Tom Sutcliffe: When words lose their power

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I'm going to make a pledge of abstention today and, as it happens, you're going to be able to help keep me honest, because my self-imposed prohibition doesn't involve alcohol but vocabulary. I'm going to try and give up the word "powerful", at least as a term of critical approval. I think it's probably still permissible to use it in a straightforward sense, to describe Vladimir Putin, say, or the odour of a teenager's bedroom. But I'm going to try to cut out any use of the word when describing an artwork. And this will involve some sacrifice I know, because "powerful" is very useful indeed when you're in a bit of a descriptive hole. I've often had recourse to it when writing about works that are supposed to hit you hard, in part because being hit hard can leave you a little groggy and dazed when it comes to describing what has just happened.

The fact that "powerful" is a one-word cliché would be good enough reason on its own to steer clear of it. What does it actually say, after all, other than that this particular play or film made you feel something? Indeed, it's paradoxically bland for a word that's meant to alert the reader to intensity of effect or emotion. "Powerful" is, all too often, a dodge or a place-filler. Like the helpful types who sit-in for A-list celebrities at the Oscars, so that there aren't any unsightly gaps in the auditorium, "powerful" can be slotted in to an awkward gap in your sentence without obviously giving the fact away. It'll do, for now, you think, but now becomes then and it's there in black and white, telling the reader absolutely nothing. "I was affected by this" might be one honest paraphrase of the word, and since being affected by the work of art should go without saying it's broadly useless. I never employ it, certainly, without a vague feeling of dissatisfaction... and that's one reason for going cold turkey now. If I don't throw the crutch away how can I know what the muscles might be capable of?

But there is another problem with "powerful" too. And that's the unexamined assumption that power is a good thing for a work of art to have. Or rather (since feebleness or lack of power is not something you would want for any cultural creation) that impact and punch and coercive effect are admirable in themselves. Folded inside the phrase is the idea that you've been overpowered in some way. It implicitly signs up to that famous Kafka dictum that "a book should be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside us", which is fine as far as it goes though it surely doesn't go anything like far enough. Could Pride and Prejudice be described as an "ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside of us"? Is it, for that matter, "powerful"? It would be an odd kind of world in which it was dismissed for insufficient power, and yet equally odd to fall back on this commonplace as a way of describing its effect. That's partly because subtlety and wit isn't easily accommodated by "powerful", or indeed any work that just wants to persuade you that the world is a bit more complicated than you'd always assumed ("powerful" has a secret thing going on with "simplicity" and "starkness" and "devastating", all of which imply that demolition is a kind of virtue). Using "powerful" is – all too often – a way of sidestepping what a work is actually saying and the duty to analyse that carefully, and replacing it with your own virtuous sensibility. It is – though it doesn't immediately look it – a curiously self-congratulatory term of praise since it suggests that the highest achievement of a novel or a film or a poem is to make you personally feel something, and you may just be very easy to impress. I'm cutting it out anyway, and will try to be a little more specific in future. When I backslide – which I almost certainly will – remind me of the promise.

Imperfections that bring language to life

In the endless ongoing battle between purity and impurity I'm usually on impurity's side. Adulteration, of one kind or another, is the source of virtually everything cherishable in life, from the top notes of a fine malt whiskey to the vigour of certain kinds of poetry, while the fetishisation of purity – notably when it comes to race – has multiple crimes to its name. I quite like my flour to be unadulterated (and my prescription medicines) but with almost anything else a bit of dirt is all to the good. I wouldn't have thought of Jonathan Swift as fighting for the other side in this contest but, walking round the British Library's new exhibition Evolving English I was surprised to come across a little pamphlet from 1712 in which he tried to persuade the government to establish an academy to police the correctness of the English language. "My Lord, I do here complain," he wrote, "that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; that the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities." They order this matter better in France, Swift suggested, and we should imitate them at once. Thank goodness he failed. Because if there's anything that the exhibition demonstrates it's that the corruptions and absurdities of the language are what gives it such life and potency. Attempts to fix and correct a language – like attempts to preserve the purity of a racial bloodline – have an awful tendency to privilege feeble tradition over vigorous novelty. I can't help feeling, too, that it wouldn't have been long before Swift would have been breaking his own rules.

A gift for painful truths

There's a long tradition of self-harm on the wilder fringes of conceptual art but even so Wafaa Bilal's readiness to suffer for his art is impressive. An Iraqi born artist and teacher working in New York, most of Bilal's recent work has concentrated on civilian casualties in Iraq. In a piece called Domestic Tension he exposed himself in a gallery fitted with an internet-controlled paintball gun, allowing anyone so minded to shoot him. The piece, his website explained, "is meant to engage people who may not be willing to engage in political dialogue through political means". The rate of fire was unnervingly intense – which may not have been entirely unconnected with the fact that one of his previous works was a hacked video game in which Bilal featured as a suicide bomber trying to assassinate George Bush. More recently he sat in a gallery having a map of Iraq tattooed onto his back, with American casualties mapped in dots of red ink and Iraqi deaths recorded in an ink visible only under UV light – a painfully literal reference to their relative visibility to the American public. His latest scheme, The Third I, involves surgically implanting a webcam in the back of his head which will stream images to a museum in Qatar at one-minute intervals. New York University are reported to be worried about the privacy issues involved – and have suggested Mr Bilal might like to wear a lens cap when he's on campus. Personally I would love to know how his health insurance works.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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