The Golden Age of Mediocrity

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.)


Electronic databases readily yield a vast and ever-growing list of similar contemporary artistic giants. Type documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ name into the Nexis database, for example, and you’ll find 74 articles from U.S. newspapers in which his name occurs within 15 words of the word “genius.” Movie director Quentin Tarantino racks up an even more impressive 108 hits--a remarkable feat, considering that he’s directed only five full-length films in his 12-year career (including the upcoming part two of “Kill Bill”).

The late Kurt Cobain racks up 109 hits, an even more remarkable feat for a musician whose output consisted of three studio albums. Nevertheless, he not only beats out Gehry (65 hits), actor Johnny Depp (44) and conductor and composer Andre Previn (24), but totally trounces Jonathan Franzen, author of the critically acclaimed novel “The Corrections,” who scored a mere 15 hits--even fewer than bodice-ripping publicity pawn Justin Timberlake (31). In fairness, such number-crunching has its limitations; Madonna’s 282 hits, for example, may be padded by articles that contain phrases such as “She may not be a genius, but Madonna’s not an idiot. “

Humans have always argued about what constitutes artistic greatness, and the source of genius. The Romans believed artistic ability came from a supernatural being, the “genius,” that guarded each man. The 18th century essayist Joseph Addison decided that there were two sorts of geniuses--those who’d diligently worked to learn their art, such as English poet John Milton, and the natural, untutored, compulsive virtuosity of a William Shakespeare, the sort of savant who created great art as easily as other men breathed.

More recently, developmental psychologist William Therivel, author of the three-volume treatise “The GAM/DP Theory of Personality and Creativity,” has argued that genius is a combination of genetics and assistance (i.e., educational opportunities, supportive families and intellectual mentors). There’s also the unexpected dash of misfortune or trauma that forces the budding wunderkind to forsake conventional beliefs, taboos and methods of problem-solving that inhibit most of us but allows him or her to see the world in a startlingly different way. The final ingredient is a social milieu in which power is divided rather than absolute, so the artist can play the iconoclast without being crushed like a bug. It results in what is called a “challenged personality,” an artistically gifted person who pursues that vision with a single-minded aggressiveness that borders on antagonism.

Therivel cites Mozart, whose talented but unsuccessful musician father made sure that his son had opportunities to study in Venice and Vienna, as an example of a genius who scored high in all GAM/DP categories. In contrast, rival 18th century composer Antonio Salieri came from an apparently less talented gene pool and had fewer educational opportunities, which may be why he’s remembered mostly as the jealous, vengeful schmo in the film “Amadeus.”

Nevertheless, the concept of the innate, unfettered artistic genius persists, perhaps because it has given generations of writers, painters and musicians an excuse to frequent brothels, smoke opium and wreck hotel rooms in pursuit of their muse. The notion of being a human vessel for a divine gift also gave artists a bit of cover for another enduring truth--that the simplest way to become a genius is to have good PR. In truth, many of the truly great artists were not only virtuosos at their chosen means of expression, but also prodigiously adept at self-promotion.


Albrecht Durer, who in the late 15th and early 16th centuries became one of the first great art stars of Western culture, had the audacity to paint a self-portrait in the style that artists used to portray Christ. When Oscar Wilde arrived in New York in 1882, the author of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” informed a customs officer: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”

The truly pioneering genius of self-promotion was surrealist painter Salvador Dali. From his mid-20s to mid-30s, he created genuinely inspired paintings--”Lugubrious Game,” “The Persistence of Memory” and so on--that staked his claim to greatness. He then spent the next five decades promoting himself as an eccentric genius whose waxed mustache tips picked up signals from outer space.

In a sense, the current crop of house-brand geniuses are spawns of Dali and his Great Artist shtick. But today--with the Internet, blast faxes, hundreds of cable channels and 750-square-foot video screens that can turn anyone, regardless of talent, into a giant looming over Times Square--it’s possible for would-be greatness to be hyped to an extreme that even Dali would have a hard time imagining. Given the pervasive crudeness and disdain for subtlety in postmodern society, it’s now perfectly acceptable to proclaim one’s genius as loudly and raucously as professional wrestlers threaten one another with mayhem. As art critic Robert Hughes puts it, “There is a kind of forcible vulgarity, as American as a meatball hero, that takes itself for genius.” No wonder that when Howard Stern berates television executives for failing to appreciate the “pure genius” of his work, or Marilyn Manson issues a news release proclaiming that “I am equally the artist as much as I am a work of art,” a jaded world barely thinks twice.

There was a time when such extravagant self-praise by musicians would have elicited stinging ridicule from angry young rock critics of the Lester Bangs school. These days, though, when having a star on a magazine cover is deemed crucial to newsstand success, there doesn’t seem to be much danger of that happening. As Robert B. Ray, head of the University of Florida’s film studies program and a singer/guitarist in the 1980s post-punk band the Vulgar Boatmen, has theorized, the aging cadre of rock reviewers tends to suffer from a malaise called “overcomprehension.” That is, they effusively praise acts they don’t understand, because they’re afraid of knocking something that may turn out to be the next big thing.

