Sunday, 29 November 2015

Where's Our Discussion of Mediocrity?

     In Ghana there is a television show styled on American Idol where three very vocal judges either praise or tear a strip off dancers from different tribes. The tribal dancers are dancing for a grand prize. They are incredibly fit and good-looking.  The dancing is amazing. The heights they can reach, just jumping in one spot is insane. The dance couples are built like Olympic athletes.
     However, the performers better make sure the war paint on their faces is accurate. The same with the colour and design of their clothes. And if they are swinging a spear or knives or bow around they better have the right weapons and know the moves. Otherwise they will be called out. As happened a couple years ago when I was in Ghana.
     “I know this tribe!” yelled the heavy-set female judge, raising her finger into the air when two smiling dancers completed their amazing session and stood with gleaming smiles on their beautiful faces. The judge named the tribe and the region the tribe and said, “This is not their dance! They don’t wear paint like you! Those are not their colours! They don’t wear those clothes! You cannot claim to be from this tribe if you know nothing about who you are!”
     And then the judge said something truly amazing, “If we award people who pretend to be something they are not then eventually everything produced by our country will become mediocre. We do not want mediocrity!” she yelled, waving her finger in the air and shaking her head.
    I was stunned, not simply because it was a good and clear statement, but because I heard exactly the same argument the day before in a corner shop on the University of Accra’s campus when I bought a Pepsi. I stood in the shop listening a radio DJ and his guest arguing about how mediocrity was destroying Ghana. It was a great conversation.
     And then I heard the same arguments again days later on a radio while I was in a taxi. And again a similar discussion took place at the Ghana Culture Forum in the National Theatre of Ghana. Several tribes were represented, but one tribe had an entourage with a tribal king and his son present. The king held a solid gold staff. Their clothes were amazing. They were arguing that Ghana should be more like Nigeria in that Nigerian politicians are allowed to wear their traditional clothes to political meetings whereas the Ghanaians are not. They are required to wear western styled business suits.  This discussion of culture and how it could be whittled down to nothing, not reflecting anyone’s culture, appeared to be a common theme in Ghana.
     Except for the routine trouncing of popular culture in Canadian Art Magazine, I can’t recall seeing much of this argument about mediocrity in Canada. Maybe twenty years ago Rex Murphy was whining about something to do with mediocrity without doing the requisite research required to make anything he says worth listening to. Rex is an entertaining couch potato who gives his opinion using elevated language, but has nothing real to add to any discussion because he gets his news from the same sources the rest of us do; TV, radio and the newspapers. And he often makes the same kind of media commentary that any of us could make. And he’s backed by big oil, so anything he says is tainted right wing.
     There you go, Rex Murphy as an example of mediocrity.
    Instead of complaining of mediocrity I more often hear people say, “Talent is overrated, ” or “Anyone can be an artist.” People often say that more than talent, if a person has discipline, if they practice, patience and persistence then they can also achieve what a talented person can achieve.
     Sure. Maybe. Certainly everyone can learn to do the basics in most all art forms. And this can be a good thing. Art has a lot to offer in terms of entertainment, therapy, psychological probing and general well being. Even a mediocre writer, painter, poet, critic, singer, dancer, or whatever, has value.
     But when the talented person also has all those qualities listed above, what they produce in a generally  shorter period of time can be so great that we flounder for words when we see it. And that rarity, that discovery of someone who can melt our hearts when they sing is something we want to share. As everyone does at some point on Facebook. Some people do it daily. But they rarely share what is mediocre. You don’t get “likes” for mediocrity.
     Maybe as well as thinking of the arts as an all egalitarian pass to psychological well-being, making us practitioners feel good - a retirement activity - we think of the art world as a place where the rare and sublime can grow and benefit us all. If we go looking for those people who are talented and able and willing to think, practice, research and aim to really thrill us, both they and we will benefit.

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