Approaches to Political Graphic Art as Discourse
Posted on 4 August, 2015
In the late 1970’s, Mario Benedetti wrote the poetry collection Letras de emergencia, which included a prologue under the title “Canto libre y arte de emergencia”, [“Free Song and Emergency Art”].(1) In it, he stresses the urgent need to raise one’s voice against unreason, expressly alluding to the song by Daniel Viglietti, who was at that time a political prisoner in Uruguay. I see no objection to extending the poet’s considerations to all artistic expressions raising from the terrible conjunctures of our histories. Benedetti states that someone will not fail to wonder how we can have the time and the willingness to sing, paint or dance; he points out that these expressions produce an aesthetic effect, interpellate in another way, bring us affectively closer, build a community: everything adds up, they are “small risks” that buttress the “great risk” of thinking, imagining, putting forward another reality, and fighting for it. He views these artistic products as open windows from where it is possible to see other things: “the author wrote the lines and reality wrote between the lines”.
Benedetti’s words are relevant when thinking about a specific kind of graphic art which receives an array of different names: militant, engaged, urgent, interventionist, to mention only the most common ones. In this essay I will call it political graphic art, considering it a part of political discourse, as a structured set of signs with specific signifying codes and communication strategies, determined by their particular modes of production and circulation. Furthermore, as language in the widest sense of the term, not reduced to the linguistic dimension or to langue, it is a part of a social discourse in Patrick Charaudeau’s terms (2): “discourse can be related to a coherent set of shared knowledges, constructed […] by the individual members of a social group. These social discourses –which might also be termed social imaginaries – testify to the way in which social practices are represented in a given socio-cultural context, and rationalized in terms of value”. In this essay I will present some thoughts on political graphic art, incorporating some of Charaudeau’s concepts regarding argumentation and political discourse.
I will begin with a characterization of political graphic art in the context of social mobilizations. Without attempting a precise description of all of its formal aspects, and avoiding any reference to particular sets or contexts, it is nonetheless necessary to state some of its features, in order to establish the object of my considerations.
Every social mobilization, particularly since the student movement in 1968, goes hand in hand with an emerging graphic art production raising from the socio-political conjuncture. In this sense, it might be better to call it “urgent”, since its determination is political rather than artistic; therefore, it engages with a very precise moment that conditions its emergence and sets its time-frame for production. These products are made with diverse techniques and supports, mainly linoleum, serigraph, stencils, offset, banners, graffiti and stickers. Their mode of production is evident, and it is by itself one of the elements to appreciate. Their main purpose is to produce a sensory, affective and reflexive motivation in the audience; an audience which is sought for, found, and produced in the context of their circulation. Their circulation is varied as well: we find these images glued to or printed on the walls of the streets where a demonstration takes place; on fountains and monuments; on the floor; on portable banners carried by the demonstrators. This is important, because these images are made to be seen in movement, even if afterwards they remain outside the space-time frame of the demonstration. This feature defines in most cases the creative elements that are brought into play in their production. We could say that their main purpose can adopt any of the following three forms, intermingled or separated according to a specific goal: being vehicles or means for counter-information; being means of individual or collective expression; being communication devices to posit concrete messages or slogans.
This particular graphic art production places itself outside the logic of the market and of the institutional sphere, even if it is sometimes produced within institutions that have been turned into bases for the movement, as was the case in 1968, when visual arts schools were turned into large printing workshops at the service of the student movement. But the producers are not reduced to being art professionals, although some of them indeed are: they have diverse backgrounds and training, but all of them are alien to the traditional notion of the “artist”. They are usually graphic art production groups who assume the collective dimension as a need, and establish their work dynamics under this guise: they discuss and select their subjects; gather up their different talents; and consider the distribution and circulation of the produced objects.
