Articulations: Crafting Credible Discourse on Art, Aesthetics, and Design

byGloria J. Brinkman
  • O for the power to speak what I desire to say, and to desire what is fitting,
  • neither offending the gods nor inciting human envy. -Gorgias 1


Recently, I had the pleasure of going to the Yale University Gallery of Art with a group of my friends. In the Modern Art Galleries on the 4 th floor there are vivid works by Picasso, Magritte, Leger, Kandinsky, Klee-notable as "masters" of the premises of modernism, yet they were considered rebels in their own era. There hangs, from the ceiling in this gallery, a snow shovel. A snow-shovel. Not a new snow-shovel, but one that bears scratches and nicks as forensic evidence that this item was actually used to shovel snow. My friends asked me, "What does this MEAN?" Here is a gallery in a prestigious art museum, with paintings and sculptures and…why a snow-shovel? The gallery information tag identifies the "artist" as Marcel Duchamp. There is a painting nearby, also by Marcel Duchamp. It is apparently the last painting he ever made, before doing 'snow-shovel art'. This painting has a long wire brush sticking out of it. Maybe this guy Duchamp was cleaning out his (evidently very famous) garage! My friends were stumped. "THIS is art?" they said. What is ART? How do you think I should I have answered their question? When is something art? Let's talk about what art is to you.

The ancient Greek orator, Gorgias, delivered the quote above in one of his well-known funeral orations for Athenians fallen in war. Oratory, to the ancient Greeks, was a manner of persuasive discourse in support of democratic ideals. Eloquent oration was considered to be among the supreme manifestations of art. Criticizing works of art becomes the motivation in this unit for bringing adolescent students into persuasive modes of dialogue as they construct and defend interpretations of art. In learning techniques of rhetorical oration students will understand how the artful arrangement of their words and the eloquent delivery of their ideas is capable of eliciting emotive responses in the listener. This process can prove to be democratizing for marginalized students.

The Yale National seminar "Eloquence: Classical rhetoric, from Demosthenes to the digital age: the theory and practice of persuasive public speaking and speech writing" enhanced my understandings of approaches through which students develop skillful methods of oration that facilitate their discussions and presentations of the topics of their investigations. In this unit, the topic of inquiry centers around the question, What is art? After considering a selection of found objects within a variety of artificial contexts, students will write their own working definition of art. Through methods of critical inquiry, students will test their definitions against a variety of aesthetic perspectives that challenge commonly accepted norms.

Contemporary art is the platform from which students will leap into investigations of visual texts for their rhetorical content. Students will first write a personal definition for art to be tried alongside investigations of present day art forms. Artworks may generate different interpretations. To interpret an artwork is to generate meaning, and this is most aptly pursued when the work is considered within the social, historical and cultural context within which it was made along with the physical structures with which it is presented. Analytical frameworks form the scaffold upon which students will build discussions of works of art for their rhetorical content. It is through these theoretical lenses that students will discover that a work can take on several different meanings. It is here that students will find intrigue in that their interpretations of works of art can develop intuitively, often against normative views. Through the application of various aesthetic theories students will determine a work's effectiveness, or lack thereof, according to their personal definition of art. Rhetorical techniques will be employed in the public oration of their interpretations with the intent to move their peer audience toward emotive response. A goal is that students proactively challenge their listeners to adopt an appreciation for the work not previously considered.

Adolescent students naturally enjoy the ethos inherent in persuasive operations. They are often keen at persuading others to consider provocative topics from their point of view. Classic rhetorical tradition is modeled after particular modes of persuasion, organization and style developed by Aristotle. Aristotle said that we persuade others by three means: by appeal to their reason (logos), by appeal to their emotions (pathos), by appeal of our personality or character (ethos) 2. In protocols of persuasive oration, students will use one of these or all three depending on the nature, or subject, of their argument. When persuasive activities approach the condition of art they can be said to fall within the province of rhetoric. 3

Content objectives

In keeping with its title, this unit is about crafting critical discourse. The initial objective follows that, around topics of art criticism, students will articulate their interpretive responses for selected works of contemporary art. Yet, the larger goal is that in learning how to utilize rhetorical techniques employed in public speaking, students will find themselves able to persuade their listeners to adopt alternative appreciations for what might be seen as unconventional works.

In this unit students will learn techniques of rhetoric they will apply to crafting credible oral and written discussions of their theoretical interpretations of works of visual art. Yet, in the process of their learning, it may please students to ascertain that these rhetorical structures are vastly approachable and useful for a broad array of purposes related to their college and career readiness.

Writing critically about art has always been of particular interest within the content of visual arts curriculum in attending to essential standards for critical response. I am delighted to guide my adolescent students in visual art in decoding visual images and in writing interpretations of art objects as visual texts. However, until writing this unit, I had not purposefully explored the classroom practice of public performances of students' views on art in persuasive oration.

Growing students' skills in talking critically about art is foundational to course content in visual art. The process of art criticism follows a four-step method of inquiry: Description, Analysis, Interpretation, and Judgment. This sequence is implicitly a rhetorically persuasive structure because its sequence moves from relatively objective reportage (color, line, shape, etc.) to more subjective operations. As an evaluator of a work of art, Ethos (credibility) is established at the outset in the first two operations of Description and Analysis. One is more likely to be persuasive in the last two, Interpretation and Judgment in validations of a work's Pathos (emotional appeal) and Logos (the argument presented) in support of its being valued. That students' discussions of art criticism can be approached through persuasion holds great potential to support students' understandings of the various perspectives through which art can be appreciated in the application of aesthetic theories. Also compelling in discussions about art will be topics of instrumentalism, appropriation and how art is valued over time and culture.

