Living in a consumerist society, Americans very rarely have to choose between what is good and what is bad. Truly awful things rarely survive in a free market. However, we do have to choose between the good and the mediocre.
Mediocre things are not simply lesser manifestations of the good. Good things and mediocre things do not exist on the same continuum, though we are often tempted to say otherwise. What is good is divine, a finite revelation of the infinite, a little sacrament of God’s condescension, a triumph of excellence over non-existence. Good things participate in the goodness of God. Mediocre things are a forgery of God’s goodness. Looking for goodness in mediocre things is not generous, but delusional.
When I say that truly awful things rarely survive in a free market, I mean that the court of public opinion is typically capable of determining the better of two options. I would not trust the common man to judge the best bottle of sauvignon blanc made in France, but I would trust a survey of ten thousand Americans to choose the more flattering of just two dresses or the tastier of just two cookies. Similarly, it is rarely the case that the top song on the Billboard 200 chart is completely without any redeeming qualities. It is rarely the case that the top grossing film of the year is without some artistic merit. Even classical snobs ought to concede that Michael Jackson and Taylor Swift enjoy such popularity because they are truly exceptional at what they do, even if what they do is not terribly important. Cream rises to the top even when the milk comes from a sick cow, and so public taste, even when unsophisticated, nonetheless elevates the best of what it is given. A consumerist society with a high metabolism rewards wit, cleverness, sleekness, novelty, and ingenuity, and while none of these things are vices, neither are they great virtues either. What is more, evangelical Christianity has so permeated American popular culture that most wildly successful films contain some moment of heroic sacrifice, and a great many popular songs speak of love, the greatest Christian virtue and penultimate manifestation of the divine nature. All of this is to say that, despite our mock cynicism, there is always something watchable on television. When comparing the content of one hundred television stations, there must be one show which offers itself more readily than the other ninety-nine. There is always something passable at the theater, always something listenable on the radio, always something tasty enough in the drive-thru. It is simply not the case that everything available is just plain bad.
What makes the matter of taste quite complicated is the unscrupulous way in which many Christians employ Philippians 4:8 to defend music, films, books, and so forth. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Given that our society rewards cleverness, technical proficiency, and craft, there are very few things sold in America which do not in some way, shape, or form, at least very minutely eclipse at least one of the attributes Paul identifies in this passage. No matter what film we watch, what record we buy, what taco we eat, the thing we are consuming is arguably just a little true, a bit noble, somewhat right, arguably pure, not entirely unlovely, slightly admirable, minimally excellent, or just barely praiseworthy.
I believe there is a case to be made, however, that mediocre things are not good-but-not-as-good as other things. Mediocrity is not a minor participation in goodness, but a forgery of goodness. The man who mixes a little truth into his lie does so not because he has a little respect for the truth, but so that the poison of the lie will go down more easily. There is no real goodness in a mediocre thing, but lots of fake goodness. Mediocre things do not aim to satisfy, but to arouse greater desire. A mediocre song is “good enough” to listen to, but the value of that goodness is mere proficiency in agitating deeper want. A mediocre thing is suspended between goodness and badness; it is not so bad that we reject it, but neither is it so good that we can enjoy it and be done with it. Mediocre things teases the appetite, but does not satiate. A mediocre thing is not so sub-intellectual that it turns the mind off, but neither is it so intellectual that it stimulates real thought. It is pleasant enough to do again, eat again, watch again, but there is no accumulation of goodness from one experience of the mediocre to the next. The pleasure of mediocrity does not accrue or expand. The pleasure gained in watching one episode of a mediocre television show is depleted by the time the next mediocre episode has finished. A man never feels as though he has just indulged in much mediocrity, for mediocrity does not gather or linger the way brilliance does. Accordingly, a man will eat much mediocre food, listen to much mediocre music, read many mediocre pages of a novel, buy many mediocre articles of clothing, and yet experience no sense of gain or loss apart from the loss of time.
Of course, in citing Philippians to justify our tastes and appetites, we are claiming we actually care about truth, nobility, purity, loveliness, excellence. If we were really interested in things that are noble, though, we should not be content to indulge continually in things which possess mere trace amounts of nobility. If a man loves a thing, he seeks it in earnest, in desperation. He sells all he has that he might buy it. And yet I regularly hear Christians zealously defend the mediocre on the grounds that this or that mediocre thing is not wholly devoid of nobility or completely absent of purity. Such claims are made even while scores of classic novels rich in noble truth lay untouched. Such claims are made while beautiful works of Haydn and Bach gather dust, uninvestigated. The man who claims he loves what is good in the mediocre is not inquisitive enough to back up his claim; the Western tradition has made things rich in truth easy to find, and yet we scour cesspools for a sparkly trifle and proclaims ourselves sleuths when the pan flashes. If we were honest about our attraction to mediocre things, we would simply confess our laziness and unwillingness to seek out anything better.
