Friday, April 09, 2004

A Thousand Words 

The old cliche about pictures equaling a thousand words is bedevilling the White House. Photos from Iraq are stronger communications than protestations of the President and his cabinet and millions spent on TV advertising. This photomontage from leftist Michael Moore has a sharper punch than the rabid speeches Moore has been delivering.

Classical rhetoric is largely silent about the power of pictures. It was focused on speech and the persuasive delivery of words. I have been reviewing ancient Greek rhetoric for an essay and the absence of visuals is noticeable. The Greeks created powerful imagery that is among the best ever in Western art. They set a high standard for sculpture and painting. Why didn't imagery get into their discussions of persuasion? It is hard for me to believe their orators never used visual aids to make a point. Both the Romans and Greeks used imagery for political and propaganda purposes, and they understood its power well.

It's a curious absence. What also is curious is that students rarely learn rhetoric anymore. It was once one of the three most important subjects a pupil learned. Today, we scarcely pay attention beyond courses at a college level. And yet, we are living in the greatest age of communications the world has known. As powerful as images are, we cannot communicate everything by pictures alone, though some try.

The principles of ancient rhetoric are still building blocks of everything we do in public relations to turn audiences to causes. But for the absence of argumentation by image, rhetoric is worth studying. Perhaps we need an Aristotle to develop principles of multimedia rhetoric to return this knowledge to its rightful place.


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