Class activities embedded in this unit propose stimulating topics for large and small group discussions. Performance based class activities offer practice in speaking and presenting, as well as motivation for the creation of original art. Students will work collaboratively to grow skills in reading visual texts closely looking for organizational principles as well as cogent components. Students will advance their examinations of established artworks within analytical frameworks and apply aesthetic theories as they explore a variety of solutions to interpretation. Working in small groups, students will select a work of art and compose multiple rhetorical arguments for its interpretation. Students will learn techniques used in rhetorical discourse. Students will then prepare and deliver oral presentations of their interpretations with the intention to persuade their listeners to consider works of art from new perspectives. Students will correspondingly create rhetorical self-portraits.

This unit is appropriate for Visual Arts instruction at the Intermediate level of proficiency or its equivalent, Art II, and for year 5 of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program for Visual Arts. The unit's development follows the MYP Design Cycle and speaks to the MYP Areas of Interaction of Human Ingenuity and Approaches to Learning.


The school at which I teach is a large neighborhood urban high school just north of Charlotte, North Carolina with magnet programs for International Baccalaureate and Career Technical courses of study. School progress report data for 2012-2013 reported our adolescent student population at 1598 students. Racially our school's demographics at that time consisted of 58% African American, 12% Hispanic, 3 % Asian, 23% Caucasian, and 3% mixed race. Currently, minority enrollment is 77%. Based on applications for free and reduced price lunch, the school's needy population is 55%. As a neighborhood school the student population is inclusive of students with physical, emotional, behavioral and learning disabilities. As is typical throughout the district, the school has a large number of immigrant students, many of whom are identified as ESL/LEP who are aided through special services. As a magnet program for the district, the culture of IB at this school is well established and highly valued as a challenging structure for learning and academic preparation for the college bound urban student. Approximately 19% of students are enrolled in IB courses across grades 9-12. In grade ten IBMYP students are required to design, create and orally present a Personal Project.

As a result of the Yale seminar, I have considered the ways that this curriculum unit could be purposed towards training students in the technical skills of oratorical eloquence. Though students ascertain understandings through the content of the discipline of visual art, they will competently apply their learned skills in many school programs where persuasive oration is appropriate. Among my students, there are very different motivations for learning in any given class. Few students, if any, will pursue the formal study of art after high school. Yet, the study of visual art offers students varied opportunities to think and respond critically, to generate original creative solutions to visual problems, and learn effective skills in speaking and listening. That students' discussions of art criticism can be approached through persuasion is very intriguing and holds great potential to support students' understandings of the various perspectives through which art can be appreciated in the application of aesthetic theories.


The art of persuasive communication that developed out of classical Greek tradition ultimately prescribed the codes and character of public speaking in 18 th century England and America. 4 In their quest of independence based on democratic ideals, America's founding fathers sought to develop in their rhetorical discourse a language patterned after that of classic rhetorical traditions. In what came to be know as the "the elocution revolution", the rhetoric of the new democracy would be expressed, not in words themselves, but in the tones, gestures, and expressive facial countenance with which a speaker delivered those words. Consequently, the primary obligation of the orator for the new nation was to communicate the experience of those thoughts and feelings through the persuasive and spontaneous exhibition of oratory. Crucial to this public display was the authenticity of the performer in the hearts and minds of the public. Described as the 'new eloquence', the dynamics of the body and voice as instruments of expression led to a greater theatricalization of public speaking. This contributed to a heightened awareness of what it meant to "be oneself" and to speak in one's own authentic voice within the conventions of the time. 5

In his book, Declaring Independence, Jefferson, Natural Language and the Culture of Performance, Jay Fliegelman discusses Thomas Jefferson's intentions in writing the Declaration of Independence. As a document that was meant to be read aloud, the Declaration of Independence took on new meaning; not just as an artifact but as a piece of rhetorical performance. Jefferson was not particularly articulate at public speaking and preferred to express himself in writing. Out of his scholarship of Homer and ancient Greek prose however, Jefferson argued convincingly that in any rhythmical composition, it pleases the ear to find pauses at certain regular intervals where it may rest. He advocated that to divide a composition into rhythmical pauses using emphatic words likened it to a piece of music divided into bars. The use of rhetorical pauses in the delivery of public address allowed for change in the tone and rhythm of a speaker's voice and, in effect, determined the disposition and character of the speaker. 6 American independence occurred at a moment in history when the speaking voice became the voice of the people with the words "these colonies… are free." 7 In the class activities to follow, students will take a closer look at the rhetorical significance of the Declaration of Independence as it was presented to the American people in both words and imagery.

James Burgh's 1764, The Art of Speaking, demonstrated the countenance of character

in physiognomic illustrations showing an extensive range of theatric facial expressions for use in rhetorical performances. "At the moment a speaker wishes to project a particular emotion, he must not paint it but become a portrait of it." 8 Fliegelman's reference to James Burgh here is interesting to the goals and purposes of this unit.

