Monday, December 05, 2005

Mediocrity rules

Although history in its hindsight often glorifies individuals who were true geniuses in their field, be it sciences or arts, in their lifetime these people often receive little or no recognition. At least it can take a lot of time, like in case of Einstein; or people are credited for something else than what they will remembered for later on, like J.S. Bach or Mahler. People like to turn mediocre people with limited talents into their heroes and often ridicule those who can see things outside of the box, the truly gifted ones. In medicine, the first ones to suggest that an ulcer wasn't caused by stress but by an infection were laughed at. Another medical student came up with the theory that combination AIDS drugs would work better than any single agent; that idea didn't fly well at first either. Schubert was an unknown composer who couldn't get his works performed, Buxtehude and Telemann far more popular than Bach as composers.

A former doctor and friend of mine, now retired, was related to Edvard Munch, the great Norwegian painter of the 'Scream' fame. The artist was a true black sheep in the religious, fundamentalist family. After he passed away, none of the relatives wanted to have anything to do with his paintings. Had they only guessed what fame this ridiculed man would achieve after his death and how much his works of art would be worth later on! Another greatly misunderstood artist was Vincent van Gogh, who was equally unsuccessful during his lifetime in commercial sense.

It was van Gogh who wrote lots of now famous letters to his brother, also about mediocrity. His comment is included in this speech by the former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson, given in Siena, Italy in 2002:

Mediocrity is the greatest enemy of good and life. Vincent Van Gogh's letters to his brother, Theo, are among the most moving cries of understanding and humanity that we have. In one letter, he writes, "How does one become mediocre? By compromising, by making concessions, today in this matter, tomorrow in another, according to the dictates of the world, by never contradicting the world and by always following public opinion." I don't think anyone has ever summed it up more perfectly.

Mediocrity is safe, very easy – and therefore to be avoided at all costs! The purpose of life, it seems to me, is to leave no one and nothing indifferent. It means taking risks, going down paths that are not approved. It means the possibility of loneliness and isolation. It means, in sum, all that which is opposed to mediocrity.

I couldn't agree with Her Excellency, or the artist, more. Even when choosing our leaders we shy away from the most capable ones and put people in power whom we think are most like us regular folks. Foreign policy is decided by people who cannot even read a map. In Kansas schools are teaching intelligent design, creationism in a different clothing, a slap in the face of science. Yet according to polls most of us are comfortable with this. At the same time we criticize the Taliban and other fundamentalist Muslim movements, but refuse to see the same pattern in our own country. It is difficult to remember that Islam saved our civilization and was more advanced in the sciences than anything before them. What happened there since could be taking place here right now.

Just like in politics, people in the arts, and entertainment, depend heavily on PR. We rush to see and hear 'artists' who have really no place in the spotlight. We take the word of 'experts' for face value, although often these people are among the least competent. People seem to think all it takes is believing in themselves and instantly greatness is there. Take for example a string player in B-rate orchestra, who got his job because the organization was in desperate need and truly qualified applicants were few or none. Immediately he thinks of himself now being part of the musical elite, although just yesterday he was an unemployed nobody. There was a time when a musical entertainer needed to know how to sing: today lip syncing is sufficient, with good marketing. Mediocrity rules again.