Happiness is in the middle

Stone pile, Thingvellir park

A question of balance?

I got four photography books for Christmas (Yay!) and I’ve just started The Photographer’s Vision by Michael Freeman.  He talks about there being two different audiences for photographic work:

“There is the smaller one that is more educated in contemporary art movements, more discriminating, looking for creative breakthroughs, possibly elitist and equally possibly feeling intellectually superior. There is the much larger audience that enjoys the more obvious appeal of clarity, skill and craft, more traditional, preferring to relax in front of art than be constantly challenged…….Neither of these two audiences – let’s call them high-concept and popular for want of anything better – will ever change its fundamental likes and dislikes. The particular photographers and artists being looked at and judged may come and go, but the high-concept audience will always dismiss the obvious, lush, emotional and beautiful in photography, just as the popular audience will always embrace these qualities. The two audiences have a mutual distrust, the view in one direction looking unsophisticated and too easily pleased, the view in the other elitism, pretension, and the emperor’s new clothes.”

He’s right, of course, but why should it be like this? Can’t we be open to appreciating aspects of both and – even more importantly – accepting that there are many forms of enjoyment in this world and that liking one over the other doesn’t make you either inferior or superior? So many things in our culture are framed in terms of either/or, and black & white; the implication is that you’ve got to choose one or the other, and no credit is given to there being many enjoyable shades of grey or a capacity to enjoy both extremes.

Actually, I like being part of both audiences. I love to see challenging art that forces me to think, but I don’t want that all the time – it requires too much effort and gets tiring. I thoroughly enjoy the ‘clarity, skill and craft’ of the other approach and revel in its sheer visual pleasure, but I’d get bored if that was all there was. There’s much in both approaches that I don’t like at all or get anything out of, and there’s much in both that I do. I don’t want to have to put myself in one camp or another – I want to enjoy both and not be put down by either. (As things stand, I do enjoy each of them and am often put down by both!)

If you think about this in terms of food (bear with me here), then one end of the scale might be fish and chips from the greasy spoon, and the other would be a gourmet meal. Much as I like exquisitely cooked, restaurant meals, I wouldn’t want to eat this way all the time and would end up yearning for good old baked-beans on toast. I know this from experience – I used to be married to someone who liked eating out all the time, and I was longing for grilled cheese after a while.  But if all I ever got was comfort food, I’d be very unhappy then too. Most of the time I like the kind of food that lies somewhere in the middle – good home-cooked-from-fresh-but-not-particularly-fancy meals. And so it is with most other things in life – both ends have their own enjoyments but for me happiness lies mostly in the middle, with frequent excursions towards each end.

Being in the middle has always been something of a put-down – middle-class, middle of the road, middle-aged, middling, middle man, Middle England, middle brow. It sounds boring, stuffy and fuddy-duddy.  But the problem is that these phrases imply being rigidly stuck in some dull, unimaginative territory that’s neither one thing nor another. I want to stick up for the middle position.  I think being in the middle can be really stimulating if you enjoy what’s there and also use your position to scoot up and down towards each end of the scale whenever you feel like it. Decamping to one end and totally dismissing the other one seems to me like missing out.

Many (most?) of the people who cling to one end and righteously criticise the other are actually ignorant of what’s on offer. This is probably more true of the non-intellectual end, but not exclusively so. How many people would have given opera a chance before Pavarotti sang at the World Cup? But they found they liked it. And how many people would have read or listened to Auden and enjoyed his work before watching Four Weddings and a Funeral? And if you’ve never played bingo or gone line dancing or watched The X Factor, how do you know that you wouldn’t enjoy it, even if only very occasionally?

Wouldn’t it be good to see a world in which we all have our own preferences and make our own choices, but not out of ignorance, and with courtesy and tolerance for those people who decide differently. But I’m not holding my breath, and in the meantime I’m sitting pretty, here in the middle.