There are some words in the English language that cause us no end of trouble. Pointless cubic kilometres of hot air are generated by people using them. Whole professions, opinions and careers only exist because of the cracks that these words leave in our ability to collectively reason well. These words are those that mean many different things. The kind of words that can mean one thing to one person and quite another to someone else. The kind of words that a person can hear the way they want to, not the way they were spoken.
If you don't believe that such words exist then you just have to ask a few simple questions of people. Take the word 'art'. Is a painting by Turner 'art'? A painting by Jack Vetriano? One by my six year old daughter? An Athena poster? A pile of bricks? A beautiful chair? A fine building? An argument can rage for hours. And it is a very dull argument as it is simply one of categorising a human activity. You would think that people would have become fed up with category arguments a while ago, but this one goes on and on.
Two years ago my wife gave me an unexpected and rather odd Christmas present. It has since proved to be one of the more useful things that I have ever been given. It is a full edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, all twenty volumes of it. It occupies about four feet of shelf space and is one of the most interesting books just to pick up and browse on a rainy Sunday. It also contains the fullest definitions of words that you are ever likely to see.
One of those rainy Sundays I was sitting with two friends and we fell unsuspecting into the 'what is art?' argument. After going around and around for a while we realised that we didn't really know what the word 'art' meant. It was one of those 'I'm not sure what it is but I know it when I see it' words. Such definitions are the refuge of the ignorant so we opened up volume one of the dictionary. There were fourteen definitions, and that's without all the phrase listings. How were we supposed to communicate effectively enough to engage in debate using a word so utterly overloaded with meaning? And that is just the meanings listed in the dictionary. Add the additional meanings piled onto the word by anybody who wanted to call themselves 'artists' in the twentieth century and you could use the word to describe almost any human activity. It has become a word whose only purpose is a placeholder for argument.
In case you imagine that the word 'art' occupies a special place in our vocabulary let me ask you for a moment to consider the word 'fair'. This is a word beloved of both politicians and small children. It is capable of igniting impassioned debate that can go on for hours before each party realises that they mean different things by the word. Going back to dictionary we find it occupies three whole pages, eighteen basic definitions. When a politician promises us a 'fair society' what do you hear? Do you hear definition ten (first part), 'Free from bias, fraud or injustice', or perhaps definition ten (middle part), 'Equitable, not taking undue advantage', or perhaps definition fifteen, 'Gentle, peaceable, not violent' or even definition eleven, 'Free from grave objection'?
Of course, you hear what you want to hear. If you believe in wealth redistribution you hear the word as meaning the egalitarian principle that all should have the same amount of cash, the kind of 'fair' that children mean when the cake is being divided. If you believe that the money you have earned is yours to do with as you wish, you hear the word 'fair' to mean 'just'. So a world of lies and confusion lurks within this word's use, which is of course why it is used so much in political discourse.
Why do these words exist in our lexicon? Surely the lack of utility engendered by the confusion in their definitions would make them fade from use, to be replaced by more accurate terms? In order to explain their continued presence we must look to see what benefits are realised in their usage.
The English language is one of the most versatile and flexible of all languages, and the ability to be highly ambiguous is one of its strengths. Double meanings are one of the simplest sources of humour. Subtle plays on the meanings of words are threaded through some of our finest writings. Songs and poems echo with meanings that are left to the listener. These are the fine, positive results of multiple meanings, the enriching of our language and the expansion of creativity by its use.
Ambiguity has a darker side though, which is when it is used to fool others. This is by far and away its most common usage. When we look hard at how the words are used that lack good definitions we find that the people using them are nearly always trying to fool someone else into doing something they wouldn't otherwise do. This is the home of diplomacy, of politics and its evil twin, fraud. The obvious example we have already seen, that of the word 'fair'. A politician will use this word with abandon, knowing full well that most people hear exactly what they want to hear in it. What the politician wants is your vote so that he can enjoy power, prestige and, these days, a very healthy salary. The word 'fair' is one of those great weasel words that helps him do just this without the actual problem of having to deliver anything later. And as the dividing line between politics and fraud is not so much a line as a spectrum, so too is the use of language to achieve nefarious ends.
