Stupid Questions

Stupid questions.

I’m always asking them. On the last day of my latest rhetorical theory class, we were given an open forum to ask any nagging questions we might have, so that the class could offer up perspectives on them. I asked one that has been bothering me for the last few years:

“What is the difference between Rhetoric and Fine Art?”

The groans from the class were pernicious. “Oh no! We’d have to get into the whole ‘what is art’ thing . . .” That wasn’t my intention, so I clarified myself: “Reflecting on all these articles which proclaim that rhetoric is an art, just what differentiates it from fine art?” I asked. No one answered. So I continued: “It seems as if the fundamental distinction is one of utility; is rhetoric defined in any way by utility?” Stone silence.

Granted, I’m probably the only one in the room that thinks of things in these terms, coming from the documentary tradition in photography. After thinking about it the last two days, I suppose I’ll jot down my thoughts. I haven’t been able to locate the Walker Evans quote I was thinking of. He said something to the effect of “my photographs are documents, because documents have a use, compared to art, which by definition is useless.” One of the students in the class brought up that the “uselessness” of art was purely a Western fabrication, and things stalled again. Okay, so I’m a Western guy. I haven’t been through the twelve-step program, but I’ll cop to it just the same.

That’s what makes the issue problematic for me. If I accept Evans’ definition, it might seem that what I’ve been practicing all these years is rhetoric rather than art. But this has a negative spin, amply expounded upon by synthesis.

On one side, you have the words that “narrate” — on the other side, the words that “affect.” It’s a very, very vicious war and it may never end. Like most such wars it’s extremely difficult to even tell the two sides apart. Then consider that the words themselves are forever switching sides, promoting and demoting themselves and trying on new disguises.

If art is defined as a pure affection, and history as pure narration (knowing full well that it is impossible for either to exist in pure form), then rhetoric is certainly closer to art than narration. Occasionally defined as persuasion, rhetoric is designed to move. That’s what makes it useful. Narration then, or history, would be most ineffectual in its purest form — it can only catalyze change by moving its audience. In this sense, fine art which merely reports the mental state of its creator, or of the world, without any attempt to move the audience to action (or feeling) is indeed useless.

That’s the myth of realism, and the myth of an “impartial” narrator. If art moves us, it moves us somewhere. That’s the goal of rhetoric, and the primary reason why it has grown up alongside the notion of self. If an audience listens, it requires knowing who the speaker is in order to grant authenticity. A speakers authenticity is established outside the realm of realism— a fabricated construct of identity— a self that is made visible and conveyed to others. The notion that a rhetorical “self” is somehow false whereas an artistic “self’ is true is part of the legacy of Aristotle.

It began with Plato, who cast the “narrators,” the poets, out of his ideal republic. They practiced arts of imitation. Rhetoric was devalued as well, and only dialectic remained as a means of divining the “truth”. Aristotle invited the poets back in, granting that poien was generative. Poets and artists created things, so they should be valued as creators. However, rhetoric ends up in the doghouse, as mere craft, which rearranges things to serve a purpose. Modern “new rhetoric” attempts to restore rhetoric to the company of poetry, as a generative and epistemic art. Ultimately, this does beg the question I asked. Just what is the difference anyway? If rhetoric is generative, then why is it different from poetry (and or art)? I think it’s just that nagging connotation of falsehood, which has persisted through the ages. Rhetoric can be, but isn’t always, a deception.

Alex suggested that the idea of presenting your self to others began with Aristotle. That’s close, but not strictly true. Concern with the false presentation of self to others began with Plato and continued through Aristotle’s severance of rhetoric from poetry. The importance of presenting your self to others, in the Western sense, was born in Sicily with Corax in the fifth century BC. It was a matter of property. A despot, Thrasybulus of Syracuse, had seized the personal property of the residents. Litigation resulted after the fall of the despot, in order to restore the property of the residents. Those who excelled at helping these citizens pleading their claims set up schools to educate others in the art of persuasion. This was the beginning of the Sophists (Sophist actually means teacher, or wise man). It was their questionable methods which caused the reactions of Plato and others a century later. The importance of presenting a “true self” is perhaps best illustrated by the Roman Quintillian though, who defined rhetoric as “a good man speaking well.”

From the beginning, rhetoric was generative. The only differences between rhetoric and art appear to be in questions of motive: A bad man, speaking (or painting , or sculpting, or whatever) well is accepted with open arms in the world of art. Art appears to live in a world outside good an evil, or at least it pretends it does. Rhetoric, on the other hand, is measured by its attention to virtue. A double standard, to say the least.

1 thought on “Stupid Questions”

  1. Many questions get simpler if, instead of assuming that art is some inexplicable afterthought, one assumes that art is the original impulse, and that particularly useful byproducts of art have gotten broken off into their own named disciplines. (Just like much of the world seems like some inexplicable and useless afterthought until one decides that the world wasn’t built for humanity’s benefit so much as humanity happened to develop in the world.) // Rhetoric is that type of artistic impulse that is meant to convince someone of “truth” or “falsity.” And (therefore) the good or evil of rhetoric isn’t measured so much by “virtue” as by “truth”: an evil sophist uses rhetoric to convince someone of what’s not true; a good philosopher uses the same tools to convince someone of what is true. // And, once both rhetoric and philosophy have been more or less (mostly less) cut and transplanted from the original tree of art-making, the original tree is left supposedly uninterested in conviction, virtue, or truth. Blatantly false boundaries being drawn all round, of course, but since they’re the boundaries that define the disciplines, it’s awfully hard for workers in the disciplines to admit just how undependable and permeable they are. “Philosophy” and “art” both become “rhetoric” to their opponents, and “rhetoric” and “philosophy” easily become “art” with historical or cultural distance….

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