And why? Good things are hard to like, and mediocre things easy. Mediocre things are tailored to our most ready, most easily accessible desires. All men desire beauty and goodness, but those desires lay buried deep within our souls and we are only willing to hoist them out on rare occasions. Liking good things requires effort, but we are accidentally seduced by the mediocre. The man who succumbs early to the temptations of mediocrity knows that, whatever else, he at very least has a great volume of something in store for himself. There is far more money to be made in the mediocre than in the beautiful and good. Mediocre things are disposable, good things less so. One man buys a Mozart concerto, the other buys the top selling pop album of the week. Which one of these men is more likely to tire of their purchase first? And when he tires of it, who is more likely to go out and buy something new? Planned obsolescence is not simply a marketing strategy with technological gadgets; planned obsolescence is the shape of every consumerist art form. One the rare occasion something from the world of disposable popular culture proves resilient (The Beatles, The Lord of the Rings), it is nonetheless repackaged, remastered, and rereleased in a thousand and one different formats and editions, lest any particular incarnation prove truly transcendent. Transcendence brooks no sequel.
Mediocre things are not particularly sinister in and of themselves. However, mediocre things easily become a way of life. If a man eats mediocre food that he might afford extraordinarily beautiful music, he is performing a reasonable exchange. If a man dresses in a mediocre fashion that he might afford excellent gifts for his wife’s birthday, he is no fool. I am, by no means, arguing that a man ought to have “the best of everything,” for such are the claims of the aesthete who cares nothing for virtue. However, too often, Americans eat mediocre food merely to make way for mediocre television. We rush through one mediocre thing not so that we can get to the good things, but to get to other mediocre things. What is more, our lives are not loosely populated with mediocre things. We do not live on a shoestring of mediocrity. Our lives are densely populated with mediocre things. We have all seen scores of mediocre films. We listen to mediocre music hour after hour. As opposed to owning one beautiful suit, a man owns four suits, all cheap and none of which he really relishes wearing. As opposed to going out to one fine restaurant every year, we eat at cheap and forgettable restaurants dozens of times.
This is hardly tragic, but mediocre habits give shape to other desires, more significant desires. We would be better off living impoverished lives and understanding that better things existed than squandering our wealth and leisure on things which merely tickle the senses and benumb the imagination. The man who is poor in spirit has treasure in heaven to look forward to, but what of the man whose mediocrity of taste has become mediocrity of spirit? When a man is easily placated by mediocre art, mediocre music, mediocre food, mediocre clothing, mediocre home, mediocre books… how is such a man to resist the slouchy comforts of mediocre dogma, mediocre morality, and mediocre theology? Mediocre morality makes few demands of us, much like mediocre art and music. The poor man who dresses poor and eats poor understands what he is doing, but the man who devours mediocrity is oblivious. The mediocre is not something we make do with, but something we blindly pounce on. The man who eats an entire bag of potato chips does not wish he had something better to eat. In fact, mediocre things are more capable of producing mania and anxiety in those who resort to them than truly beautiful things. Beauty drives men mad only occasionally, but we go nuts for mediocre pleasures. Consider the kinds of things which stores stay open extra late in order to sell: chalupas, the latest Eminem album, sparkly vampire books, latex catsuit superhero films. The mediocre is sold to us not as something we must be content with, but something we crave, something we cannot do without. The more mediocre the object, the more distraught the plea to buy it. While beauty can drive men to madness, more often than not, it drives men to mildness, dignity, self-respect. Attendees of Bach performances do not claw the skin of their faces the way young ladies do at pop concerts for the latest incarnation of Adonis. Often enough, real beauty sublimates, pacifies, quiets, subdues, satisfies. These are typically not the qualities of a product which sells like hot cakes. The Gap is not actually interested in selling you “the last pair of khakis you’ll ever need.”
I wag my finger at no man, for all my observations about the nature of the mediocre arise from self-awareness. Last Lent, when I gave up all contemporary music and listened only to old music, I found myself listening to less music. I can listen to rock and roll for hours on end, for no matter how loud it is, no matter how sensual, it never truly overwhelms, it never pacifies. After finishing Beethoven’s 9th, however, my ears need rest. I have also lately begun teaching Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb once again, and I am struck by how many of the principles held forth for eating are simply true of life in general. Better to eat one delicious and satisfying meal a day than three “low calorie” meals heated in cardboard boxes. Better for life to pass as famine and feast, not one long and sustained act of agitation for which there is no relief. The man whose life passes as a steady stream of mediocre things never learns to be patient, to anticipate, to prepare. His imagination is not strengthened by giving thanks in advance for good things worth waiting for. The longer he feeds on mediocre things, though, the less capable he is of imagining something truly beautiful. The mediocrity of his world becomes a self-sustaining, self-fulfilling prophecy.