Art often is thought of as a deviation from ordinary experience by manipulating shapes, colors, materials, etc. And while that idea is not necessarily stilted, art, most times, is manifested right in front of us. For artist Michael Sailstorfer, ordinary objects do more than fill a mundane experience. And in amplifying such experiences, space and context surrounding objects can drive a viewer to reflect on the previous memories and sensations. Sailstorfer focuses on crafting sculptures that shift the target object’s perspective and the surrounding areas. The objects at the center of Sailstorfer’s ideas are usually items that one can find without many difficulties, like lightbulbs or pipes. Still, the space that these artworks are found in drastically alters the viewer’s manner of observation.

One example of such is “Forst.” Five hanging trees occupy ten meters of a bright, white gallery. These trees are regularly seen throughout, but when placed in a different context, a white pathway changes how they are viewed; this juxtaposition of white walls instead of lakes or dirt makes it simple but effective. Similarly, a parallel positioned statue of liberty clawing the wall with its torch strikes many sentiments. “Freedom Fries” places the statue of liberty in an almost comedic position that one is not used to observing. “My pieces are made for the audience. I consider my work as a door that viewers enter and then take their path from there; viewers are encouraged to develop the idea of the piece further based on their background, experience and biography”, Sailstorfer says of his work.Michael Sailstorfer, Forst (“Forest”), 2014 Trees, engines, steel construction. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Johann König, Berlin. Photography by Caylon Hackwith. © Rochester Art Center.

By placing the significance of his work on each viewer’s history, the implication that would proceed is the weighted imagination toward arbitrary details. Objects like trees or statues on their own may be forgotten, but in the right context, they trigger similar experiences like going to a bay or swamp during one’s childhood. Those memories may have been stored and forgotten, but upon remembering the feeling of looking at those trees, they resurface personal memories and anecdotes. But it is not only the visual that spawns those types of reactions. The other senses play a part in the experience, something that Sailstorfer is keen on noting. Smells bring to mind a variety of associations of place, taste, action. “1:43-47” (2008) places a popcorn machine at the center of the room that has overflowed the floor with the yellow snack. Without being physically present, one can easily imagine what popcorn smells like and other images that come along with it. As Sailstorfer further explains, “Working with smell affects the visitor emotionally, triggering memories, stimulating his central brain right away whereas other, less intense experiences or impressions have to pass the cerebral cortex first and might not last as long.”

Michael Sailstorfer: Ofen, 2017, Mailand

Other pieces like “Ofen Mailand” convert an electric scooter into a chimney, and “Gun 1” attaches a tube on to a silenced pistol, making it look like a stretched barrel. In all these pieces, there is a sense of familiarity that alters and plays with our imagination on the objects’ usage. Still, while there is an amusing level of jest and warmness in making these sculptures, Michael Sailstorfer maintains an even ideal posture towards the artist’s role. “That’s quite complex. but I think for me, it’s about demonstrating creative, free, and alternative ways of thinking and supporting the freedom of thoughts in general.”
In the same way, flags or poems perpetuate a sense of pride or urgency, sculptures in everyday life promote the remembrance of who we are, and perhaps that is the way to freedom.

In a way, it seems rather odd to hold art in such high regard in western culture. Since the beginning of recorded western history, intellectual movements from Greek and Roman philosophy, through the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, to today have deified the fields of logic and reason while casually dismissing emotion as a “baser” instinct. And while art itself can be and is often made “logically,” the end product itself, that finished piece of artwork intends to evoke an entirely emotional and subjective response. Considering this, why does art play such a preeminent role in society? What function does and can it serve, and what effects does it have on the broader culture? 

In 1936 the Spanish Republican government asked Pablo Picasso to create artwork to display for the Spanish Pavilion in the 1937 Paris World Fair. The contracted piece that Picasso would eventually paint was Guernica, considered by many to be Picasso’s masterpiece. Picasso composed the painting in response to the bombing of the town of Guernica in northern Spain by Nazi and pro-Franco fascist forces. Today, it is considered to be one of the most powerful anti-war statements made in the past century. 

