Paul Fleming


On his book Exemplarity and Mediocrity: The Art of the Average from Bourgeois Tragedy to Realism

Cover Interview of July 23, 2009

In a nutshell

My book explores various conflicts surrounding the terms “mediocre,” “common,” “ordinary,” and “non-exceptional” in literary and aesthetic discourse since the eighteenth century, when the average man, the market place, and (proto-)democratic institutions began to assert themselves.

Art, it should be noted, has always had an uneasy relation to mediocrity.  Horace himself claims that a middling lawyer is still valuable, while a mediocre poet “falls below contempt.”  And with the traditional confinement of the proverbial “little guy” to comedy and the art of ridicule, the common man and everyday life were largely removed from elevated artistic expression.

This state of affairs, as I delineate, begins to undergo profound changes in the eighteenth century.  On the one hand, literature now repeatedly attempts to address, affect, and ultimately educate the common man by representing his or her position and milieu.  From bourgeois tragedy to realism and beyond, average heroes and everyday life begin to saturate modern letters.  On the other hand, however, just when the subject matter of high art turns to the common and quotidian, aesthetics mobilizes the genius and the imperative of originality to brace itself against an excessive intrusion of the average on the level of critic and artist (e.g., majority rule in taste or the artist as “career choice”).  Via this exclusion, art secures autonomy in a society where “success” is increasingly gauged by popularity.

One of the main arguments I make, therefore, is that the aesthetic issues surrounding the average and ordinary are resolved or at least contained via a strategy of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion.  Literature reaches out to the middle class as its audience and subject matter, but excludes the average man as artist and only includes him as a critic and arbiter of taste under the strictest conditions.

The tension between exemplarity and mediocrity is also played out in artistic production itself.  One of the crucial questions I pursue in the book is how modern literature (and art in general) increasingly can be attuned to quotidian life – common heroes, everyday life, non-extraordinary events – while at the same time avoiding all notions of mediocre quality.  That is, how can art embrace mediocre life without falling prey to it in turn?

Art, I argue, can be seen as attempting to fulfill this double demand by aesthetically transforming the quotidian and thus lending it an exemplary form.  Literature repeatedly puts the common person and ordinary life at the center of literary presentation but only in order to adorn them and render them exemplary.  By, paradoxically, offering exemplary models of mediocrity, art simultaneously seeks to fulfill the demand of originality and grant aesthetic dignity to common life.