But surely the word 'art' is not maintained for any larcenous purpose? Well, that conclusion is not so easily sustained when we ask why it is still in use. Why would anyone want to label the work they do inappropriately, or ambiguously? The usual suspects present themselves; for prestige, for money, for recognition of any sort. One of the things that happened to our society during the last few hundred years since the Enlightenment is that both painting and sculpture have gained steadily increasing status. This has reached such a level the even a mediocre Turner watercolour will now fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds at auction. Both sculpture, drawing and painting have traditionally (before the early part of the twentieth century) been known as 'art'. How tempting that must be to anyone! If the word is already a little fuzzy, well let's call what we do 'art' and attach ourselves to that rising tide of prestige. Some of the most ludicrous word games of the twentieth century ('art is anything that an artist makes') have been about this desire to moor to the rising ship. The large surge of public funding for art in the back half of the twentieth century has exacerbated this trend by providing even greater motivation to attach the label to whatever one does in the hope of attracting some part of this giant largesse.
None of this to say that any of the creative human activities that have been labelled 'art' in the twentieth and twenty first century are unworthwhile in any way. Just that in the fervent desire to gain status by attaching themselves to the world of painting they have ruined a word for us. And all concerned have a lot at stake in keeping it ruined. It is interesting to note that areas of profound human creativity in the twentieth century with adequate funding from outside the state have not felt this need to attach themselves like glue to the word 'art'. Film. Architecture. Music.
It can be argued that the existence of these bad words is fine, part of the rich tapestry of life, a thing we must learn to deal with using our conversational and discriminatory skills. That they don't really matter. But we make important decisions using these words. We decide to vote for the 'fair' politician only to find that he has done the polar opposite of what we wanted. We collectively fund 'art' projects then find that someone has taken their unmade bed to the gallery. These decisions are important. There is a place in the political discussion for an honest debate about the balance between egalitarian principles and the need for justice and motivation in a society. There is a place in our society for off-the-wall visual statements that make people think. But the language used to talk about these things is misleading. It attempts to fool us and that leads to bad decisions that favour the people who are doing the talking.
What should we do about these bad words? In the absence of a Ministry Of Daft New Words (don't the French have one of these?), only popular action can cure the problem. I propose that every time a politician uses the word 'fair' we pelt him or her with copies of the dictionary, preferably the OED as it is large and heavy. And every time someone who calls what they do 'art' who doesn't create something visual with aesthetic value we throw elephant dung at them, whilst deliberately not calling that act itself 'art'. The victims would certainly come up with better words then, saving us the trouble and embarrassment of inventing a new word to describe a pile of bricks in a gallery.
Dartmoor, 30th June 2007
1. The infamous 'pile of bricks' was a work by Carl Andre that was bought by the Tate Gallery in Britain in 1972. It was considered very controversial as it was just what people called it, a pile of bricks arranged in a rectangle. The general public took exception to this being referred to as 'art' and public money being spent on it. It didn't really matter how creative or interesting the pile of bricks was although the thought that the average brickie could have assembled them certainly helped fuel the disquiet. It was in the days when people thought that the word 'art' had a clear meaning and that meaning was something visual and aesthetic. They felt fooled. By that definition, they were.
2. This stunning work of scholarship was started in 1857:
3. Don't get me started on the word 'god'. Four whole pages in the OED.
4. A British MP receives a base salary of £60,675 plus a very healthy expense allowance that can raise his income to well over £120,000 if they are moderately imaginative. The qualifications for this job are that you are, er , alive.
5. I am aware that there is a long history of debate and dispute about the classification of art. Academics and 'Philosophers of Art' have made a great living in a debate that is essentially totally pointless and could be completely resolved by making up a few new words. It is that special kind of dull that can only come from the totally pointless. There's a quite a good Wikipedia summary:
6. They really do. And it is as embarrassing to the French people as you might imagine. It lives within the Culture Ministry and is called the 'General Commission on Terminology and Neology'. It recently (in 2003) banned the word 'email' and insisted everyone used the words 'courriel'. The first government to have a state sponsored comedy department. Then again, maybe not.