So Many Misnomers

Welcome to another dot game optional sidequest! This sidequest relates to the main quest of The Videogame Misnomer, Part 1 Today we’re going to explore how the names of every major artform you’ve ever heard of are all somehow lacking! To begin:

The most blatant example is undoubtedly comics. The actual definition of comics has been difficult to pin down, though perhaps 70% of the work was done by Scott McCloud in his seminal Understanding Comics; nevertheless, almost everyone who ever lived is agreed that they don’t really have to be comic, i.e. funny, in order to bear that name. The name arose from back in days of yore, when they all were funny, and the association was so strong that our other term for them, used in the expression see you in the funny papers and almost nowhere else, also bears that assumption. Even though the funny papers term refers exclusively to newspaper comics, it is even the case that they need not be funny. French and Italian took somewhat more formalist approaches to their names: the French bande dessinée (approx. “drawings in a strip”) seems to favor Will Eisner’s sequential art definition; the Italian fummetti (lit. “little smoke”) refers to speech balloons, which I doubt anyone would consider a necessary condition to comicsdom.  Attempts to rebrand the medium graphic novel, problematic in other ways, also fail under the scrutiny of literal interpretation: might House of Leaves be considered a novel that is, fundamentally, graphic? And of course the term graphic novel, when applied to non-fiction like Understanding Comics does much violence to general notion of novel.

Film, of course, is problematic: are films recorded or projected digitally still films? What about when they are broadcast over a television signal to a television set? How about cinema? This name seems to imply the venue is inherent to medium; there is indeed no little controversy over whether a person can truly experience a film in any setting but a movie theater, but the matter is far from settled. Especially in light of recent advancements in home televisions, the distinction has become less relevant to even the stodgiest theorist. Movie is a made-up word that suggests motion, so that seems on the right track; motion picture seems exactly correct, except that when taken literally it seems to suggest a world wary of magical “motion pictures”, giving rise to the question of what exactly is a picture.

Next we have theater; this term, probably the most common, suggests, like cinema, that the venue is inseparable from the medium. Unlike cinema, though, there may be a solid point in favor of this idea, until we try to discover exactly what is a theater. To say that a theater is anywhere that theater is performed is quite circular. If theater as an artform is meant to take place in a theater, and cannot take place outside of one, then what constitutes a theater? Does it have to have a certain number of seats, the right level of ornamentation? Can the audience sit on the floor, can they watch behind panes of glass? Can they stand, intermingling, amongst the performers themselves? Stage, as in the phrase stage acting, has this same problem. Drama, as the medium is most frequently called by literary types, has the same problem as comics, and I’m sure Neil Simon has something to say in regards to whether plays need be dramatic.

Literature, a medium sometimes taken to include the scripts of plays (and less often the screenplays of films), benefits from having no major cognates to contradict our intuitions on a daily basis. A person who is literate could be considered to read literature unproblematically. Etymologically, literature comes from Latin literturameaning ‘writing formed with letters’, which is almost certainly an overbroad definition of the artform, unless one is keen on including nutritional facts as an artform (which one may, after all, be keen on doing). Attempts to refer to this medium by another name, its most common occasionally being thought of as elitist, have been problematic. I have many times had the displeasure of seeing this medium called “fiction” by self-respecting, published aestheticians; I should hope an explanation of the many ways in which this is off the mark is not necessary. To call it “books”, though laudably bold, seems to discriminate against people using e-readers.

Now we come upon the worst offender; I speak of a medium whose applied names have been so imprecise, misleading, and problematic that there is still no accepted standard. Most commonly called by perhaps the worst possible name, painting is generally understood in this context to refer paintings proper, drawings in various media, collage, many kinds of installation, mechanically-reproduced prints, and digitally-created artwork of many kinds. The shortcomings of painting need not be specified; the oft-substituted “visual arts” is of course overbroad; is there not a visual component to film, to drama, even perhaps to literature (see again, House of Leaves)? There is even a habit among the general populace to refer to this category as simply “art.” To even refer to this medium is problematic; the less said of it, the better.

Scultpure, a kind of “visual art”, comes from Latin’s sculpere, meaning “to carve, engrave”. In the past, it has been very difficult to make a sculpture without actually doing one of those things, avant-garde though it may be. In these days of 3D printing, however, one can invision a piece of brand-new art that has never been carved or engraved; that never touched human hands until it was done. I suspect, given the state of sculpture today, that these works would be accept as sculpture with little controversy.

Now we proceed to music, which has, in English, a brand new word that designates especially its medium. No one would say “It isn’t music because you have no muse”; no armchair aesthetician (such as myself) has grounds to claim something isn’t music simply because of hints from the name itself, as the name points only to the medium itself, with no secondary signifieds to provide support to the idea. If there is a question as to whether something is music, the name of the form is of no avail; it means simply music.

Now, the point of this article has not been to advocate a drastic renaming project among the arts; such a project, desirable though it may be, is beyond impractical. The point of this has been to demonstrate the special case, in aesthetics, of what is called the Etymologist’s fallacy. The name of an artform often derives, as we have seen, from a major, recurring characteristic of examples of that artform; indeed, those coining the term may have believed them to be definitive charactertistics. The mistake is to trust them. The names are here; we are stuck with them, and must use them. But must not misuse them.

Back to the Main Quest!

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