The most significant example in Mexico of a set of graphic art with these features is the one produced in 68. Without delving into it, let us mention that it achieved the goals and functions set for it by the student movement, and also transcended its historical moment, becoming the most important referent for contemporary political graphic art, in its double testimonial role: as a historical source for the movement, and as graphic objects belonging to a particular artistic production generated in the heat of the historical conjuncture. Here I want to put into play some considerations made by Georges Roque,(3) of the Centre de Recherches sur les Arts et le Langage (CRAL), CNRS-EHESS, in France, who has produced a detailed analysis of this graphic art production. I believe all similar artistic production draws from this experience as well. This brief characterization should suffice to place the political graphic art that I will use as a referent for my following considerations.
Roque posits a series of ideas arising from an analysis of the graphic art of 68, to explain and elucidate its argumentative force. To begin with, we must view argumentation as a way of organizing discourse, aiming at describing the why and how of the phenomena of the world. Whoever engages in argumentation effects a cognitive activity: by framing the issues, taking position, elucidating and demonstrating.(4)
He also points out that the visual force of a political image resides on the visual treatment of the graphic space, in terms of composition and the ordering of its constituent elements. There is a visual language that requires enunciation strategies, in order to gain in clarity and power, while reigning in the polysemy of images. In Roque’s view, the argumentative force of this kind of graphic art lies in stressing pathos, that is, the intent towards mobilization through passion and emotion. To this end, it deploys linguistic-iconic rhetoric, and rhetorical figures such as antithesis, where the image (the subject of the statement) has an affirmative function, while the accompanying text (the subject of enunciation) introduces negation so as to provoke a tension between the iconic and the linguistic realms. This is a common format to this kind of expression: a forceful image alongside a slogan. There are several other resources, such as parody, to produce counter-symbols and counter-propaganda, taking symbols from the opposing discourse and re-signifying them. We find, as well, linguistic signals of the collectivity, such as the use of “we” and the construction of sentences in the third-person plural. This refers to a collective emmiter, aided by anonymity (most of these images are unsigned), indicating a collective emmision device that “takes the floor”: we can say these are collaborative acts of creation. The conflict is situated amidst the graphic objects which require the construction of linguistic-iconic images, always striving for the status of a symbol, even if they not always achieve it, in spite of the search for message-simplification and synthetic capabilities.
It is not just a matter of considering the enunciation conditions and generating, or taking advantage of, a specific communication situation, but rather of considering the circulation and distribution conditions as well, aiming at effecting a symbolic occupation of public space, built by the social links established among a concrete community. These could be the markers of a contested territory in current struggles and conflicts. A public space of assumptions and identifications, a stage and a context for a public art where awareness of the other is ever present.
Roque points to “perlocutionary acts” as defined by John Austin, i.e., those that produce certain consequences or effects on the audience’s feelings, thoughts or actions. This is apposite here because therein lies the aesthetic-political objective of this graphic art. We would add that it also includes a “propositional act” (John Searle), as it refers to something and predicates something about it; that is, it assumes a position, an opinion: the enunciation subject is identifiable.
Let us now move on from George Roque into some of Charaudeau’s ideas on political discourse and its argumentation processes, along with some notions taken from other authors.
