Probability. On Rhetoric in Art
in: Daidalos 64, June 1997 (Special Issue „Rhetoric“), p. 80-89.
Rhetoric has been unexpectedly revived from its dormant ‚Sleeping Beauty‘ period, as Walter Jens still referred to it in the 60s. Since then, it has been drawn into the center of attention from the most diverse fields. Hermeneutics, deconstruction, philosophy after the linguistic turn, structuralist semiotics and modern text linguistics, even the social theories of Habermas or Luhmann revolving around the concept of communication – all these differing, and in part seemingly contradictory theories share the basic premise of the impossibility of objective, purely denotative language, and conceive of ‚truth‘ as the result of an open process of communication. ‚Truth‘ is a revocable social agreement that arises through rhetorical means, i.e. through language oriented to persuasion. If all knowledge of what is ‚true‘ is the result of communication. then ‚reality‘ becomes a single ‚text.‘ Rhetoric, understood as the theory of the communicative production of reality, becomes the arbiter of ‚legible‘ for the text. This holds true not only for the ’supertext‘ of the ‚world,‘ but also for the individual ’subtexts‘ of cultural objectification, i.e. not only for language, but also for music, film, the media, politics – and art.
This maximalistic conception of rhetoric has little to do with rhetoric in the traditional sense. The latter was an inventory of rules for the practice of oratory which was codified in Greek and Roman antiquity and exerted its influence far into the modern era. As the ‚art of speaking well,‘ rhetoric is still a ‚Sleeping Beauty‘ who will probably never awaken. Yet a source for the understanding of linguistic articulation, i.e. as a means of interpretation, it is indispensable. Thus in addition to the above-mentioned theories, which approach rhetoric from a systematic perspective, there is the historical approach, which traces the history and influence of rhetoric throughout the different epochs and fields. For art, as well, such an approach is possible and necessary. In particular, the period between 1400 and 1800 is characterized by a flourishing of rhetoric in art. When the Renaissance undertook a reformulation of poetics, i.e. the theory of artistic production, it drew on antique rhetoric as the sole system of rules offering a systematic theory of expression and effect. These included the goals of the oration (to instruct, to move, and to delight), its elements (invention, disposition, and elocution), the different levels of style (modest, middle, and elevated), the notion of appropriateness and taste as the balancing of nature and art, etcetera. All these distinctions and instructions were incorporated into the poetics of art where they enjoyed an immense influence, for example in the hierarchy of genres or the notion of decorum and the theories of propriety and measure. In L. B. Alberti’s influential treatise On Painting (1436), these elements can be traced down to the individual formulations. Later the Baroque, with its great interest in emblems and allegory (both intermediate forms between language and imagery) and its striving for emotional effect (movere), took the rhetoricization of art to new heights, as manifested in works such as Rubens‘ Cycle for Maria de Medici (1622/25). Such works cannot be properly understood without knowledge of classical rhetorical theory. In this field, iconology has achieved significant advances. Around 1800, however, as philosophical aesthetics supercede the rules of poetics and the new artistic categories of genius and originality become dominant, the effective power of rhetoric begins to pale. The art of modernism, striving for autonomy, not only seeks to throw off all external regulation, but also intensifies the opposition between image and word, thus heralding the end of allegorizing art. The modern era proves itself a downright anti-rhetorical epoch. It is no coincidence then that the revival of rhetoric from this oblivion in the 60s occurred contemporaneous to the beginnings of the postmodern critique of modernism. And so if the discussion of rhetoric in art claims validity not only for the period before 1800, but also for the art of modernism, then it seems we are forced to abandon the traditional concept of rhetoric and to adopt the new, maximalistic definition, in which the explicit grounding of an artwork in specific rules of rhetoric is no longer necessary for it to be considered rhetorical.
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