"…the same eloquence, whether based in truth or not, serves both the "artful" demagogue and the "sincere" patriot who saves his nation. The "art of speaking" was always artful, the show of naturalness was still a show. The function of speech was not so much to express feelings as to elicit particular responses." 9

Fliegelman terms this 'natural theatricality'. A goal in this unit is that students will become eloquent in "the art of speaking" in persuasive orations of their interpretations of art in an attempt to illicit responses, "truth or not".

Aesthetics: toward "natural theatricality"

Aesthetics is a branch of philosophical inquiry in which we address questions about beauty, art, experiences with art, and the meaning or significance of artworks. 10 When students are asked to consider the nature of art and their experiences with art, they are motivated to probe the conceptual structure through which they comprehend the world. In so doing, they make distinctions, see connections, and ask thought provoking questions. This process is enhanced by conversations with others who, in similar attempts to make sense of their experience, articulate their beliefs and their reasons for holding them. 11 Questions in aesthetics seldom have absolute answers. For the student this means that multiple perspectives can be considered and a variety of solutions valued.

Principles of Interpretation, pathos

In his book, Criticizing Art, Terry Barrett makes the point that "… art is always about something." A work of art, he explains, is an expressive object made by a person. Unlike a tree or a rock, artworks are always about something. Since artworks have "aboutness" they demand interpretations. Art critics and aestheticians readily accept that there is more to art than letting the art speak for itself. Interpretations are meant to be persuasive arguments, yet can vary widely in their resolve or point of view. 12

Criticism is persuasive rhetoric. A critic would like the readers to see a work of art the way the critic sees it. Yet, there is more than one way to be persuasive about an interpretation. The critic could approach an argument through syllogism- offering a formal logical argument, with premises and a conclusion. However, critics are much more likely to be persuasive by putting their evidence in the form of lively writing, using colorful terms in carefully fashioned phrases. The idea in this is to engage the reader with the critic's perception and understanding so that eventually the reader will be likely to align his or her thinking with the critic's. The reader may subsequently respond with comments such as "yes I see what you mean", or "yes I agree with the way you see it. " 13

Critics rely on evidence in making their interpretations, either made from observations about the artwork, the artist, or the world in which the artist works. They present their interpretations less as logical arguments, but rather as persuasive literary essays. Whether or not the interpretation is persuasive can be determined through analysis of the argument itself. All interpretations are not the same, nor are they of equal merit. Some are better argued, better supported by evidence and therefore are accepted as more reasonable. On the other hand, an interpretation can fail to be enlightening if it is too subjective or narrow in accounting for what is in the work, or doesn't account for the context in which the artwork was done. Sometimes an interpretation just doesn't make sense. 14

Interpretations can be affected by a variety of influences such as a person's philosophical or political response to a work. Often, interpretations are based on a worldview. A response to a work can be emotional as well as intellectual therefore a person's feelings about a work of art are important to guiding an effective analysis. This intertwining between thought and feeling should be recognized as crucial in evoking one's authentic response to a work. Without this correspondence, an interpretation may become overtly subjective and irrelevant. 15

Barrett acknowledges that a single artwork may generate different good interpretations that may compete with each other, encouraging the reader to choose between them, especially if they are contradictory. This principle encourages a diversity of interpretations from a variety of perspectives and stances. It is upon this principle that the class activities in this unit are presented. Performing as art critics, students will examine works of art as rich depositories of expression that allow for a wide variety of responses. That one critic's interpretation contributes to another critic's interpretation enriches our understanding of a work of art as well as our appreciation for the human mind. 16

That interpretation is neither right or wrong is a crucial consideration for students' discussions on the topic of art criticism. Interpretations are not so much absolutely right, but more or less reasonable, convincing, enlightening, compelling, insightful, informative and so forth. Interpretations can be judged according to their coherence, correspondence, and inclusiveness. Coherence is an internal criterion. A good interpretation should be a coherent statement and correspond to the artwork. If a critical interpretation makes sense we can appreciate it even without seeing the artwork. Correspondence is an external criterion that asks whether or not he interpretation seems to fit the artwork; does it adhere to what is actually in the artwork? The requirement for inclusiveness ensures that everything in a specific work is attended to, or that everything in a body of work is accounted for. Typically, critics discuss several of an artist's works, not just one. A confident interpretation of one piece of art is risky without knowing something of an artist's other works. 17

Barrett makes the point that an artwork is not necessarily about what the artist wanted it to be about. Likewise, the meaning of an artwork should not be limited to the artist's intent. Whether or not an artist works with specific conscious intentions to express specific ideas, an artist's interpretation is only one explanation among many. As Barrett affirms, this important principle places the responsibility of interpretation firmly upon the shoulders of the viewer, not the artist. Though the objects of interpretations are artworks, not artists, interpretations ought to present the work in its best light. This practice is in keeping with a spirit of fair play, generosity and respect for intellectual rigor. 18

Analytical Frameworks

Students will consider the following attitudes toward a work that can affect its interpretation.

Social Context-the influences of the historical time and place, purpose, cultural and political settings in which a work was made. How do social, political, or religious contexts or cultural or gender values contribute to the meaning of the artwork? How have historical or contemporary events shaped the intention of the artist or our understanding of the artwork's meaning?

Formal Framework-used to analyze how an artwork's formal elements contribute to its meanings and messages. How have the formal elements of line, color, tone, texture, shape, and form including focal point, space and audible components as applied by the artist contribute to the meanings and messages of the work?

Iconography-visual content, symbols and associated meanings. What physical aspects or presentation of the artwork contain symbolic meaning or explore the use of metaphor?

