Language is a mirror of society. Phrases track social developments, become part of the culture, and then drop out of favor and out of use as conventions change.
I thought about this yesterday when I heard a report on the Occupy Wall Street protests. A protester being interviewed was complaining about how unfair our system is and how he isn’t getting the support from the government and corporations that is his just due. My initial, admittedly knee-jerk, unsympathetic reaction was: “Let’s have a pity party!” — and then I found myself wondering when I last heard that phrase.
When I was younger, if you whined about something a listener would often curtly dismiss your complaint by sarcastically saying it was time for a “pity party.” The clear message was, suck it up, stop bitching, and keep at it, because feeling sorry for yourself wasn’t going to get you anywhere. That attitude seems to be a lot less common these days. Now, no one wants to be viewed as judgmental or unsympathetic. So, we tolerate people who whine and wallow in self-pity, and commiserate rather than criticize their defeatist attitude.
As a result, comments about “pity parties” have gone the way of the dodo. In my view, it’s not a good development.
Another piece of modern public art that I really like is Free Stamp, a large painted steel and aluminum sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen. For years, Free Stamp has graced a small park along East Ninth Street in Cleveland, just south of the expressway that separates the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum from the rest of downtown.
Why do I like Free Stamp? Because this is a whimsical sculpture that will inevitably grow more interesting as time goes by. When the sculpture was created, paper was the preferred medium of business, and ink pads and stamps that said things like “Paid” and “Handle with Care” were used routinely. Of course, in the business world you wouldn’t need a stamp that said “Free,” so the sculpture was a bit of a joke. But now, as paper has gone the way of the Dodo and electronic transmissions are in vogue, I doubt that any business buys or even uses stamps anymore. And that is what will make this sculpture even more interesting in years to come. What will people who grow up in the age of email and the cloud, and in the ages of even more advanced communications forms to come, think when they see this giant sculpture, and will they even dimly understand what it is supposed to be?