Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Visual Argument in Intercultural Contexts: Perspectives on Folk/traditional Art

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Visual Argument in Intercultural Contexts: Perspectives on Folk/traditional Art

Article excerpt

In a germinal 1996 issue of Argumentation and Advocacy, communication scholars established that images can argue. Among the theoretical foundations put in place was the following:

So far, we have suggested three prerequisites for a satisfactory account of visual argument: we must accept the possibility of visual meaning, we must make more of an effort to consider images in context, and we must recognize the argumentative aspects of representation and resemblance. (Birdsell & Groarke, 1996, p. 8)

The 1996 debate on visual argument in Argumentation and Advocacy also generated multiple opportunities to consider visual argument in diverse fields of communication. The present essay brings together these initiatives, considering how visual argument fits within intercultural issues and also meditating on the specific qualities of visual argument as proposed by Birdsell and Groarke (1996). Their attention to context, in particular, informs the present essay. Context and identity issues may be addressed by any kind of visual or art form but are especially central to folk/traditional art. Within anthropology, folkloristics, and material culture, folk and traditional arts have been theorized deeply over the past 20 years. Contextual, communicative, and identity issues are particularly well defined. This essay examines folk art as a unique framework for visual argument, especially in intercultural contexts.

Ten years ago, Birdsell and Groarke (1996) and Blair (1996) effectively contested Fleming's (1996) misgivings about visual argument. Folk art theory and practice may further solidify visual argument's status. To this end, a secondary goal of this essay is to address Fleming's (1996) objections to visual argument. Folk art's lessons for intercultural communication also are explored.

My analysis proceeds in three stages. First, I explain what is meant by folk art and briefly review theories that inform current scholarship. These theories of folk art also are placed in dialogue with perspectives on visual argument. Once the relationship between folk art and visual argument is clear, a case study of Blackfeet beadwork from 1895 to 1935 is undertaken.

Finally, some concluding questions and possible implications of folk art and visual argument are offered.


The title of this essay conflates folk and traditional arts because the term folk art may be misconstrued. By folk art I do not mean the American style of painting popularized by Grandma Moses. Nor do I mean so-called "outsider art" or the art of "peasants." By folk/traditional art I do mean the particular genre of human creativity that emphasizes artistic process, cultural tradition, and limited individualism. This definition derives from a body of literature in the disciplines of folklore, anthropology, and material culture. Like folklorists, folk/traditional arts scholars take as their unit of analysis the performative creativity that occurs on vernacular levels. Folk/traditional art often is the art of "everyday" and, although folk art's creation requires particularly gifted and talented individuals, it often is also the art of "everyone."

What does it mean to say that folk/traditional art emphasizes "artistic process, cultural tradition, and limited individualism"? Creativity's role in folk art is unique because it must engage certain limits of the art form. Theories of folk art explain the dialectic between creativity and limits within process, tradition, and community. I will consider each of these elements in turn.

The first element of folk art theory concerns process. A folk art object is easily identifiable because it belongs to a genre, and generic categories for folk art (beadwork, sweet grass basket, etc.) are established through processes of creation. Beadwork ceases to be "beadwork" if one uses a glue gun instead of needle and thread. …

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