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The Golden Age of Mediocrity

With so Many Artistic Geniuses Among Us, Why Is Most of Their Work so Disposable?

March 07, 2004|Patrick J. Kiger | Patrick J. Kiger last wrote for the magazine about the foibles of outsiders in Hollywood.

English writer W. Somerset Maugham published a 1949 essay in which he pondered whether Dostoevski or El Greco was the greater artistic genius. He reluctantly came down on the side of El Greco after deciding that 16th century Spain was a more fertile environment for the flowering of inspiration than czarist Russia. One can only speculate about the precise number of revolutions per minute that Maugham could achieve in his crypt were he somehow to gaze upon the cover of the July 24, 2003, issue of Rolling Stone magazine that proclaimed "The Genius of Eminem."

Some people today find it perplexing that the author of "Crime and Punishment" and the painter of "Adoration of the Shepherds" are being jostled for a spot among the pantheon of immortals by the composer of such couplets as "I still gotta lot of growin' up to do/ I still gotta whole lot of throwin' up to spew" and "Brain damage / I got brain damage." But hey, times have changed. And so has our culture's definition of what constitutes artistic greatness.

We ought to consider ourselves blessed. Forget about ancient Athens, China during the Tang dynasty, Florence during the Renaissance, Paris in the 1920s and Greenwich Village in the 1950s. We live in an age peopled by more artistic geniuses than in any other moment in history, though the bar is set considerably lower than in the past.

As recently as the mid-20th century, qualifying as an artistic genius meant belonging to a rarified elite--Picasso, Hemingway, Stravinsky, Pollock, Frank Lloyd Wright, Miles Davis, et al.--who created masterpieces that changed the way people thought about the world, and in the process lived existences infused with drama. But that sort of resume is no longer necessary, thanks to the evolution of pop culture and the explosive growth of media hype.

To borrow a phrase from a visionary thinker of another era, Sly Stone, today everybody is a star. Or quite nearly everybody. Write a book that cracks the bestseller lists, act in a successful film, record a hit song that gets played on MTV, garner an invitation to appear on the cover of a major magazine, and you're pretty much a shoo-in for genius-hood.

Though we have more supposed artistic geniuses than ever, their output, oddly, is increasingly middling. What's happened in the last couple of decades is that puffery seems to have surpassed prodigy. Here's a test: Try to think of a recently produced book, movie, poem, pop song or artwork that you could imagine being appreciated 50 or 100 years from now, the way we still gravitate to "The Starry Night," "Citizen Kane" or "Kind of Blue."

Stumped? That's because we're living smack-dab in the golden age of mediocrity.

"There was a time, especially right after World War II, when we had certain people who clearly were geniuses and became celebrities because of it--Einstein, for example," explains rock critic and cultural historian Greil Marcus, author of the book "Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century." "But eventually, the equation was flipped around. Today, anybody who's a celebrity, who attracts a large amount of attention, has to be a genius ... what we're really doing is jettisoning the past. We can say, 'Sure, Dickens was a genius, but look at all the brilliant writers we have now.' That means we don't have to read him anymore. It's a way of saying that we're primary--now is what's important."

Today, the hyping of what passes for genius has become so extreme that it even offends New York-based A-list publicist Dan Klores. "I read about this musician who'd died, and there was a great outpouring of mourning about 'the passing of a genius,' " he says. "And he's done two albums! That's where we are today. We used to have three awards shows--the Emmys, the Oscars and the Tonys. Now we have, what, 50 different ones? The culture is totally dishonest. It's like there's more of everything, so there's more room for bull."

The result is a world in which you don't have to dare to be great, in which a swath of humanity, wide enough to stretch from Frank Gehry to Britney Spears, shares the lofty mantle of genius. Gehry, the architect known for playfully unconventional designs, at least approximates the old-fashioned concept of genius-hood. But Spears? The barely clad, histrionic ex-teen diva whose voice is so thin that some speculate she even lip-syncs interviews? All the same, she's also a genius, according to a concert reviewer from the New York Times, who observed in 2001 that Spears was "an artist whose genius is not for singing--indeed, this performance did not suffer at all from the music's being its least important element--but for teasing out the cravings and fears that haunt the modern world." (If that makes her sound a bit like Edvard Munch with decolletage, remember that it probably was written on deadline.)

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