Why We Need Mediocre Artists

Viktor Hartmann

Viktor Hartmann

Back in October, my husband and I decided to take our first childless vacation since we became parents.  We planned it for Biloxi, reserved the hotel, the sunset sailing cruise, dinner in a fancy restaurant, the whole nine yards.  Then, three days before we were set leave, Tropical Storm Karen took aim at the Mississippi coast.  Thinking it unwise to ignore an omen that literally came with my name on it, we decided to head west to San Antonio instead.

In my haste to plan a trip at the eleventh hour, I bought tickets for a Sunday matinee at the San Antonio Symphony, not realizing it was an abbreviated concert for children that included a lecture from the conductor.  So, on our “grown up” vacation, we went to children’s music class.  On the syllabus for the day was Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

In addition to being a worthy musical composition in its own right, Pictures at an Exhibition is proof of the butterfly effect.  You know the theory: a butterfly flaps its wings, rippling the air just enough to tip the scales and cause a hurricane.  That’s essentially how Pictures at an Exhibition came to be.  The story begins like this:

During the summer of 1873, the artist/ architect Viktor Hartmann died suddenly from an aneurism at the age of thirty-nine.  Hartmann’s forgettable talents led to a series of mediocre works that momentarily captured the attention of a few major figures in the artistic community of St. Petersburg.  In all fairness, Hartmann’s work should have died with him. – from the symphony program

Maestro Sebastien Lang-Lessing showed slides of the existing Hartmann works during his presentation, and the program writer was quite justified in calling them “forgettable.”  The only reason Hartmann’s work did not die is that Modest Mussorgsky, a man of much more memorable talents, happened to attend a posthumous exhibition of his friend Hartmann’s work, which inspired him write a piece for solo piano.  Several decades later, that piece caught the eye of the brilliant Maurice Ravel.  Ravel was not the first to orchestrate Mussorgsky’s work–over a dozen composers have tried their hands at that task–but Ravel elevated Pictures at an Exhibition into the canon of established symphonic music, creating something that professional symphony conductors think worthy to lecture about to an audience of children.

It took three men in two countries more than forty-eight years to create the half-hour of music I enjoyed on a different continent, in a different century, through the intercession of an actual hurricane.  Somewhere in St. Petersburg in 1873, a butterfly flapped its wings.

"The Hut on Hen's Legs"

“The Hut on Hen’s Legs”

The improbable sequence of events that led both to the creation of Pictures at an Exhibition and to my having heard it in the exact context that inspired this post will seem to some as evidence of the randomness of the universe, to others as proof that God always has a plan.  For me, however, the lesson is simply this: Viktor Hartmann did his best.  His best could never put him in a class with contemporaries like Manet and Gaugin, and I guarantee that when he sat down to paint “The Hut on Hen’s Legs,” he had no notion that a Frenchman not yet born would someday use it as the backdrop of an orchestral work that would endure for centuries.  Hartmann sat down to paint it, nonetheless.

It so happens that I count myself among the world’s mediocre artists.  I am a singer and choir director working in a humble parish church.  Someday, my voice and my arms will die with me, and this music stuff I have been slaving at for decades will become nothing more than fodder for my obituary.  The odds that I will inspire some greater artist to create something lasting are pretty slim, but I have, at least, been known to inspire smiles.  I have taught a few people to improve their craft, and, most importantly, enriched a few prayers.  It is enough.  Viktor Hartmann’s legacy demonstrates that if we use our talents (however forgettable) to ignite just a tiny spark of beauty, there is no limit to the wildfire the winds of the Spirit can flame.  No artist should ever strive to be mediocre, but neither should the fear of mediocrity deter us from plying our trades.  So get out there.  Create.  Get better every day.  Make someone smile, and then let the butterflies do their thing.


  1. says

    I’ve never had a childless vacation in 30 years. Maybe that’s why I’m a mediocre artist, which according to this article must be a very good thing.

    • Karen Ullo says

      Perhaps not “must be,” but “can be.” Thanks for reading, and I hope you get time for a vacation soon.

      • says

        Sorry, I was mostly pulling your leg. It’s hard to tell online.

        Though it is true my beloved and I have never had a quote-unquote real vacation it is not true that I consider my art mediocre as no gift that comes down to use from the Father of lights with whom there is no shadow of turning can be, mediocre. :)

        I’d be happy to have you look in on my art [linked] . Thanks again for the great article. It’s been a dinner conversation piece with fellow artists and I’ve shared the link around.

        • says

          Bother my type-os: “down to use”, should be “us”. However, perhaps a bit of Freudian serendipity was in play.

          • Karen Ullo says

            Owen, I would love to take a look at your art, but the link above isn’t working. Maybe just paste in the web address so I can copy? I should warn you, though, I’m a musician, not an art critic, and I may have nothing coherent to say except, “It’s pretty.” I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, and there is no greater compliment than to know I have sparked a discussion among artists! God bless, and I hope the creating is going well.

          • says

            Karen, the web address is correct http://owenswain.com/ and is working for me now from the link above. However, thanks for the welcome to post it here, also http://owenswain.com/ – and, it the blog platform shreds it, try owenswainDOTcom doing the obvious first :)

            The one part of the couple we sat down to dinner with last night, with whom we discussed your article, is a musician and recording artist and a patron, woo hoo. Over the years we’ve been able to appreciate each other’s art with positive crits and happy descriptive modifiers. I’ll accept any adjective you provide in any response. {smile}

  2. says

    An inspiring post. I’ve always wished I could paint, but I don’t have that ability. I’ve always wished I could dance, but I don’t have that ability. I’ve always wished I could sing, but i don’t have that ability. I think you get the picture…a lot of wishing and no doing. One day, being the wishing person I am, I picked up a camera and started taking photos. Now, many many years later, I’m still taking photos; granted, taking photos I wish looked like paintings, but still, taking photos. I’m not a great photographer but I enjoy it so much, even though I am mediocre. After reading your post, I feel much better about being mediocre. Now, I think I will go sing and dance around the house while I do some chores. :) thank you for being a butterfly!

    • says

      Norine’s comment is lovely and inspiring and brought to mind the work of Danny Gregory in the name of “Every Day Matters” that began as a personal story – a beautiful one of overcoming tragedy creating depth in a relationship then became a book and then a movement in which “mediocre” artists are encouraged to flourish by drawing the ordinary, daily and that now has international presence and spin-off groups one virtually (pun intended) every social network going. And now, I must go create.

    • Karen Ullo says

      Wonderful, Norine. Thank you. And if you happen to want to sing and dance to some chores around MY house, just say the word!

  3. says

    I love your last line, “Make someone smile, and then let the butterflies do their thing.” I will think about that all day, and probably tell it to my Grandboys.