Beauty-is beauty an objective feature of a thing, or is it a perceptual preference of individuals?

Human Nature- works of art are based on aesthetic points of view grounded in lived experience. How is the artwork linked to people, places or experiences of personal significance to the artist such as the artist's personal feelings, aspirations, beliefs, desires (conscious or subconscious) or preoccupations with memories, dreams or fantasy?

Appropriation - the intentional copying of another's image or idea for inclusion in one's own work. To what extent is the artwork an original expression or an imitation based on another's work? How might artworks of the past take on new or different meanings, in the context of contemporary ideas and issues?

Temporalism - some artistic forms of expression are not permanent; they change, disintegrate, or are dismantled after a period of time. What effect does permanence or the lack of it have on the value of an artwork?

Environment-consider the effects of geographic location and physical environment on design, production, and marketing of art. How does the physical placement of artworks affect their interpretation?

Crafstmanship (technique)-how do the materials used or the technical skills shape or affect interpretation? How does the choice or presentation of subject matter or medium, materials and techniques reflect or challenge artistic or social traditions? What is the impact of dynamic media and other emerging art forms on the viewer such as video, digital, projection, installation, interactive, street art, sound and performance art?

Principles of Judgment, logos

Judgments are informed critical arguments about the value of a work of art. Critical judgments are much more than opinions. Preference statements, such as "I like it", "I don't like it" do not provide information about the artwork. These are simply psychological reports by the speaker. 19Judgments must always be grounded in reasons based on definable criteria. 20 The critical operation of making a Judgment about a work of art is similar to Interpretation but the result is different. As Barrett explains, both activities involve making decisions, providing reasons and evidence for those decisions, and formulating arguments in support for one's conclusions. While Interpretation seeks to determine what the work is about, Judgment seeks to establish how good the work is or isn't and why and by what criteria. As for Interpretation, the focus of the critic in making a Judgment is not on being right or wrong, but on being convincing or unconvincing. 21

Artwork is relational in that it always exists in relation to other things, people, or events. Understanding the context of a work comes from recognizing that any artwork is made in a certain time and place, when certain ideas were prevalent within a culture. Yet, the context in which a work was made is not always the context in which it is experienced. 22 For students, it is helpful to keep in mind that the relationship between the artwork and the viewer is the reason for the artwork's existence. Aesthetic theories are frameworks applied to artworks to help explain the phenomenon of the relationship between the artwork and the viewer and to determine the work's effectiveness or ineffectiveness in that relationship. Aesthetic theories considered in this unit include Formalism, Imitationalism, Expressionism, Instrumentalism, and Institutionalism. The following explanations are provided for each.

Aesthetic theories

Formalism is a theory of "art for art's sake". According to Formalist thought, the value of a work of art is held in its capacity to elicit a significant response in the viewer through the effective arrangement of the formal elements of art such as line, form, color and texture, space, etc. organized according to the principles of art such as movement, rhythm, pattern, unity, etc. This theory was new to art in the 1930's through the writings of Clive Bell and his emphasis on "significant form". For Bell, narrative content in a work was a distraction from the aesthetic and should be ignored. Formalism is the basic premise behind appreciation of Modern art. In the 1950s and 1960s the influential writings of Clement Greenberg defined abstraction in art especially Minimalism. 23

Imitationalism (Mimetic) follows that art mirrors reality of the world around us. This theory is as old as the ancient Greeks, backed by the authority of Aristotle who espoused that the world of nature was the standard for beauty and truth. The artist could do no better than to accurately portray the universe in its limitless variety. 24 Many people, including a large portion of adolescent students, tend to judge art according to standards for Imitationalism. Paintings and sculptures are often judged by how realistically they portray the subject matter. Indeed the artist is thought of as "talented" to the extent that he or she can draw or paint things as they actually appear. 25

Expressionism favors that artists create art to produce emotive responses in the viewer. Artists' inner lives are potent and their feelings about experiences are the source of their art. They use mediums and forms and subject matter to express themselves vividly, so that the viewer may experience similar feelings. Expressionists embrace art about life. 26

Instrumentalism plays prominently in today's world as a form of persuasive communication as art made for the purpose of influencing change within society. Success within the artworld is not the primary goal. Instrumentalist theory follows that the identity of the artist and the significance of the work are aligned with cultural activism as it involves rethinking the role of production, distribution and the audience as crucial components of the artwork. Feminist and Marxist critics are largely Instrumentalists. 27

Institutionalism defines works of art by the ways in which objects or events are treated in society. For Institutionalism the focus is not on the characteristics of the object or its expressive qualities but rather, on social practices accompanying the work. The philosopher Arthur Danto coined the word "artworld" to refer to the community of individuals involved with creating, curating, collecting, selling, studying and writing about artworks. Something is a work of art when "artworld" members acknowledge certain objects as perceived, interpreted, or judged as works of art. 28

Rhetorical structures embedded in classroom activities

In this section of the unit I have arranged my discussion of the class activities using a well-known rhetorical structure, Monroe's Motivated Sequence. This structure is useful in arranging remarks for a public audience for purposes of persuasion and a call to action. This structure can be easily remembered under the acronym of ANSVA, Attention, Need, Satisfaction, Visualization, and Action. In following this format, I will establish a sequence for the development of the classroom activities that is discreetly rhetorical.

