exceptional cases the strong human being will have to turn out stronger and richer than perhaps ever before—thanks to the absence of prejudice from this training, thanks to the tremendous manifoldness of practice, art, and mask.”[21]

Visions of this sort might be hard for us to take. Perhaps it is advisable to write off Nietzsche’s speculations on account of social-Darwinist fantasies. More disturbing is the other possibility that the predicted transformation of mediocrity has long taken place. Whether it was inevitable or a good thing is another question.

  1. Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 400.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. Marion Faber (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), p. 132.
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 56.
  4. Gotthold Lessing, Nathan the Wise, Act II, scene 5.
  5. Heinrich Heine, The Romantic School and Other Essays, eds. Jost Hermand and Robert C. Holub (New York: Continuum, 1985), pp. 14–15.
  6. Wolfgang Menzel, Die deutsche Literatur (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1981) vol. 4., p. 246. It is worth mentioning that late in his life, Goethe himself predicted the end of progress under the reign of a mediocrity enforced by modern technology and media: “Riches and rapidity are the things that amaze the world, the things everyone strives for. Railroads, rapid mail delivery, steamships, and all the possible means of communication are the things that the cultivated world are bent on so as to out-do themselves, to over cultivate themselves, and thereby to remain in mediocrity.” Quoted in Karl Vietor, Goethe—Dichtung. Wissenschaft. Weltbild (Bern: Francke Verlag, 1975) p. 561.
  7. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 126.
  8. One should add that art is not only marginalized by the growing complexity of daily life but also that Hegel’s famous “end of art” follows an immanent logic. Already Hegel registered the exhaustion of topics and forms which have passed over into general availability and therefore have lost the exclusive urgency they possessed in other epochs. In other words, he first diagnosed what is known today as the relativism of artistic forms and choices.
  9. Cf., Adalbert Stifter’s preface to his collection of stories Multi-Colored Stones.
  10. Stretching this observation a little, one could argue that a similar structure also prevails in the philosophical treatments of mediocrity in the 20th century. Martin Heidegger, for example, whose contempt for the average and its chatter ranks up there with Nietzsche’s venom and Adorno’s disdain, also happens to be the philosopher who endows the quotidian experiences of Dasein with unprecedented philosophical dignity. In many essays and his book In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), Stanley Cavell has tried to account for philosophy’s interest in the ordinary in Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and others by tracing it back to the skeptic tradition since Kant.
  11. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 31.
  12. Ibid., p. 30.
  13. Friedrich Nietzsche, Werke, ed. Karl Schlechta (Frankfurt: Ullstein Verlag, 1977) vol. 3, p. 609.
  14. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo. How One Becomes What One Is, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 65. It comes as no surprise that such “pathos of distance” is also the key to art, which is for Nietzsche the result of great selectivity and a refined combinatorics rather than the stroke of genius: “In truth, the good artist’s or thinker’s imagination is continually producing things good, mediocre, and bad, but his power of judgment, highly sharpened and practiced, rejects, selects, joins together; [...] All great men were great workers, untiring not only in invention but also in rejecting, sifting, reforming, arranging.” (Human, All Too Human, p. 107)
  15. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, pp. 55–56.
  16. Friedrich Nietzsche: Nachgelassene Fragmente 1884–1885. Kritische Studienausgabe, eds. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988), p. 293.
  17. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), p. 295.
  18. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, pp. 280–281.
  19. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, in Basic Writings, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 1992), p. 402.
  20. Friedrich Nietzsche, Werke, ed. Karl Schlechta (Frankfurt: Ullstein Verlag, 1977) vol. 3, p. 709.
  21. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, p. 242. [Translation modified]

Eva Geulen currently teaches at Bonn University. She has published on philosophical aesthetics, literary theory, and German literature. Her book, The End of Art: Readings in a Rumor after Hegel, is forthcoming from Stanford University Press.

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