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937 | Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia © Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP. Madrid, 2012

The sources of inspiration that Picasso used in creating Guernica are self-evident within the piece itself. The painting is a mixture of black, grey, and white tones, and a typewriter-Esque font lies in the background of various figures. Picasso first heard the news of the bombing through newspapers. Guernica features six people; four women, one child, and one man (as well as one bull and one horse), highlighting how the town was civilian and had no military significance to either side in the Spanish Civil War. Yet, despite these apparent samplings within the painting, they are not what strikes the viewer first. Its size, chaos, caricatured, and distorted figures in agony evoke a wholly visceral response upon first viewing. And although many art historians waxed far more words on the piece than can and will be said here, Guernica is a chief example of the impact and function of art. 

Because, in its finished state, art acts as both an expression of and reflection on how we perceive the world around us; and demands us to judge these perceptions emotionally. And as emotions are personal judgments of what is important to us and our wellbeing, they, and subsequently, art itself can be used to create powerful persuasive arguments.

Take an introductory class in rhetoric, speech, or writing, and one of the first subjects taught is the three modes of persuasion: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. These pillars for creating a persuasive argument correspond to appeals to logic (logos), appeals to emotion (pathos), and appeals to authority (ethos). It is generally understood that most persuasive arguments are based on logic. And it makes sense (pun intended) to do this, as an argument that holds to reason can’t be refuted. It is a fact. However, it is not the logical argument that is most the most persuasive. It is an emotional argument. For it is the emotional argument that reveals the personal link, that bridge, between a person and the issue at hand.

There are overt forms of art as a persuasive argument, namely protest art, which intends to elicit a specific emotional reaction around a particular issue. Ai Weiwei’s oeuvre of pieces and acts against the Chinese government, or Banksy’s series of street art satirizing modern-day society’s ironies, are classic examples of graphic protest art. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are pieces of art that could be seen strictly as observation, such as Van Gogh’s or Monet’s impressionistic paintings. However, most art falls in the middle of the two, between careful observance and explicit protest, asking the viewer to both observe, emote, and reflect. Something as seemingly observational as Albert Bierstadt’s landscape paintings in the 1860s, 70s, and 80s could be seen as persuasive arguments for American Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny. 

Remembering … the sentence a mother wrote about her lost daughter – created with 9,000 student backpacks. Photograph: Ai Weiwei

Revisiting art as a whole and its impact on the broader culture, it becomes apparent the impact it has played in starting the conversation and shaping cultural commentary through emotional persuasion. Novels such as The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck laid bare the effects of unregulated capitalism, and following their publications led to new policies enacted to protect workers and consumers. Music such as songs like “Born in the U.S.A” by Bruce Springsteen and “Polly” by Nirvana mask incisive criticism of U.S. exceptionalism and sexual violence respectively behind catchy instrumentals, disguising protest as hits that are played repeat on the radio. And, of course, paintings such as Guernica showcase and “expose” the abhorrent nature of war.

Unlike, perhaps, any other form of persuasive argument, art has the power to spur visceral emotional reactions. That art, honest art, can resonate at the chords of our emotion, pit our normalized expectations of society against our judgments of personal wellbeing, allow us to empathize with the sentiment of others, and lay bare the parts of ourselves and our culture that we attempt to hide is in no small way immaterial. It is why authoritarian and extremist regimes, in their first moves in power, will try to discredit the sciences but entirely suppress the arts. Because in the end, for example, if you had to make a case against, say, global warming, what would be the more powerful persuasive argument? What would resonate more in the hearts and minds of those you are trying to persuade? A graph showing the rise in CO2 emissions, or a picture of a starving polar bear, standing atop a frozen chunk of ice, alone in the middle of the Arctic Ocean?