Monroe's Motivated Sequence is a technique for organizing that inspire people to take action. Developed in the mid-1930s by at , it consists of the steps below.

- Attention: Get the attention of your audience using a detailed story, shocking example, dramatic statistic, , etc.

- Need: Show how the topic applies to the psychological need of the audience members. The premise here is that audience needs are what motivates action. Go beyond establishing that there is a significant problem. There are many problems that are not particularly relevant to your audience. Show that the need will not go away by itself. Use examples, etc. Convince your audience that they each have a personal need to take action.

- Satisfaction: You need to solve the issue. Provide specific and viable solutions that individuals or communities can implement to solve the problem.

- Visualization: Tell the audience what will happen if the solution is implemented or does not take place. Be visual and detailed.

- Action: Tell the audience what action they can take personally to solve the problem. 29

ANSVA in the classroom

In this unit, applying ANSVA to the classroom includes these considerations:

  • - Getting their Attention- our need to talk about art. Creating a climate for philosophical inquiry in the classroom.
  • - The Need for a definition of art. Crafting a definition; understanding context.
  • - Satisfaction-viable solutions for the study of aesthetics. Practice in the four-step critical method while talking about art.
  • - Visualization-the act of rhetorical articulations in the classroom. Performance based class activities: Rhetorical declar-RAP-tions; "Truth or not", the Declaration of Independence as visual rhetoric; Three-on-three: ethos, pathos, logos; LeBrun-style rhetorical self-portraits.
  • - Action-toward achievement of rhetorical prowess in the classroom.

Getting their Attention- our need to talk about art

Creating a climate for philosophical inquiry in the classroom compels two very important sensitivities. First, that the environment is a safe place where the student feels comfortable about sharing ideas or concerns and feels that his or her opinions are valued. Secondly, the environment must be a place where inquiry is not only encouraged, but also modeled. The teacher stands as someone who is a fellow inquirer, in awe of the world-someone who shares with students the wonder that is the root of all learning. 30 Strategies for philosophical inquiry should allow students to use their capacity to reason as they reflect on ideas and make decisions about what to believe or do. While critical thinking is evaluative, creative thinking is generative. Students practice their abilities to think creatively when they generate questions and construct new ideas. 31

As a point of entry, the teacher narrative in the introduction to this unit is offered as an example of how a conversation might be engendered that pulls students into our need to talk about art. The discussion provided focuses on two works: In Advance Of The Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp, 1915/1945, sculpture [replica] and Tu m', Marcel Duchamp, 1918, both on view at Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.

The Need for a definition of art

'X' is a work of art if, and only if,………………

Establishing students' Need for a definition of art is a premise for the following intriguing questions that invite rhetorical discourse.

What is art?When is art?What is art about?How can I respond to art?

Provide students with an assortment of found objects to view and discuss while considering a variety of artificial contexts. Each object should be discussed for its implied artistic characteristics and potential rhetorical content for purposes of aiding students in articulating their personal definitions of art. Aesthetic theories, as mentioned in this unit, should be introduced to students during this conversation to broaden the considerations that students might embrace as they form their working definitions of art.

Students will write a personal definition of art as a categorical proposition in the following format, 'X' is a work of art if, and only if,……… This categorical proposition (a form of rhetoric) becomes the student's working definition of art. Rhetorical discourse is constructed from carefully chosen words. Which words each student chooses for their definition will later provide a point of reference as the student defends a work of art as either effective or ineffective. This definition of art should be noted as such in the student's journal and written down on index cards that are posted on a bulletin board or wall within in the classroom. Students will test their definition in this unit's subsequent activities. Periodically, students should be asked to revisit their working definitions of art, making revisions as desired.

The objects considered as catalysts for philosophical inquiry in this activity might be found objects, natural objects, commercially produced packages or trinkets, household items or items that have qualities of "real" artworks. The following descriptions are offered as examples of some objects I have presented to students for their consideration as works of art. For each object, an artificially constructed context is provided followed by a suggested rhetorical aesthetic. How might each of these objects be considered art?

  • - Object: A crimpled aluminum pie tin. Artificial context: object is mounted to a podium in a gallery; title tag reads "Domestic Abuse". Rhetorical aesthetic: Instrumentalism.
  • - Object: A small wax milk carton 'house' made by a child. Artificial context: object is an original sculpture bearing the authentic marks of the artist in gestural lines reminiscent of abstract-expressionist style. Rhetorical aesthetic: Institutionalism.
  • - Object: A craft show find with a realistic painting of a mountain landscape on a circular wood panel; cotton eyelet doily edging; embroidery hoop band. Artificial context: the landscape looks just like the mountains last fall; snow-topped peaks appear crisp white against the blue sky; in the foreground wildflowers grow at a mountain lake. Rhetorical aesthetic: Imitationalsim.
  • - Object: Lid from an old Christmas cookie tin. Artificial context: object is an antique with detail from a Norman Rockwell painting. The tin was a limited edition collector's item in 1959. Rhetorical aesthetic: Institutionalism
  • - Object: A painting by a toddler; framed. Artificial context: The use of broad colorful brushstrokes, line, and texture create rhythmic movement and unity within the picture plane. Rhetorical aesthetic: Formalism.

