Visual Arguments in the Wild

One of the greatest things about living in New York city for me is the graffiti. I take pictures of it whenever I can. But it has to be a certain type; I like graffiti that might serve an argumentative function.

Here's an advert from the 42nd St Bryant Park Subway station for Mohegan Sun, a casino resort in Connecticut.

Typical graffiti would just write all over this image. But what this artist has done is blacked out a few teeth here and there. Does this serve an argumentative function? I think so.

First, one way of reading it is the slogan is supported by only ignorant people. Everyone knows that tomorrow can't and won't wait. Especially for that dentist appointment. Those with gapped teeth are ignorant, hence the slogan is ignorant.

Or, the slogan, the wealth of the people, their apparent good looks and fine lifestyle are hollow. The markings attempt to make real the argument "These people and what they represent are toothless."

There are most likely other interpretations. However, the key work on this question - whether pictures can argue, was written in 1996 by Professor Fleming. You can read a bit of it there, but the whole thing is worth a read if you can get a copy via your library. In short, Fleming argues that pictures cannot argue because pictures cannot convey clear propositional content. Argumentation, as we know it, requires propositions. So pictures are relegated to being supporting cast for arguments - either evidence or experience that helps us form propositions - and does not argue in the proper sense of the term.

I am not sure about this conclusion. This advertisement is trying to argue that I should get away, spend, relax, and indulge - in short enjoy. The graffiti-ist is throwing a bit of dirt in the way of that, a bit of static in the signal. Just by colouring in the teeth, only a few of them here and there, she advances the proposition that this is not what it seems - therefore enjoyment is not what it seems. Something as small as a Sharpie mark can raise enough interference to where the ad could be read in an alternative and opposite direction.

Or it could be hilarious looking at these toothless people and I'm making a lot out of nothing. But  someone had to stop there and color those teeth in. And someone had to put it up there. And someone had to take those photos, pay those actors, design the campaign and decide where to put it.

Someone, some rhetor, maybe even a couple of them thought about what I would make out of this image.
 
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