Beware the mushy middle

The NYT’s Charles Isherwood writes about what he calls the “odd-man-out” syndrome:

This can roughly be described as the experience of attending an event
at which much of the audience appears to be having a rollicking good
time, while you sit in stony silence, either bored to stupefaction or
itchy with irritation, miserably replaying the confluence of life
circumstances that have brought you here. (“Curse that Isherwood!”)

mush.jpgI’d like to offer a related disorder, one that particularly affects critics. Go to a lot of dance or music or theatre and you might find yourself suffering from mushy-middle-itis. Really good performances are easy to write about. Ditto for horrible art. The easiest art to write about is art to which you have a strong reaction – good or bad. Death is having to manufacture a reaction to something that left you with no reaction at all.

I’m talking about the vast mushy middling center that clogs our stages and galleries. Dance that is merely adequate. Theatre that is competent but neither very good or really bad. Art that is thoughtlessly routine or formulaic. Performances that are indifferently staged. Music that mimics what’s already been done over and over again. It is this kind of art that sludges the ears, glazes over the eyes and dulls our audiences.

Two things:

                          1. Why are we so afraid to call out the mushy middle when
                              we see/hear it?
                          2. Why must we set up expectations that performances are
                             going to be  “performance of a lifetime” when we know they
                             probably won’t be?

Not every performance can be transcendent. But doesn’t there have to be room for the nobility of the routinely good as distinct from the merely indifferently routine?

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  1. Joshua Smith says

    This is good. Most performances won't be the "performance of a lifetime." Of course. Why don't more critics write about whether or not they were moved by a performance, and why they were or were not?
    Expectations that the performance needs to be a certain way (which usually means "just like my 40 year old favorite recording of the piece by artists who are now dead") completely dismisses the potential of understanding the performance as a spontaneous experience. An honest reaction to the experience, rather than a comparison to an imagined ideal would be refreshing.

  2. says

    Sometimes the mushy middle contains elements that are redeeming or individual achievements that have noteworthy qualities which simply do not transfer to the whole, or at least raise it above a state of mediocrity. To respond to mediocrity with mediocrity is not being dishonest; describing the mushy middle can be exceptionally hard because you do not want to condemn people who put in 101 percent that were let down because their compères only put in 40.

  3. says

    As a critic, I certainly find that reviews of “mushy-middle” performances to be the hardest to write. Even a bad performance will inspire more passion in me. Yet I suppose they are a statistical inevitability: if 20 people are running in a race, one will come first, one will come last, and the other 18 will be somewhere in the middle.

    As for expectations, that’s a thornier problem. Some contend that a critic should try to be a “blank slate” – to go into a performance with no preconceived expectations at all. But this is simply not possible. A famous, celebrated artist will command more public interest (and a higher ticket price), so elevated expectations are both inevitable and justified.

    As for artists of more modest stature, while their modesty may be impossible to ignore, it’s best, I think, to judge what they present on their own terms. I have attended shoestring opera performances that I’ve enjoyed more than grand, lavish stagings.

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