Context is one of the most challenging standards to address in teaching art. To facilitate understandings of the meaning of context, two works of art may be used for a compare and contrast activity. In this discussion, the two works are: Napalm, Banksy, 2004 and Napalm Girl, Nick Ut, 1972. It should be noted that, though widely accepted in the discourse of contemporary art, these works do include the image of a naked young girl. The teacher may wish to prepare the students ahead of time before seeing the images or provide a mask for part of each image to accommodate viewing in the classroom.

The following narrative is positioned to incite further discussion: In 2004, a British artist, who goes by the pseudonym, Banksy, created a provocative work, a very large hand-pulled silkscreen print titled "Napalm". At first glance this image appears to be a lively cartoon. The work features three figures walking towards the viewer, seemingly hand in hand as if in a parade line. The figure on the left is Disney's tuxedoed Mickey Mouse with his open round eyes and his beloved smile; on the right is Ronald MacDonald in his striped clown-like costume, his arm raised waving a cheery hello. In the center, the figure is the image of a naked female Asian child whose face exudes the screaming grimace of terror and pain. The two icons of American pop culture happily take hold of the horrified girl's forearms, one each side, as if escorting her against her will. Except for these figures, the space of the picture plane is an empty and flat. But WHO'S art is it? Neither Mickey Mouse nor Ronald MacDonald were Banksy's creations. Banksy borrowed the image of the girl from a very famous image taken during the Viet Nam war by South Viet Namese photographer Nick Ut in 1972. Ut's image captured Kim Phuc, as a 9 year-old-girl as she ran for her life to escape from her village in Trang Bang, South Viet Nam after a Napalm bomb hit it. Her clothes had been incinerated in the blast. Photographer, Nick Ut, actually saved the little girl's life by rushing her to emergency care.

Questions for small group discussions on the topic of context: What is Banksy trying to persuade us to think about? Why do you think Banksy decided to use Nick Ut's famous image 32 years later? What do you think of the way Banksy combined these particular three figures together? What other figures do you think he might have considered using? How might his message have changed should he have done so? How might we think of Banksy's efforts? To what extent is his work cheating or is his work original? How has it happened that both artists are very famous today? How does someone become famous as an artist? Ask students to review their definitions of art. Ask how their definition of art is holding up? Have they been persuaded to make any changes based on preferred subject matter, materials, etc.? Have they found any imagery to be objectionable and therefore not effective for them as a work of art?

Perhaps they are still not convinced of the need to talk about art. Have students try their definitions on this work: The New York Earth Room, Walter DeMaria, Long term installation, 141 Wooster Street, Soho, New York, 1977. This work no longer exists. It was installed for a set period of time on the 2 nd floor of an old school building. In order to see it a visitor had to ring a buzzer for a service elevator to take them to the 2 nd floor. No one could walk into the space or walk on the soil. Just think about the exponential number of microbes present in that room full of dirt! How do you call THIS art?

What is art ABOUT? Art is always about something. Images are visual texts that convey complex ideas. When Ut's photograph was published in 1972 it evoked worldwide horror and condemnation at the conduct of the war. Banksy's satirical work makes a comment on how consumerism and entertainment occupies the attention of the American people, blinding them to the way their foreign policy is conducted and distracting them from social injustices. Duchamp's snow-shovel (its still a snow-shovel) contributed to the movement called Dada, a form of surrealism after World War I during a period that attempted to put art back in the service of the through conceptual art. Is Walter DeMaria's installation just a room full of dirt? What is the artist trying to persuade us to think about? What are other artworks by this artist about?

Satisfaction-viable solutions for the study of aesthetics

Students live in a media rich culture. They need to be provided with learning experiences to help them with the skills necessary to decode images. Unfortunately, most images that our students encounter do not require dialogue. The special nature of the arts, however, requires a commensurate approach to eloquence in talking about art, especially when the students are finding for themselves, with guidance, a language of criticism.

The four-step art critical method, now standard practice in art education, is based on the work of Edmund Burke Feldman. The steps in this process are description, analysis, interpretation and judgment (evaluation). This structure of inquiry is implicitly rhetorical. For purposes of this unit the four basic operations are considered in two distinct modes, objective operations and rhetorical operations. The following is suggested as a method of practice in using the four-step method for a selected artwork to be identified by title, artist, year, media. Students will respond to the artwork through the prompts embedded.

Objective Operations of Art Criticism

Describe and Analyze-ethos

Step 1 Description-what do you see? Refer to the work. List everything you can possibly see in the artwork. Include the people, shapes, colors, and types of lines, just about everything. No opinions/just the facts. Be very specific.

Step 2 Analysis-Examine the use of design components in organizing the work. Refer to the work. Select two design elements from the chart that you think are important in this work. Then select two design principles from the chart that you think are accomplished in this work. Write a paragraph explaining specifically how the artist used the design element in achieving the design principle.


Rhetorical Operations of Art Criticism


Step 3 Interpretation-what do you think it is about?

To interpret a work of art means to explain the meaning of it: what is it expressing? What is its content? Is it about what you see, or is it a metaphor for something else? Referring specifically to evidence within and surrounding the work, write a paragraph describing what you think this picture is about?


Step 4 Judgment/Evaluation-judge the work of art as being effective or ineffective based on the application of an aesthetic theory. Select one aesthetic theory from the chart below to complete a statement of aesthetic inclination.


Student response: Based on my working definition of art, my aesthetic preference toward this work is (chose one): Imitationalism, Formalism, Emotionalism, Instrumentalism, Institutionalism. Refer to the image. Select one choice of opinion below and write a statement of evaluation based on your aesthetic preference.

