In college, my art history professor Glenn Lavertu’s motto for the course was “all art is propaganda.” Sometimes this was more obvious—like in David’s “Death of Marat”, Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars” or Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath”—and sometimes less so. But ultimately he showed us that no art is created in a vacuum and all of it is reactionary to some extent. This struck me as a really interesting tenet of artistic creation, but subsequently I’ve come to think that rhetoric is better word. All art is rhetoric.
The Cocktail Party
Imagine you’re at a cocktail party (not unlike Kenneth Burke’s apocryphal soirée), and you and a few other guests are mingling on the balcony discussing the merits of pie over cake. Most people are making some pretty interesting arguments, but the woman next to you in the polka-dot dress keeps cracking jokes and throwing out some sarcastic comment. She’s entertaining and she makes everyone chuckle, but she doesn’t contribute anything intelligent to the conversation. She doesn’t move the conversation forward.
Among your group is a man with a bow tie, and he just said something witty, but his annoying friend feels the need to repeat everything he says. “I know, right?” the friend adds. Later the friend says, “Yeah, but you can’t stack pies the way you stack cakes”, which is basically the same argument you just made five minutes ago. His comments are useless and uninteresting, because he doesn’t move the conversation forward.
If you wander into the house at this hypothetical party, you’ll find a socially awkward woman standing next to a ficus talking to herself and wishing that people understood what a genius she is, and in the kitchen you’ll see a group of old school chums sharing inside jokes that no one else understands. There’s also an overzealous preacher who the other guests keep moving away from—not because he doesn’t have anything to say—but simply because there’s no artistry to his conversation and he doesn’t leave any room for people to rebut.
This is how I see landscape of artistic expression.
An Artist’s Guide to Rhetoric
The CliffsNotes version of rhetoric is: the art of conveying an idea to an audience. Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but that is the gist of it (if you’re interested you can always check out Lloyd Bitzer’s “Rhetorical Situation”, the foundation piece of modern rhetorical studies or you can read Richard Vatz’s equally interesting rebuttal). Rhetoric is a conversation that leads to action.
Rhetoric is often associated with politicians and lawyers, propaganda and manipulation, but at its meaty core, rhetoric is simply a relationship between an idea and an audience. Now, that idea can be as simple as an emotion or as complex as “the human condition” (whatever that means). It can be straightforward and didactic or layered and abstract. It can preach a specific cause, or it can simply open up a dialogue. And that idea can be conveyed in infinite ways to suit an artist’s unique voice and creative mind.
Bringing Art and Rhetoric Together
If art is a dialogue then a good artist must move the conversation forward.
But if all art is rhetoric, then what separates art from a thesis paper? Well, art relies on a balance between rhetoric and entertainment or creativity. I like to think of it like this: at one end of the spectrum you have thesis, and at the other end there is decoration. Or if you think of it as a lever, an artist can shift that fulcrum between thesis and decoration to either side, but you still need to maintain a balance.