Visual Rhetoric/Definitions of Visual Rhetoric

Defining Visual Rhetoric

Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing [discovering] in any given case the available [appropriate] means of persuasion

—Aristotle, qtd. in Bizzell 160

The duty and office of Rhetoric is to apply Reason to Imagination for the better moving of the will

—Bacon, qtd. in Bizzell 629

According to the rhetoric page on this wiki site, rhetoric is the art of persuasion using language. The classical philosophers used rhetoric in their speeches to persuade people to their point of view. The art uses style and many different formulas to make the most pertinent argument to convince their audience. The classical sophist, Gorgias, said rhetoric had the power to create images in a person's mind. Quintilian also believed that rhetoric presented images into people's minds (Blakesley 2). Visual rhetoric is actually representations and images. It is using images to convince people instead of using words.

Images have just begun to be analyzed as rhetoric. They have surrounded people since cavemen began drawing pictures on cave walls. Images today are used in Mediums and Manifestations of Visual Rhetoric advertisements, schoolbooks, movies, magazines, paintings, the list could go on forever because images are everything we see. The visual surrounds people all the time. The definition of visual rhetoric depends upon the scholar, but it can be any range of the items listed previously. In Defining Visual Images, the authors, Charles Hill and Marguerite Helmers, explain that visual rhetoric is “understanding how images… work upon readers” (Helmers 2). So visual rhetoric is the study of what impression visuals give a viewer. There are many categories to look at when determining this impression or impact.

One aspect of visual rhetoric is intertextuality. This is how one image relates to another image. Are there similarities? Is it a certain type of image, advertisement, family photo? This is important because the more images that are similar, the more symbols our society comes to know, and the study of semiotics is born. The reason that images can mean something or create emotion in viewers is because of semiotics. Objects in images represent concepts known to our culture, that have a common meaning throughout our society. One example is the American flag. The American flag in an image at least in America, stands for freedom.

Psychology must also be looked at when studying images. Trying to figure out what impact certain colors, shapes, symbols have on people is important in figuring out their reactions. This psychology could change from culture to culture. Cultural studies are then also important. Two people from different backgrounds could see images in completely opposite views. Read more about this Cultural Theories of Visual Rhetoric.

Visual rhetoric found its beginnings in art criticism. Analysts would look at aspects in the design and symbolism in a piece of fine art, to try and explain what the artist was trying to say. One example of this is Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. To some people it is just a pretty painting to look at, while others see a foreshadowing to his death. He includes a cypress tree, which is a cemetery tree. He also has the stars, in Van Gogh’s time, heaven was being in the stars. Now that painting would be looked at by a rhetorician and be analyzed in the same way- by looking at all aspects of it.

Visual rhetoric is highly connected to design. When the maker of an image is creating it, he looks at the lines. What direction are the lines going? Are they thick or thin? Are they diagonal? In The Grammar of Visual Design, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen write about vectors. Rhetorical Vectors. Vectors are diagonal lines throughout an image. Vectors create action in an image. They determine whether or not an image is narrative or conceptual. Another ‘grammatical’ concept in their book is modality. Modality is how believable or realistic an image is- Modality and Visual Representations of Reality. Another ‘gramatical’ concept in their book is framing and salience. Kress and Leeuwen say that the rhetoric of an image is affected by the framing around it- the way the image is cropped. This makes the image either more or less believable. All of these concepts need to be analyzed in order to determine the rhetoric of an image. And even through looking at each aspect scholars may disagree about the meaning. Each person has previous knowledge and experiences that lead him or her to have his or her own opinion about different symbols. But through semiotics and using ‘grammatical’ concepts, hopefully the study of visual rhetoric can become more stabilized and well thought of in intellectual circles- Status of Visual Rhetoric and Visual Literacy in the Academy.


Works Cited Bizzell, Patricia and Bruce Herzberg (Eds.). The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Boston: Bedford, 1990. Blakesley David, Brooke Collin. “Introduction: Notes on Visual Rhetoric”. Enculturation. Online. Issue 3:2. 2001.

Last modified on 17 April 2008, at 00:56