  • I think that this is an effective work of art. I think this because…
  • I think that this is not an effective work of art. I think this because…

How might we TALK about art? In this discussion two works of art are used for a compare and contrast activity. The two works are: Grant Wood (1891-1942), American Gothic, 1930, Oil on Board and Gordon Parks (1912-2006), American Gothic, Washington D.C., 1942, Photograph. These two works have the same title. Create a visual presentation of these two works side by side, either through a Power Point slide, posters, or color handout. In viewing these works side-by-side students will begin to see similarities and differences. It is here that we can start to talk about art using the specific language of the discipline. Using the objective operations of art criticism we compare; we contrast. We take the works apart line-by-line, shape-by-shape. We examine how each work is organized. But soon the question is posed, what they are about? Art is always about something! Ask students to test their working definitions of art against these two pieces. It is at this point in the discussion that the rhetorical operations of art criticism come into play. In small groups, students can work effectively to apply analytic frameworks to formulate their interpretations. Students are likely to differ here. When asked to decide if either of these is an effective work of art or not, students are likely to differ here too. Through the lens of a chosen aesthetic theory, students make judgments about these works of art.

What is a masterpiece? How can a masterpiece be a rhetorical device through its influence on contemporary art? Again, two works of art are used for a compare and contrast activity, both aristocratic portraits of women. Compare Kerry James Marshall's Untitled (Portrait of an African Woman), 2009, acrylic on PVC panel with John Singleton Copley's Mrs. Isaac Smith (nee Elizabeth Storer,1726-86), 1769, oil on canvas. View these works, and related contextual information, in the online collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Visualization-the act of rhetorical articulations in the classroom

The creation of desire, that "internal act, which, by influencing the will, makes one proceed to action", (is) the ultimate purpose of all oratory. –James Burgh 32

For 18 th century America, true eloquence in oratory was seen as an internal act that influenced the will, making one proceed to action. 33 The early American value placed on public speaking continued into the nineteenth century notion that, in a true democracy, all citizens would have access to eloquence, the study and practice of speech, in public education. The arts were at the core of pedagogy, and reading aloud was the practice that honed not only reading skills but prowess in writing as well. Through their articulations in this units' discussions and class activities students experience the democratizing provocations of Burgh's "internal act".

Class activities with performative responses

Rhetorical declar-RAP-tions

As a rhetorical device, reciting from memory has a place throughout our history as an act of public oratory that exudes great potential to call the listener to action. Reciting from memory using some of the greatest words ever spoken is a particularly challenging yet exciting learning experience for adolescents. Have students view the You Tube video of a group of Redan High School students reciting the Preamble of the Declaration of Indepepenence from memory, listed in the teacher resources.

In this class activity, students will work in small groups to memorize and craft a rap-like performance of a portion of the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Students in each group should be required to recite the exact words of their given segment of the Preamble from memory and to deliver it to the class in a performatively rhetorical mode similar to a contemporary rap song using expressive movements and facial gestures. No music should accompany the recitations, however, as the rhythms and beats, pauses and facial gestures of the group should convey a unique theatrical experience. The group should focus on the delivery of the words to the audience in a way that makes them feel like they are being uplifted and called to take a stand. Presentations to the class should be scheduled to occur in sequence according to the document and should be timed at no more than three minutes in length. Digitally record the recitations.

"Truth or not", the Declaration of Independence as visual rhetoric

In this class discussion the focus is on the painting Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, 1786-1820 by American artist John Trumbull. This work is on view in the Yale University Art Gallery. In light of the goals of this unit, this work affords a point of entry into the topic of rhetorical interpretation of a visual text through the aesthetic theory of Instrumentalism.

The printed Declaration of Independence that we honor and revere today as an artifact of American democracy has become largely separated from its oratorical and performative contexts. Yet, the physical presentation of this hand-written document to members of the Continental Congress was a performance act too. A famous painting of 1786-1820 by American artist John Trumbull depicts the presentation of the declaration to John Hancock, then president of Congress. This moment has become culturally appropriated as the signature moment of July 4, 1776. In actuality, the moment of signing did not take place until August, partly so that the 56 members of Congress, depicted in the scene, would not be held accountable for treason as "signers". 34

As Trumbull recounted in his journal, Thomas Jefferson had been so greatly impressed with the artist's plans to execute a series of American history paintings that he invited the artist to stay with him in Paris. There, Trumbull wrote, "I began the composition of the Declaration of Independence, with the assistance of Jefferson's information and advice." In his composition, Trumbull represents the moment when the committee appointed to draw up the document submitted Jefferson's draft for consideration by the Continental Congress. Historically, Thomas Jefferson alone presented the document to John Hancock. However, conscious of creating an image for succeeding generations, Trumbull planned the composition to include the entire document writing committee that included John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. Trumbull consulted Adams and Jefferson about who should actually be in the scene. They urged that all the delegates be included, even those who were not present or those who had opposed the Declaration and did not sign. Trumbull's goal was to preserve the exact likenesses of those extraordinary individuals of the time- aristocrats, lawyers, doctors, farmers, shopkeepers-who had put their lives and fortunes on the line. Trumbull worked on painting the Declaration for more than three decades, hoping to include all fifty-six figures, but he was unable to obtain all the likenesses. Of the forty-eight portraits represented in the painting, thirty-six were taken from life; others were copied from an existing portrait or taken of a son as a substitute. 35

In contributing to students' understandings of the 'lens' of the aesthetic theory, this painting that, at first glance, may seem to be most valued for its Imitationalist qualities can also be judged effective or ineffective as an Instrumentalist work. As a piece of rhetoric it depicts the scene, not as it actually occurred, but as the moment could be positioned in the hearts and minds of Americans. Even the room was painted to look differently than it actually appeared during then meetings of the Congress. Ask students to discuss in small groups the specific things seen in this image that, in their opinion, might have served in its time to call viewers to action. What iconography is at play?

