Art as a Form of Persuasive Argument
by James Golike • Jan 15, 2021 | Art

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? 

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