Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Simple Past

by Drew Martin

When we speak of a simple past we are referring to life before the world became rushed and complicated. But a simple past can also refer to language. The English language, especially American English usually gets a bad rap because it is too this or that but one thing I love about English as an amateur linguist and native speaker is the abundance of ways to express the past. Many languages only have a simple past or even use present with a temporal adverb, which means saying something such as, Yesterday I see a bird and he smokes a cigarette.

In English, there are two distinct types of past tense. The simple past (preterite) and the present perfect. Each of these may be continuous in the progressive aspect. I can say I was in love as well as I have been in love or Having been in love I... and I had been in love. In many languages you could only say I loved...We can also say something even more complicated such as I have been falling deeper and deeper in love with you since the day we met.

Similarly, we also have more options with English through our definite and indefinite articles; the and a, respectively. Combined with the variations of the past I can say...I loved a woman and I loved the woman who taught me Esperanto. Those little articles make a big difference. Most languages exclude them and simply say, I loved woman...

Do these little details effect how we communicate our ideas? Absolutely. Perhaps a more obvious example, beyond tenses, is to think about how English lacks masculine and feminine identities for nouns (except for boats) and how this influences our brand of feminism and "equal opportunities." Some would say it also robs words of character. The fact that school in many languages is feminine makes it a bit more welcoming. Slavic languages (like many languages) specify every word as masculine, feminine or neuter but some also adjust the past tense of verbs to reflect the gender of the person. Slavic culture has a strong female vibe (in tandem with a pronounced male chauvinism) while America has masculine overtones to almost everything and promotes the Tom-boy culture. It would be impossible to completely understand the dynamics of how a language affects a culture, which in turn changes the language. One thing is for sure, the state of American English fits our pragmatic ways like a glove.

I feel comfortable here discussing language on its own but let us bring it back to there arts. What is to be understood from all of this is that the visual arts are greatly influenced by the language capacity the viewer. I believe people with dissimilar mother tongues see things very differently. This opposes the idea of universal pictorial communication. Let us forget about the viewer for the moment and think about the art. Does photography, for example, have a set language that we alter to be compatible with our language? I think so. Specifically photography is a present tense pointing to the past: two people is 1945. We do not think, two people kissed in 1945 or two people were kissing in 1945. We might comprehend that the picture is old but the immediacy of the image makes us view it in the present.

Most of the visual arts are quite linguistically simple. Some performances may activate future anticipation and a painting such as Pablo Picasso's Guernica may call us back to the past but I think most art is like a kinetic Alexander Calder mobile, which is constantly placing us in the present. When we watch its movement, we do not read it as, that piece would have or could have moved the other way, had the wind blown...we simply note its current position, color and size.