Creativity takes courage.

(Henri Matisse)

What are the conceptual possibilities – and limitations – of design? We would not dare ask this question in relation to art (its possibilities are limitless) but design is functional, it has a job to do. It is its functionality that, according to the artist, and of his choice, banishes the poster from the (supposedly) elevated realm of art and places it firmly in the real world of design. Here, where it defines the art of design, it meets the emotional and functional needs of the viewer.

Because of modern politics speak, the meaning of the word “rhetoric” has changed to signify the unscrupulous use of language in order to achieve self-serving aims. Not only people do not allow themselves to be persuaded, they doubt the sincerity of the message and its originator. We will use the term here in its original Aristotelian meaning, as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. Persuasion requires knowledge and understanding of the message receiver, knowledge and ability to maximise the use of techniques available and mastering of the skills that enable the artist to use the tools in a most effective way. The art of rhetoric has been controversial in the past and it is no less so today: people question the motivation of the artist, try to resist persuasion. Revived in the middle of the 20th century, new rhetoric goes beyond speech and it is seen as a technique used to reach audiences in various media. Technological advancements facilitated the mass production and distribution of visual messages and the growth and acceptance of advertising as an industry meant better visual techniques, aimed at persuading ever-increasing audiences. If originally the art of rhetoric referred to the spoken language, visual rhetoric is about persuasion achieved with the right choice of shapes, line, colour, composition. Images are sensory expressions and perceptions of the shapes and colours in a personal, social and cultural context; together, they create meaning. Visual rhetoric was first mentioned in 1977, but existed long before that date. Roland Barthes was analysing the images in advertisements – in terms of the denotations and connotations of graphics, colour and composition – in the mid-60s, while Magritte’s La trahison des images was painted in 1929.

The shouting image

As it stands stuck to the wall (or the post), the poster uses the tools of rhetoric to fulfil its multifaceted role: inform, invite, persuade, challenge, motivate, mobilise. It does that without sound or movement, in the second it takes the viewer to interrupt his erstwhile train of thought and give his attention to the poster. In the work of Wolfensohn, the initial shot, the first fraction of a second is crucial and he displays a plethora of artifices to successfully arrest the viewer: a striking colour, the unexpected juxtaposition (the fly on the cheek of Mozart, the mouth of a baguette-crocodile ready to swallow an eye, a cucumber revealed by peeling a banana), the stating of the obvious in a non-obvious way.

Formulating and sending a message is not sufficient to achieve communication; the message has to be received, decoded, understood and acted upon. As the etymology of the word implies, for communication to take place there has to be commonality – of language, culture, interests – between the sender and receiver. It is the task of the message creator to ensure that he has profound understanding of the audience, so that the message is fashioned and delivered effectively. If rhetoric is the control of events for an audience, Wolfensohn's posters present the speaker/the artist’s version of events within a given situation, in order to affect the audience’s decision-making. This requires understanding of the situation, of the audience and of the audience’s attitude to the situation. What is the audience’s position versus consumption? Gender equality? Education? The artist is not afraid to tackle head on any subject, however controversial or sensitive - from music to homelessness, from industrial design to the environment.

If we accept that design is a form of rhetoric, with its own communication model, with its own logos (rational) ethos (ethical) and pathos (emotional) appeal strategy, the objective is to simply guide us on how to live our lives: what to believe, what to do, how to do it. The language of design, like the language of art, is the visual generator of emotion: line, colour, composition.

A transparent purpose

This aim is established and declared from the start: a fundamental characteristic of rhetoric is a transparent objective. The intention of the poster is to invite, amuse, educate, arouse emotion, call to action – or any combination of those. At this point I come to agree that the poster is more design than art: the poster is judged by its effectiveness in achieving its objective. But beware! At first sight it appears that the intention of the artist is to amuse: Mozart with full make-up including the fly, a grain de beauté on his rouged cheeks, the French baguette cut halfway like the mouth of an alligator ready to swallow rather than be swallowed, the gold fish in an otherwise empty head, the hen with a question mark egg floating above its head… all rather drộle. Of course humour is not the end, but a means to an end. A way of arresting the viewer, holding his attention for the time it takes to deliver the entire message. Humour is more than that: it is part of the ethos in rhetoric strategy, the means by which the communicator establishes his credibility. It helps to put the audience at ease first, before taking it onto the persuasion path. Laughter, or just a fleeting smile, makes the public relaxed and more inclined to accept whatever message is delivered by the person with the joke.

The linearity of time gives the orator an advantage over the visual rhetoric: he can use a paraprosdokian (the unexpected shift in meaning) trope and take his audience by surprise. Even an amateur Cicero would pose for effect before delivering the humorous words. The visual artist has to display his tropes all at once; the viewer needs a number of tools himself, a cultural context, in order to decode the elements of the message and get the joke. This type of expectation-defying twist is often used in comedy, and the visual version in film (Spielberg is a master of the paraprosdokian ending).

The use of homophones (like “buy” and “bye”), birds, animals and vegetables in various roles are there to amuse before delivering some authoritative instruction. Humour helps the artist to establish a level link, the illusion of a relationship of equals with his audience. Laughter unites public and rhetor, establishing the latter as trustworthy, his message both desirable and useful. Although more successful than oration, visual persuasion cannot be taken for granted; it has become naturalised, pervasive, an everyday event, mere visual muzak that we no longer perceive. To our detriment, because in our blindness and deafness we lose the freedom to choose. The role of the orator, or visual persuader, is an act of civil participation, a civic duty. The public is so accustomed to images competing to persuade that we no longer see them. To cure this blindness, the poster has to use images that are “new” in some way. The beauty of Wolfensohn’s posters is that his images are new and often unexpected; and although complex, not cryptic.

The advertising image is frank, or at least emphatic (Roland Barthes). Poster images are both frank and emphatic. Stated clearly and loudly, the message insinuates itself into the conscience of the public by appealing to its emotions and social circumstances. Yes, the choices made by the artist (form, colour, composition) are those most likely to help achieve a change – in perception, attitude or behaviour. The use of metaphors and myth emphasises the commonality of language and culture with the viewer, invites the spectator to join the club, get on the same page, in order to be more persuasive. From the artist’s consciousness to our own, from objective to perceived reality the images of an ideal, desired world fluctuate according to age, religion, wealth but it is always ruled by universal human values. From food to philosophy, from climate change to consumerism, the issues Wolfensohn deals with are important to him, and he engages us, the viewers, so that they become important to us too.

This is an extract from The Poetry of the Poster: Myth and Metaphor in the work of Nelu Wolfensohn to be published by Pourlebienpublic.