Probability. On Rhetoric in Art
in: Daidalos 64, June 1997 (Special Issue „Rhetoric“), p. 80-89.
In light of these points, it seems to me that the most promising way to define the relationship between art and rhetoric is to adopt a minimalistic approach, in contrast to the maximalistic conception of rhetoric. The insights also come into focus more clearly when we hold to the old idea of rhetoric. whose thematic delimitation contrasts advantageously with the frayed modern conception of rhetoric. As a specific theory of expression and effect, traditional rhetoric formulates insights that have not lost their validity and which can also be helpful in understanding art. To be sure, the theory of the rhetorical figure’s or the different levels of style is of less interest, unless, as already mentioned, one is investigating an area such as the use of allegory in the Baroque. For art in general, the usefulness of rhetoric is limited to searching through its arsenal for those considerations and concepts that can help explain the specific expressive quality of art.
From its earliest beginnings, one of the insights of rhetoric has been that it has to do, not with truth itself, but only with probability. The latter, together with clarity and brevity, constitute the three virtues of oratory. Only those who adhere to these virtues will persuade. Thus for rhetoric, probability is by no means a weakness, exclusively deficient with respect to the truth, but also contains a moral, consensus-oriented dimension. The probable is at the same time the reasonable and the appropriate, which can be approved in good conscience. This central rhetorical concept provides a bridge to the realm of art. „For this reason, aesthetic truth in its essential meaning is probability,“ wrote A. G. Baumgarten in his Aesthetica of 1750, the first ever work of philosophical aesthetics. Baumgarten analogizes the rhetorical and aesthetic-artistic power of persuasion in the concept of probability as credibility. Ancient rhetoric distinguished between truth and probability as follows: probability is not attained through the complete rendering of all that exists; that would be the positivistic ideal of truth. Rather, it is achieved by a condensing and accentuating configuration that also incorporates the other two virtues, brevity and clarity. A speech is credible when its elements are obligated not only to the representation of facts, but at the same time constitute functions of the speech as a whole. In his Institutionis oratoriae (VII, Preface), Quintilian illustrates this principle using the metaphor of sculpture. The elements of a speech, he says, must be arranged like the members of a body in such a way that they result in a well-proportioned statue. Baumgarten adopts this idea in his „aesthetics“ and generalizes it into a definition of art as inner truth without internal contradiction. Thus the reason it appears as true is less because it depicts the world the way it is, but because its inner organization is consistent with itself. The work of art persuades through the form of its fabrication, through the coherence of its structure. Formulated openly in this way, the old rhetorical concern for probability has validity for modern, indeed even for abstract works, though their ‚consistency‘ can no longer be conceived in terms of Quintilian’s metaphor of the well-proportioned human figure.
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