Choose Your Words Wisely

Published on March 9th

As a school tour docent at the Seattle Art Museum, I sometimes find myself explaining relatively complicated concepts in art and culture to classes of kids between roughly five and eighteen years of age. For instance, a few weeks ago I ran two tours focused on the use of perspective in art -- one for a class of eighth graders, and one the following week for a class of fourth graders. The pieces of art that I took the kids around to didn't change between those two tours, nor did the basic concepts that I was introducing them to. 

The language, however, changes immensely. 

Fourth graders, of course, are old enough that they want to be talked to like adults -- most kids do, in my experience, though you can get away with a bit more silliness with younger kids than you can with older ones. If I said that a museum visit requires we use 'indoor voices and walking feet' to eighth graders, I think they'd be justifiably irritated with me, and probably not listen much to anything else I have to say. 

When it comes to the actual subject matter of the tour, too, wording changes. I leave some details out of tours for younger audiences -- eighth graders might care about the fact that a particular Japanese scroll is from about the tenth century and illustrates a scene from The Tale of Genji, probably the first novel ever written, while the fourth graders are less likely to be interested in recitations of facts like that. Both are delighted when I compare the perspective in Japanese scrolls to the kind of point of view that shows up in a lot of video games, and give specific examples of those games. 

When I'm explaining concepts in a tour, I always have to be aware of the language I'm using. I'm used to talking about art and culture as an adult -- in a normal conversation, I use words like parallel or perpendicular without thinking, and I have a degree in anthropology and am more than capable of getting onto tangents that use some intense terminology from that specialization. If someone asks me (as younger kids almost invariably do) whether the frame on a particular painting is real gold, I might unconsciously say that I think it's probably gilded... and then catch myself and explain (hopefully without skipping a beat) that that means it's made of something else, but that it's had a small amount of gold either painted or otherwise added on top of wood or whatever other thing the base is. 

Linguistics gives us the beautiful concept of "code-switching" -- how a person changes the way they speak given different contexts. There are broader ethnic and cultural messages in this concept, but in general I would say that if I'm talking to other college-educated nerds who love medieval history as much as I do, I'm going to speak very differently about a page from an illuminated manuscript than I would to a group of fourth graders... and neither of those methods of communication are better or worse, or even communicate more or less to their audience. One may be more technically precise and the other more interpretive, but they're both, I hope, useful.

In writing, the idea that something can be communicated in multiple ways, and being aware of the levels at which the piece is communicating, is one of the most important skills that a writer can have. Whether in narration or dialogue, a character should speak from their own perspective, their own level of understanding and background, about everything around them. In that tour on perspective that I mentioned earlier, I try to lead students into thinking about why an artist might choose linear perspective over affine, or vice versa. Linear perspective is, in writing terms, a first-person limited POV -- you can only see what one person standing in a particular place saw, or would have seen. Affine perspective is more like the classic omniscient narrator -- as in those wonderful Japanese scrolls, the narrative can describe the moon over a river lined with bamboo, take note of the guard outside a house's walls, then take the roof off a house and check in on what the people inside are doing. There's nothing better or worse about either, and both can be used to make beautiful art. Some are more popular in certain places and times than others, that's all, and the true artist knows how to select what they need for the effect they want to have on the viewer.

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