The French linguist, an expert on discourse analysis, defines discourse as a structured set of signs, a mise-en-scène of language with semiological codes, codes that suggest and generate concrete meanings. In this case, there is a certain performativity, to the extent that we are dealing with enunciative realizations that require taking into account “the whole mise-en-scène of the language act” (5) with both the internal and external circuits present. There is a communicating subject: the collective subject embodied in “we”; an interpreting subject: whoever considers, observes, interprets the message; and regarding the internal circuit, there is an enunciating subject: the producer of the message in the concrete graphic object; and an addressee: an individual, institution, or social agent to whom the message alludes or addresses. It would also be useful to examine the pragmatic dimension, defined by Eduardo Andión as that which “considers the works as discoursive acts, understood therefore in their communication situation, involving the interacting agents’ specific cognitive frameworks”. (6)
The object of our present considerations, the political as a social relation with the other, is furrowed by relations of symbolic forces. As subjectivation process, “it inextricably weaves together affection and rationality, personal and collective histories, public and private space, religion and politics, sex and power”. (7) In this sense, the construction of a political discourse implies the coming together of categories both from logos, reason, and pathos, emotion. It is in itself an emotional expression, integrating conviction with the intent to persuade the other; rather than demonstrating, the aim is to incite thought and, hopefully, this process will lead on to political action. Given the communicational context we are dealing with, this can be related to John Dewey’s notion of the public as that form of association proper to democratic societies, in contrast to other forms of human community, whose members are reflexive and aware of their active and responsible role, encouraging debate, deliberation, and even social action.(8)
There is an aspiration to legitimacy and consensus-building. This demands discoursive strategies for the different communicational contexts at play, where one of the strategies distinguished by Charaudeau (9) will prevail: explanation strategies, requiring perhaps the inclusion of other discoursive forms; demonstration strategies; and lastly, persuasion strategies, which according to our referent might be contained in linguistic-iconic images, as long as they possess symbolic efficacy.
Charaudeau(10) lists a series of inherent features which we can extend to political graphic art conceived of as discourse: simplicity, forcefulness, and clarity; that it be easily apprehended and truthful, i.e. a belief in the truthfulness of the enunciation. An ethical consideration should be added to this, since this posits a moral choice in a specific situation or conjuncture, which involves taking position, leading to concrete action. In this sense, there is an express manifestation of values, such as indignation before injustice; solidarity; or the demand for human rights to be respected, to mention just a few. Following the preceding remarks, argumentation procedures are structured, like those described by Roque in the graphic arts of 68, which could be analyzed using Charaudeau’s categories: singularization (limiting polysemy); essentialization (using ideas-notions, such as Justice or Freedom); analogy (the use of visual or verbal comparisons or metaphors, to facilitate communicating the message). Even slogans, written or shouted, have an argumentative function, since they contain an emotional and passionate reason, they generate a sense of belonging and an effective means of expression, when they are viewed as a collective cry that ought to be heard.
“Political discourse is meaningless outside of action, and for the political subject action entails exercising power”. (11) It is impossible to conceive the political without the exercise of power and power relations. The frame of action where the discourse we are considering here is inscribed, implies social identities in conflict with others, as well as specific roles for the partners involved in this social and communicational exchange. There is not only an enunciative stance in a specific communication situation or context (spatially, temporally, socially and historically determined), but a political stance as well, which involves a determinate exercise of power. The purpose of political graphic art as part of a broader political discourse, with diverse forms of expression, is always interactional and it always aims at producing an effect.
Discourse is always produced in a communication situation, and its aim is determined by this very situation. Following the French linguist’s argument, we can say that this political discourse has for its aim, according to the different addressees, to appeal both to communities of opinion (since their members share an ideology, based on common references and values, beliefs and memories, from which a first collective identity emerges), and to communication communities, where the goal is to generate a consensus, in spite of the diverging stances and opinions that may be present. This is the natural and immediate community of political graphic art, in terms of structured situations for action: demonstrations, concentrations, meetings, sit-ins. However, we must also consider that some of the objects of this political discourse outstrip the communication situation for which they were created, circulating in other environments, reproducing themselves through different supports which endow them with other meanings.
