Three bottles of Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild 1869 were sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 2010 for a staggering $232,692 each. What completely boggles my mind is not the price—much more is routinely paid for artwork and automobiles by collectors and fanatics, those with the wherewithal to indulge their appreciation of the aesthetic or performance of a purchase. Note the operative keywords here: aesthetic and performance. One can add another attribute to that set—importance. I’m sure the Dead Sea Scrolls, if they were ever posted on eBay, would command a pretty hefty reserve price simply because of their cultural and historical importance.
But let’s think about wine. Its value is universally pegged to its taste, as connoisseurs wax poetic about vintages and provenance and such. I personally have a degraded sense of smell and taste due to poor genes, I suppose, but I would bet that even an amateur oenophile could appreciate the difference between a Châteaux Lafite and Three-Buck-Chuck.
So the hefty price tag for the auctioned bottles is ostensibly due to the finely aged nectar of impeccable provenance and vintage contained therein. It must taste grand. 232.692 grand to be exact. But how do we know? We can’t smell the wine and can only presume that the sloshing fluid inside is truly fermented grapes.
One thing we do know for almost absolute certainty: no one will ever know what the wine tastes like, because no fool will ever uncork and lose an investment of that magnitude. So we are left with staring at a bottle. No performance, and minimal aesthetic there. Just a presumption of value that will never be affirmed.
In that sense the bottle of Rather Expensive Wine falls into the category of a collectible, something to be appreciated for its perceived value. Much like art. Ah, except that art can be seen or touched, and therefore appreciated. No one has to uncork the Pieta or a Renoir to study, admire and appreciate its extraordinary beauty. At least a $232,692 work of art has value that can be quantified: See the exquisite detail? The fine brushstrokes layering paint to create dimension? Marvel at the robust lines of the sculpted David! Fine art is an opened bottle of Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild—we know its value because we can taste the quality. The Venus de Milo is no Three-Buck-Chuck.
Then I look at a Jackson Pollock. Canvas splattered with paint slung with abandon from a fair distance. Now, I can’t speak for the average person, but I pretty much have a fixed definition of fine art: if it looks like something I can do, it’s not all that fine. I have nothing against abstract, don’t get me wrong. Picasso worked some fairly dreamy and complex lines into his masterpieces. But Mondrian? Gimme some poster paint and a straightedge and see if I can’t match that poseur.
OK, I’m being just a tad harsh here. I really do appreciate the concept of aesthetics, and sarcasm aside, I would happily hang a Mondrian knock-off on my wall for the sheer pleasure of looking at it, assuming it didn’t clash with the chintz on the sofa. I can see the whimsical beauty of minimalist art as well as the exquisite realism of a classic Goya. Each has its own form, its own allure, and the vastly different styles of artists from Michelangelo to Gauguin to Warhol can all be valued, appreciated, admired and accepted into the collective cultural bucket we call Art.
The one rule each of these disparate styles of art follows is striving for perfection within its own form. Perfection, you see, is the benchmark of value. The more expressive the artist, the more valuable his art. The finer the vintage of a wine, the higher its rating in the various Enthusiast, Spectator, Decanter and similar synonym-grasping publications. It’s sort of like comparing the King’s English to the common diction of the hoi polloi.
Ah, here we are, finally coming around to the overrating of grammar. The very word evokes an academic standard, a collection of Rules by which we are to write and speak if we are to be considered worthy of engaging in discourse with fine society. Rules that cannot be breached in the presence of headhunters, college professors and editors of the more respected publications that we hold in high esteem. No ending sentences with prepositions! No run-on sentences! No periods at the ends of phrases that masquerade as sentences! Like this one.
As I sit here contemplating the $232,692 question of value and aesthetics as it relates to a fine dining experience at Chick-fil-A, I have to wonder: Can the aesthetic of language be fluid and malleable? Can grammar reflect the medium and intent in which it is used? Can we back off some of its ironclad rules in the interest of getting our point across with greater clarity?
Take the title of my blog, for example. real ramble. No capitalized words as dictated by the grammatical convention of elevating titles. A period at the end of what can’t even generously be called a phrase. Why? It’s a statement. It provides a window into who I am and what this blog will offer. The phrase “a picture paints a thousand words” is apt here—the title is a picture, and it tells one as much about the blog as the words themselves. [Ed: I’ve since changed the name of my blog to include capital letters and deep-sixed the period. I sway with the breeze.]
I’m sure that I’m not the first and not alone in proposing the concept of bending grammar to fit context. It is a social medium-driven world after all, one that has seen its share of uncapitalized sentences in emails followed by enough indecipherable acronyms to fill a teenage girl’s closet. The very invention of tweeting has empowered its own rules: fit what you have to say in 140 characters no matter how much the message looks like a ransom note.
So in this Wild West atmosphere of anything goes in the name of cyberinformation, forgive me for creating my own rules of grammar. I don’t need anyone’s input or permission; the grammar sheriff has been driven out of town. “Wait!” you say—“Don’t you fancy yourself a grammar policeman? Double standard much?” Actually, there is a method to my madness. If I can bend rules, I can create some as well.
The old chestnuts of grammar still apply. Use an apostrophe when making a word plural and you will incur my not inconsiderable wrath. Don’t even think of asking someone to give something to “John and I.” “Me and her went shopping,” violating three commandments, merits instant excommunication. Misspell a word at your peril, although I will quietly appreciate the creation of new words (see “uncapitalized” and “cyberinformation” above).
Now then. Full sentences? We don’t speak that way, so I won’t write that way. Prepositions at the ends of sentences and split infinitives? Sound is the new aesthetic; just don’t be egregious. Periods at the ends of titles and single words? Actually, periods were placed at the ends of titles in centuries preceding the invention of steel-cut grits, so call me nostalgic. And yes, we do speak in clipped cadences. Every. Blessed. Day. I’ve even adopted a new convention to add a shade to thought: the cropped ellipsis. A period is final. An ellipsis is an interrupted thought… But sometimes indecision or unsureness (new word—ding!) calls for a truncated punctuation mark. I think that’s what I mean..
There is a place for everything, and the King’s English commands the throne of term papers and corporate reports. But I propose that using English in a manner that paints one’s thoughts as well as describes them is permissible, in fact more desirable in a medium where words can be as expressive published in print as recorded through a webcam. Not every keystroke has to rise to the level of a Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild, and I’m sure that Dali would be quite at home with a truncated ellipsis.
I say we embrace expression and paint creatively but wisely with the keyboard. After all, there is still a huge distinction between Monet and Rothko on the one hand and a house painter on the other. I’m OK with a $14 bottle of Kendall Jackson with my dinner, but kindly keep the Mad Dog 20/20 off the wine list.