Paul Fleming


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

Cover Interview of July 24, 2009

A close-up

Were a browsing reader to open my book at random, he or she could do worse than opening up to the third chapter, which deals with the average artist.  Here I examine Goethe and Schiller’s notes and charts for an unrealized project on the “uses and damages” of dilettantism for art.  It should be underscored that as a figure of mediocrity, the dilettante is not a complete hack.  On the contrary, the dilettante has skills, shows diligence, and clearly is passionate about art, but ultimately lacks the natural gift, the je ne sais quoi that separates the genius (a rare figure) from the rest.

The stakes of Goethe and Schiller’s reflections, I argue, amount to this: they view the rise of dilettantism (which is concomitant with the bourgeois subject and the art market) not only as a new threat to art but also as a previously unheard-of possibility: the genuine aesthetic education of society.  The more people try their hand at producing artworks, the greater the chance for developing a discerning public that could head-off the emergent divide between high and popular culture.  Dilettantism, which threatens art by diluting it, is also the hope for saving it.

The possibility of such an aesthetically enlightened public comes, however, at the price of a new anxiety.  In the face of the rapid proliferation of dilettantism, Goethe and Schiller, I argue, develop what amounts to an inverse form of Harold Bloom’s famous notion of the “anxiety of influence.”

Whereas Bloom theorizes the artist’s fear of being unduly influenced by previous great ones, Goethe and Schiller re-direct the artist’s anxiety—they worry about the influence of great art on prolific dilettantes, who (numerically) dominate the contemporary scene and then produce average but acceptable works in the mode of the maestro.  The result is not only a dissolution of one’s perceived greatness; much more emphatically, if the average “artist” can produce art that seems to be of the same ilk as genius, then perhaps the fundamental divide between genius and average is more porous than one would like to think.  This, I believe, is what Goethe and Schiller fear the most and the true anxiety of the dilettante-project: a quaking of the foundation of the aesthetics of originality, in which there could be something like a “genius” mode of imitation and derivation.

Goethe and Schiller’s answer to this threat is what I call an Art School for Non-Artists: a military-like academy that subjects the ambitious but (from their perspective) ultimately non-brilliant dilettantes to the most rigorous, rule-bound training in the arts, progressing with an exacting measure, step-by-step, to the ultimate goal: the dilettante realizing that the goal—being an artist—will never be expected.  It is an art school in which failure is success or, rather, success lies in recognizing one’s failure.

Dilettantes, according to Goethe and Schiller, must learn that, regardless of what they produce, it will never be true art (the work of genius).  The delicate balance of this special art school is to disabuse the amateur of all artistic aspirations while not crushing all interest in art.  The school of the dilettantes is premised on the conviction that the lifelong amateur can best serve art by knowing its intricacies and techniques and then using this knowledge not to produce but to judge art works.  This is the story of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice Years in a nutshell.