The Importance of “Importance” in Visual Rhetoric

The Importance of “Importance” in Visual Rhetoric

Tens of thousands of years before the invention of Photoshop, ink, or even paper, humans with whom you or I would have seemingly little in common cautiously entered what we now call Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche valley in Southern France. The picture above shows one of the hundreds of cave paintings from Chauvet—horses running with bison and rhinos. Radiocarbon dating estimates the origin of some of the oldest images around 30,000 B.C. with paintings developing over the next 5,000 years.

The Chauvet paintings demonstrate a remarkable understanding of compositional technique. Line, spacing, relationship, color, etc. I imagine the artist observing the ritual of animal migration and finding something fascinating, something important about the events. He or she took some “interest” in the animals. Enough, in fact, to create the painting.

The artist could not recreate the occurrence exactly as it happened. Even if he had the modern convenience of an iPhone camera, he still had to choose which part of the event to frame, how much to film, where to zoom, etc. He could only share the massive event by oral, aural, or visual “imaging.”

He had to recreate reality. Or not. Let’s discuss…

The fundamental choice we make when creating images is the choice of representation. What visual elements—line, shape, color, etc.—will represent the intended message? But how do/should we choose?

Child's drawing of a dinosaur.

When a child draws a dinosaur, she likely spends little time on the shape of the scales or the exact length of the tail. That’s not what’s essential to her, and it’s not essential because it’s not important. Instead, she spends time on elements that evoke “dinosaur”: sharp teeth, claws, spikes on the back. Danger elements. The “important” elements.

This is the rhetorical element of image-making.

If we were talking purely about communicating visually—without persuasion—we could end the discussion by discussing essentials. That is, what essential elements are required for the audience to visually receive the message. If you didn’t know the child’s picture was of a dinosaur, for instance, your first guess might have been “Godzilla.” (Mine was.) That’s because, from a purely communicative standpoint, the child did a mediocre job portraying “dinosaur” to the audience. (Sorry to be so harsh on the kid. Just trying to make a point. Don’t send me hate mail.)

But from a rhetorical perspective, the child’s drawing is excellent. It portrays and heightens a specific element of reality about dinosaurs—namely, their claws and danger. It suggests that these are the elements that should be seen and, therefore, are the important elements of “dinosaurness.” It’s about as rhetorically effective/sophisticated as a 5-year-old can be. Bravo.

As I pointed out in a recent introduction to visual rhetoric:

Just as it’s impossible for an author to explain everything about a subject in a blog post, a speech, or even a book, it’s equally impossible for a visual author to present the entire world in a single image or series of images. The author must choose what he wants you to see.

Images focus our attention on certain elements of the subject and insist that these are the important elements. Those elements may be (and often are) exaggerated, but that precisely highlights the point. Sophisticated visual rhetoric goes a step further and incorporates visual metaphor and drama that evokes our deepest feelings like fear (dinosaurs), empathy, love, humor, etc.

Whether or not we, as viewers, agree with these important elements determines if we’ll act. Because inherent in the concept of “important” is action (for most people), the notion that we should do something. Herein lies the profound (secret?) power of images—from dinosaur drawings to Super Bowl ads, from billboards to the Chauvet Cave.

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At this point, I should clarify a common misunderstanding about visual rhetoric. I’m not claiming that this kid’s picture (or any image) makes an explicit argument. An argument is a particular thing:

An argument is an attempt to prove a conclusion by providing reasons to accept the point in question.

No picture or image can make an argument, in my opinion. Not without significant textual additions. But as sophisticated rhetors, we understand that things can be persuasive without being an argument. And that’s what I’m claiming about images.

* * * * *

What does this mean for rhetors? When creating rhetorical images it’s important to keep in mind at least a few questions:

  • What is important to your audience?
  • How can you heighten that perception of importance?
  • What visual elements should you highlight (or downplay)?
  • Are there any particular elements that might encourage action?

This isn’t an exhaustive list of things to consider, but it’s a good start. If you’re at least aware of what makes rhetorical images so powerful, you’ll on your way to being a better visual rhetor.

Happy persuading!

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