A Guide to Debating About Art

By Mars He, Harvard University ’18

I’ve heard many times, after being in or seeing a debate about art, that art rounds are undebatable, unfair, or pointless because “art is subjective.” And while I never spent time on the American high school debate circuit, my understanding of it is that most formats also steered away from talking about art. For newcomers to debate, it might be hard to know where to begin in an art round. But art rounds are not especially hard or inaccessible—at least, in my opinion, no more so than the average APDA round—and by just keeping a few things in mind, can make for excellent and fun debates.

This article will talk about different ways to look at art rounds, and what issues might be important in them. I won’t be giving out chunks of analysis to be repeated in-round. I believe that that would be counter-intuitive to truly learning about debating; but furthermore, art rounds, like all other types of rounds, are not all the same. There is no single best argument, or single best iteration of an argument, for every round. I love art rounds because they’re a lot of fun, and making them robotic by pulling out stock argumentation is definitely not how I would advise one to approach them. They should be engaging, fun, and, of course, artistic.

Debating Subjectivity

The subjectivity of art is where most of the disdain for art rounds seems to originate from. There is no one, simple, universally accepted conception of what art is, and what its purpose is. Should art rounds, therefore, be understood as nothing more than waxing poetic, as two teams making assertions as to what art is, that are impossible to further substantiate?

While this line of thinking seems to be popular—or, at least, more popular than it should be—it holds little weight. After all, there’s no one, simple, universally accepted conception of what morality is, but that doesn’t stop APDA from spending a huge amount of time debating about morality—what moral philosophy we, or the judge, should abide by. Judges might have pre-conceived notions of what art is before a round starts; that doesn’t mean a team is bound to lose if it doesn’t play to those notions. After all, not arguing for the same moral philosophy as your judge doesn’t cause a team to automatically lose.

It’s true, then, that when entering a debate about art it might be hard to know what is “good” or “bad” for art. But that in and of itself is part of the round to be had.

What is the purpose of art?

It is normally good when things fulfill their purpose or role. Countless rebuttal speeches have focused on what a team argued was the purpose of the state, for example, and why they better achieved it. Similarly, we can debate about the purpose of art, and better fulfilling that purpose, for any art round, is crucial to winning the round. So, what is the purpose of art? Below are some questions to think about when defining it. For each question, both a yes and a no answer are defensible and debatable. Some examples of how one might define the purpose of art accompany each section.

  1. How does art interact with the artist?

Is the purpose of art to allow the artist self-expression? Is it a unique form of self-expression, something that sends a message that can’t be otherwise communicated? Is the purpose of art for the artist to see how people react to it?

Regardless of the answers to the above questions, it’s fair to say that the artist knows their own intentions when creating the art. It’s also easy to see why the artist is the owner of the art—they get to choose to sell it, after all, and keep the profits from doing so. In that case, one simple argument that one might give is to say that the purpose is whatever the artist intended it to be, whatever message they intended to communicate, and obscuring that would be interfering with the artist’s right to use their own property.

  1. How does art interact with the viewer?

Does art even have meaning before someone views it? Is the entirety of the meaning of art up to the one who creates it? What does a viewer stand to learn from a piece of art? Does it matter if their interpretation is in line with what the artist intended to express?

It can be said that the purpose of art is to evoke a response—after all, the Mona Lisa wouldn’t do much if it were hidden away in a box. In that case, what’s important about art is the message or enjoyment that people get by viewing or listening to it. Its purpose, therefore, would be to reach as many people with that message or enjoyment.

  1. How does art interact with society as a whole?

Does art change or define our culture? Is creating new, previously unexplored forms of art part of our humanity? Is art an effective method of causing social change, or sparking new social movements?

If art is in the service of society, it might seem, therefore, that the art that is best is that which causes the most utilitarian good for society. In that case, its purpose is entirely detached from the artist’s intention and what individual viewers perceive it to mean. This often seems to be what many debaters settle on, by default, when debating about art. That being said, by looking at how art gets its value, some holes in this line of thinking can be seen.

Where does art get its value?

Just as with its purpose, the source of the value of art is also up for debate. It can come from any number of places; its value coming from how it serves society has already been described above.

Art also derives value from the artist. Whether art contains part of the artist, or contains part of their life experiences, or is entirely detached from their being, it’s safe to say that most artists create art with some kind of purpose in mind. If art is always re-purposed without regard for the artist’s original wishes, that would undoubtedly lead to a change in the motivations behind art and, very, likely, less art being created.

But art also gives value to the people who view it. Regardless of whether or not their viewing it is the purpose of art, a similar, practical argument to the one above is that people want to be able to view art. If all art were hidden away, there’d be no societal interest in it being created.

The arguments in this article are not meant to be anywhere near exhaustive, but rather to be a jumping-off point for how to talk about art. It can be discussed in terms of the message it sends, or as something what a purpose that ought to be satisfied. The fact that the value of art may be hard to concretely describe doesn’t mean that there is none, and doesn’t mean that there aren’t practical, tangible harms and benefits associated with an art round. Rather, a good art round will have all kinds of argumentation, and is just as much potential as any other.

336 thoughts on “A Guide to Debating About Art

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