In Hollywood, auteur theory, which views a film primarily as the work of a single artist, has helped push pretension to great extremes. “Filmmaking really is a group enterprise,” explains former Premiere magazine editor and film historian Peter Biskind, author of “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film.” “To call a film ‘wonderful’ or ‘brilliant’ or some other adulatory adjective is one thing, but to say that it’s a work of genius implies that it springs wholly from the mind of one person, which isn’t the way it happens.”

Another convenient way to establish one’s credential as a genius is to attract legions of college faculty members apparently scouring for fresh scholarly subjects. Take, for example, the 1993 anthology, “The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory,” in which scholars ponder such issues as the symbolic messages conveyed by the singer’s stage costuming during her pointy bra period. One contributor notes that “Madonna, as the subject of critical analysis, seems to require the elaborate conjuncture of a whole host of grandiose themes.” A 2003 doctoral thesis actually placed her cultural significance as a dancer on a par with Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham.


Technology deserves a great deal of the blame for our cultural morass. Increasingly sophisticated computers and software make it easier for authors, visual artists, movie directors and pop musicians to churn out ever greater quantities of work, while doctoring and/or blurring defects to conceal shortcomings. In a recent article in Rolling Stone, for example, rock music producer Butch Vig demonstrated how a software program called Pro Tools can fashion, from scratch, an entire 35-track pop song on a Macintosh G-4.

Such technological advances promise not only to make recording studios obsolete, but also to enable hit-making Svengalis to transform even the most marginally talented performer into a virtuoso. The potential for producing an endless succession of totally soulless, Clear Channel-ready hits is frightening.

We might expect such de-evolution from pop culture, but the fine arts may not be a source of much consolation, because we have a seeming oversupply of creative types. The number of Americans identifying themselves as artists increased from 737,000 in 1970 to 2.2 million in 2000. The number of musicians grew from 100,000 in 1970 to 187,000 in 2001, while the number of painters and sculptors increased from 87,000 to 255,000. The number of authors quadrupled to 128,000. With more artists than ever before, presumably creating increasingly vast quantities of work, you’d think that mathematical probability would result in more works of lasting greatness. On the other hand, remember those scientists at Plymouth University in England who recently tested the old proposition that if you gave monkeys typewriters, eventually one of them would produce a play worthy of Shakespeare. As one researcher noted, “The apes turned out to be more interested in defecating and urinating all over the keyboard.”

At the same time, works of supposed genius have an increasingly short shelf life. (The Washington Post writer who called Bret Easton Ellis’ pornographically gory book “American Psycho” a “beautifully controlled, careful, important novel” in 1991, for example, may want to reconsider that judgment.) But as the overall artistic output itself grows less inspiring and more disposable, we may get sucked into a compensatory spiral in which the standard for artistic greatness dips lower and lower, and genius-hood is conferred so indiscriminately that the label rings hollow. It’s conceivable that we may reach a point when one must actively deny being a genius in order to avoid the tag. (It bears noting that the MacArthur Foundation, which annually awards those prestigious “genius grants” to great achievers of all stripes, doesn’t use the G-word in its literature; that’s been a media construct.)

On the other hand, maybe mediocrity is the new genius. In 2002, for example, New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art displayed “Cloaca,” a room-size mechanical installation by Belgian sculptor Wim Delvoye that was designed to emulate the human digestive system. Twice each day, at one end of the artwork, a plate of food from one of several tony Manhattan restaurants was fed into a blender and pumped through a complex tangle of pipes and vats, where it was subjected to computer-controlled doses of enzymes, acids and bacteria. A day or so later, the opposite end of the sculpture squeezed out a soft brown substance that bore a striking resemblance to human feces.

“I chose [excrement] because it is not only useless, it’s also cosmopolitan, so universal,” the artist told an interviewer from Wired magazine. “You could go anywhere, and it speaks to everyone.” Critics hailed the work, waxing profound about “the iconography of the scatological” and the cleverness of Delvoye’s symbolic statement about the insignificance of postmodern culture.


Art aficionados purchased samples of “Cloaca’s” output from Delvoye’s website for $1,500 per ersatz stool. In doing so, those aesthetes chose to ignore the fact that the art-is-crap motif is a bit derivative. Four decades ago, Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni peddled 30-gram cans of his excrement to collectors for a price equivalent to its weight in gold. A British museum recently bought a surviving example for $35,000. Hmmm. Here’s an idea--and it’s guaranteed to be pure genius. Get me those research monkeys. They may not be too adept at replicating the Bard, but they’re pretty good at producing something else.