Art form / Snarky

I made it myself.

Dear Word Detective: I was recently at a party where a snarky guest remarked that our hostess “raised tacky to an art form.” I’m guessing that it is more correctly “a form of art,” but how did this expression come to mean something not very special? It seems like it should be exactly the opposite. (By the way, the snarky guest was bumped by someone with a full glass of red wine and left early, presumably to contemplate the consequences of trashing the hostess’s taste.) Now that I think about it, is there any history attached to “snarky”? — Lori Bates.

Ah yes, the loyal guest with the full wine glass, the polite alternative to the bouncer. And so much more civilized than those vulgar stun guns. On the other hand, the wine “accident” doesn’t have the salutary effect on the other guests that shouting “Guards, seize that man!” does. I’ve found that nothing boosts your guests’ opinion of your cooking and home decor like muffled screams from the cellar. Assuming they don’t all just bolt for their cars, they’ll be begging you for your deep-fried Twinkies recipe and praising your Beanie Babies diorama with gratifying alacrity and an almost religious fervor.

The use of “to raise [something] to art form” you describe is remarkably common but devilishly difficult to trace. A search of Google produces more than 16 million hits at the moment, and it seems that nearly anything can be lifted to the status of an art, at least rhetorically. So we have “video games,” “narcissism,” “complaining,” “power strips” (for a computer), “sausage,” “terrarium making,” “hypocrisy,” “window shopping” and simply “apartment living” all apparently boosted to parity with Mozart and Michaelangelo within the first two pages of Google hits.

“Art form” as a fixed phrase meaning, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “An established form taken by a work of art, as a novel, concerto, portrait, film, etc.” or “A medium of artistic expression,” dates back at least to the mid-19th century, and was probably an adaptation of the German “Kunstform,” meaning “skillful artistic form.” Most uses of the term at that time were simply literal; to call ballet or sculpture an “art form” is non-controversial. But as early as 1895 we can see the phrase used in its more modern sense of “something which is not thought of as art but is done so well in this instance that it approaches that status.” In this sense such non-artistic pursuits as diplomacy, neurosurgery, and skateboarding can be praised as having been “raised to an art form” by a talented individual. In nine cases out of ten such hyperbole is simply silly, but at least sincere.

The use of “raise to an art form” you describe the soon-to-be-sodden party guest using, however, is an entirely different phenomenon. It’s a sarcastic jibe not only condemning the object of ridicule but mocking the amount of skill, effort and elaboration implicitly involved in lofting a banal lapse in taste, judgment or competence into the stratosphere of epic awfulness. No one would ever mistake “Bob has raised inappropriate comments at dinner to an art form” or “Sally has raised eye shadow to an art form” for sincere compliments. Ironically, this sarcastic use of “raised to an art form” is itself many years past being a tired and “tacky” cliche.

“Snarky,” oddly enough, has nothing to do with the imaginary animal invented by Lewis Carroll in his 1876 “The Hunting of the Snark.” The verb “to snark” originally, in the late 19th century, meant “to snore or snort,” but soon took on the meaning of “to find fault with, to nag,” probably because snorting at something is rarely considered complimentary. Thus “snarky” appeared in the early 20th century with the meaning “irritable, short-tempered” or, in the common usage today, “impertinently or irreverently sarcastic and critical.”

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