Probability. On Rhetoric in Art
in: Daidalos 64, June 1997 (Special Issue „Rhetoric“), p. 80-89.
But it remains uncertain whether this expanded notion of rhetoric can in fact contribute to a better understanding of art. What is to be gained by pointing out that all speech, whether in everyday communication or scholarly discourse, is rhetorical? Applied to the visual realm, this would correspond to the observation that all images are aesthetic, whether intended as ambitious works of art or random snapshots. In the end, these observations tend toward the tautological assertion that language can never directly reproduce reality, but always remains simply language, subject to its own laws. The insistence on this point is a part of the ‚enlightened,‘ anti-ideological intention behind this concept of rhetoric, which, as such, may be justified. But the symptomatic leveling of all genre distinctions that accompanies this conception is still insufficient. Thus the persistent question remains as to whether differences do exist in the rhetorical structure of different forms of language. Similarly, within the visual realm, it should be possible to differentiate between art and press photos, vacation snapshots, advertising, etc.
Furthermore, applying the concept of rhetoric to art also introduces the fundamental problem that art is not linguistically structured. To designate art as ’speech‘ is itself a metaphor, and thus a rhetorical act. Language operates with arbitrary signs. Essentially, there is no reason why we couldn’t use the word ‚table‘ to designate what we think of as a tree. Yet on the basis of linguistic convention, the sign ‚table‘ is unequivocallv associated with the object ‚table.‘ On the other hand. color and form, as the signifying elements of art, function in a fundamentally different way. First, they are not arbitrary, but analogous, e.g. yellow for the sun, or a vertical for a house wall. Second, they are not unambiguously associated with one particular thing. Yellow can stand for anything that is yellow, e.g. the sun, wheat fields, narcissus, etc. Likewise, a vertical can also represent a spinal column or a post. It is from this openness of the pictorial elements that art derives its peculiar ability to articulate, including the ability to use even abstract images to ‚mean‘ something. The mere placing of a blue strip over a green one can suggest ‚landscape,‘ though neither of these elements possess unambiguous referents. The relationship of a pictorial element to its ’signified‘ is thus regulated not by convention, but in the broadest sense by similarity. But if art is not based on the ordering of signs, then rhetoric, which always operates semiotically (as well) and is therefore constructed upon the foundation of signs, is in fact hardly applicable to art.
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