Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Evils of Language

There was a time when I had a bit of an obsession with words. With nuance. With finding just the right word to fit in just the right place to convey just the right meaning. There is after all, a difference between a  breeze and a gust and a draft. A zephyr isn't just a light wind. It is one that comes from the west. I've heard it said that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow (which Wikipedia tells me is a myth. Rather, it is the Sami People that have hundreds of words).

That obsession has faded over time. I've become much more relaxed... perhaps jaded, in my view of language. I can't help but chuckle at the grammaticians who obsess over chastising the rest of us for using the wrong word in the wrong place. Or non-words. Since as long as I can remember, one of my favorite words has been "ain't". Maybe it is my Brooklyn upbringing.

Ain't (apostrophe optional) is a useful word. It can mean "am not", "will not", "are not" or  "is not". Sometimes it can mean several of those simultaneously. It is almost as versatile as a word that begins with "f" and ends with "uck", and I'm not talking about "firetruck". (Insert obligatory shudder here).

Language is a thing that is always in flux. And I'm not just talking about fairly new words like Staycation or Prostitot. Nor am I talking about turning a verb into a noun (or the reverse). Not sure what I mean? Let me Google that for you.

If it weren't for the evolution of language, this little contemplation of suicide wouldn't be so hard to understand:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

Language is a living, breathing thing. It is constantly changing. Evolving.

But somehow, we forgot that. I blame it on the Gutenberg.

See, even when language was written, it could change from the hand of one copyist to another. But once that dang printing press came into the picture, then people got the idea that language was somehow a static thing. That there were unbendable rules. That anything that wasn't included in a silly little book called a dictionary wasn't a word. No matter how many people were actually using it.

Sure, you can make the argument that "words mean something." The problem is, they tend to mean different things to different people. And this dear friends, is where this meandering post is heading.

The meaning of the word


Funny little word, isn't it. Among other things, it is the shortened form of my name. Arturo. Arthur. Art.

And in the past couple of centuries, there has been a lot of debate over the meaning of this funny little word. The "art" vs. "craft" debate. The very idea of "fine art" being abstracted out of a physical object.

The other day, sitting at Gold Coast Pizza where we had our first Meet and Greet for the Ashland Arts Alliance, I was contemplating a red plastic cup I was holding.

The contour of the sides to make it comfortable to hold. The red translucency. The textured surface. There is no doubt in my mind that if this were a unique, one of a kind object, that many would consider it to be "fine art". Especially if it were made of glass.

But make it from more economical plastic, and make a few million of them, and suddenly it is no longer art.

But wait! Give it to a university art student, who thinks "Hm... the difference between fine art and not fine art is functionality... so if I put a hole in the bottom of this so it can not contain fluid, thus negating its functionality, I can use it as part of my master's thesis!"

It is all so silly to me.

I've always used the word "art" the way I use the word "ain't" and the way I use the word that ain't "firetruck". It is one of the most versatile words around. It describes nearly every way we interface with the world around us. It is the universal translator.

The problem is, that when you start talking about art and money... art as business... such wide open definitions become problematic. Politicians, galleries, egos, promotion, marketing, zoning laws, grants and other funding, and just about every other money making use of "art" requires that the word be sliced, diced, and chopped up into neat little boxes. The thing that is inherent to each of us by birthright gets baked out of us, until we are desiccated of the very notion that we could somehow be "artists."

And THAT... is one of the Evils of language.

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