What about present day viewers? Consider how this image might be capable of communicating a call to action today. View the You Tube video of the John Adams Miniseries, 2008, or the video JFK Reading the Declaration of Indepepenence listed in the teacher's resources. Discuss the ideals proclaimed in the public reading of the Declaration of Independence. How do they still hold meaning today?

Allow each group to adopt a social activist identity, "truth or not", such as working women, the homeless, the 'fashion police', social media advocates, etc. Students will then collaborate to write and present a short three-minute speech in the style of the preamble to address the issues they will 'declare' as being pertinent to 'independence'. In writing and delivering their speeches have students focus on the three modes of persuasion, ethos, pathos, and logos. The delivery of the speeches should follow eloquent rhetorical style for voice, tone and gesture.

Three-on-three: ethos, pathos, logos

This activity is designed so that students experience the three modes of persuasion developed by Aristotle, ethos, pathos, and logos. In this activity students will collaborate to become expert teams on a work of art, ethos. Student teams will craft credible interpretive discourse for the purpose of persuading their audience, pathos. In rhetorically presenting a variety of judgments for a work students will appeal to reason in their listeners to determine the effectives or lack of effectiveness of a work against personally held definitions of art, logos. Students' selections of contemporary artworks for use in this activity may be chosen from a teacher-prepared list or students may be invited to openly explore resources such as the Art21 PBS website or You Tube videos to find an artwork that holds allure to the question, What is art?

Students will work in groups of three as a team of collaborative critics on a single work of art. Students will work together to select, view, and describe the artwork establishing the groups' ethos as experts on the chosen work. A worksheet or checklist may proove helpful as an instrument of assessment in documenting benchmark performance for this part of the activity. Each team member will then prepare a distinct and different interpretion on this single work of art. Team members will decide among themselves which philosophical framework each will choose to form the underlying premise for their individual interpretation. Each team member within the group will then craft credible discourse on the work to be presented before a peer audience. The intention is that Interpretations will be delivered as a set of three different perspectives on the same work thereby providing their peer audience with a variety of ideas to consider on one work.

In terms of practice, this requires that each student write their unique interpretation and then practice presenting it as a speech that is conveyed in a persuasive manner. Students should be asked to focus on their words, tone of voice, pauses, and facial and body gestures in attending to a purposeful delivery of the presentation. On the day of presentations, the group of three expert critics will each take turns delivering their interpretaions. Orations should be timed to be no longer than three minutes each. This allows an expert team to finish their orations within ten minutes. Digital video recording should be made as possible to serve as a record of demonstrated student growth.

Listening audiences will consist of two to three other teams, creating smaller, more intimate audiences within a full class. Prior to the orations, members of the listening team will briefly view the subject work. Students should contemplate the work alongside their personal working definition of art. Allow a three minute pause after the orations for members of the listening team to complete an effectiveness statement as was explained previously in step four of the art critical method. The format is repeated here.

  • I think that this is an effective work of art. I think this because…
  • I think that this is not an effective work of art. I think this because…

A Presentation Rubric should be used to assess individual presentations. See the list of teacher resources for a presentation rubric aligned to CCSS for English Language Arts.

LeBrun-style rhetorical self-portraits

Charles Le Brun, 1619–1690, was a French painter, designer, and art theorist, the dominant artist of Louis XIV's reign. Although Le Brun died in 1690, his manual "Méthode pour apprendre à dessiner les passions" was published in 1702, after his death. In this volume are depicted Le Brun's Passions, prints made from his original drawings depicting dramatic theatric facial countenances of human emotions, pure pathos.

LeBrun believed that one of the most important steps in producing a painting consisted in breathing life into his figures, not just semblance of life but a veritable soul. In a lecture to the Academy of Painting on the subject, LeBrun stated '' ordinarily all that provokes passions in the soul has some effect on the body...''. 36 Look at images of Le Brun's Passions (see the teacher resources). Have students take photos of each other showing dramatic facial expressions imitating the Le Brun countenances. Create rhetorical self-portrait images using the students' photos. Recommended processes include digitizing the photos then manipulating them in Photo Shop into LeBrun-like illustrations; use photo transfer processes on fabric or rag paper; use the images as the basis for monoprints. Display student works together as a 'rhetorical chorus'.

Action-toward achievement of rhetorical prowess in the classroom

In his 2012 report on "Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools: 2009-10", U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that arts education is essential in stimulating the creativity and innovation that will prove critical to young Americans competing in a knowledge-based, global economy. The rhetorical interpretation of works of art is democratizing for students. In talking critically about art, students grow in appreciation of works of art as powerful communicators of ideas across time and culture. They inherently recognize the democratizing effects of credible interpretations of works of art and how eloquent public speaking can be a source of personal empowerment. A well-rounded education is simply too vital to our students' success to let the teaching of the arts and humanities erode. Let's talk about art!

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