Friday, June 27, 2008

The longer tradition

from Viz: Rhetoric-Visual Culture-Pedagogy

One conversation about the relationship between the visual and the textual concerns ekphrasis, commonly defined as the poetic description of a work of art. Regretfully, this popular definition of the term disregards the long and rich rhetorical tradition of ekphrasis, which has been understood as the rhetorically charged description of anything that can be perceived visually or evoked mentally.

Although there are plenty of examples of ekphrasis in classical literature, the earliest extant instructions on how to compose one and what its functions are appear in the Hellenistic composition handbooks known as progymnasmata . . . . These handbooks were designed to train young people in public speaking, and they taught that an ekphrasis was not meant to be composed for its own sake, but it should rather be a part of a longer oration. In this context, the ekphrasis served to evoke a vivid picture in the mind of the audience so as to sway its members’ emotions and prepare them for the subsequent analytical and/or narrative exposition of the issue at hand. An ekphrasis could be composed in any style; it could be used as an introduction (proemium), substituted in the place of a narrative, or inserted as a pointed digression. When inscribed around an image, such as an icon, the ekphrasis functioned to provide commentary and/or guide the viewer’s interpretation of the patron’s intent. Occasionally—and this is especially true for the late antique and Byzantine period—an entire oration could be comprised of an ekphrasis, which functioned allegorically to illustrate either vice or virtue, creation or destruction, wisdom or folly, temperance or intemperance—but always with a rhetorical goal, embedded in a specific historical context.

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