Lastly, I think political discourse, the object of these considerations, resides in the civil sphere because of its place of production and circulation. It is the citizens’ space, public space, which posits a communication situation that demands a particular communication device. Political graphic art constitutes a discourse of demands, denunciation or protest, which interpellates the government and the State with its multiple institutions. The enunciating subject and the communicator express the collective interests and longings of a constructed community; graphic producers materialize them, objectify them. Therein lies the legitimacy of this collective and communal dimension, gathered in by symbolic bonds in terms of a shared social ideality. In my view, this is what Charaudeau alludes to when he discusses sovereignty.(12)
Charaudeau, coinciding with Bourdieu, who alludes to specific social context, states that the argumentative value of a discoursive act cannot be judged without considering the conditions in which it was produced, outside its communication situation. For his part, Alberto Híjar (13) points out that “objects and things become interesting or poetically significant when they are gathering or mediating points for human longings […] They live poetically only to the extent of their relations with human destinies”. In this sense, I think we are talking here not just of discourse and argumentation, but of poetics in its simplest definition: the ways and means of saying. (14) A poetics materialized in a discourse inscribed in universes of thought and values, in a specific socio-historical time, circulating in the social realm. Its argumentative dimension highlights the reasoning logics that effect particular stances.
Political graphic art is linked to, and articulated with, a collective order aiming towards a political demarcation, not merely a particular rhetoric and argumentation. It is rooted in historical time, the time of concrete social relations. The aesthetic dimension, in struggle and ever contested, gives rise to artistic media, forms, supports, resources, and poetics, whereby “the aesthetic potentiates the political, making it credible-necessary; and the political potentiates the aesthetic, making it social-existing”, as Miguel Ángel Esquivel aptly puts it.(15)
Images: Anonymous graphic art for Ayotzinapa.
 Mario Benedetti, Letras de emergencia, Buenos Aires, Nueva Imagen, 1973.
 JPatrick Charaudeau, “Una teoría de los sujetos del lenguaje”, Centre d’Analyse du Discours, París, 1985, p. 56.
 Georges Roque, “Aproximaciones argumentativas a la gráfica del 68”, Curare, espacio crítico para las artes, núm. 10, México, D. F., 1997.
 Patrick Charaudeau “La argumentación persuasiva. El ejemplo del discurso político”, en Martha Shiro, Paola Bentivoglio y Frances D. Elrich, (comps.), Haciendo discurso. Homenaje a Adriana Bolívar, Venezuela, Comisión de Estudios de Posgrado-Facultad de Humanidades y Educación, Universidad Central de Venezuela, 2009, pp. 277-295.
 Patrick Charaudeau, “Una teoría de los sujetos del lenguaje”, op. cit., p. 63.
 Eduardo Andión, “Dar a ver, dar a sentir: una imagen, un afecto”, en Diego Lizarazo A. (coord.),Interpretaciones icónicas. Estética de las imágenes, México, Siglo XXI, 2007, pp. 17-38.
 Patrick Charaudeau, “La argumentación persuasiva…”, op. cit., p. 283.
 Citado en Manuel Delgado, El espacio público como ideología, Madrid, Catarata, 2011, p. 36.
 Patrick Charaudeau, “La argumentación persuasiva…”, op. cit., pp. 280 y 281.
 Patrick Charaudeau, “¿Para qué analizar el discurso político?”, en DeSignis 2, Buenos Aires, Gedisa, 2002, p. 110.
 Ibidem, pp. 117-120.
 Alberto Híjar, “Poética, razón y emoción”, Blanco Móvil, núm. 83, México, D. F., invierno, 2001.
 Andión suggests a more precise definition of poetics, based on Jakobson “who states that ‘poetics studies art not as value, but as a technical fact… as a set of procedures.’ With this, I aim at understanding poetics as the tacit know-how, the practical sense of the artist (Bourdieu); it will consist, then, of the resources and guile arising from the creator’s experience in dealing with the form’s material and the expression’s substance (Hielmsley). Poetics will be, for me, the reflection of the artist upon their work, their solutions, and their visual and thematic intent”. Eduardo Andión, op. cit., pp. 23 y 24.
 Miguel Ángel Esquivel, “El artista ciudadano”, en Releer a Siqueiros. Ensayos en su centenario, México, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Centro Nacional de Investigación, Documentación e Información de Artes Plásticas, Taller de Arte e Ideología, 2000.