A Painting’s Worth One Thousand Words?

The society convened for the seventh time this semester to debate Resolved: Art is expression, not representation. The keynote speaker for the affirmation was Ms. Amanda Wynter (COL ’14) of Florida. On the negation spoke Mr. Michael Mouch (SFS ’15) of Texas.

Ms. Wynter began her speech by defining art as an experience that may or may not represent anything in our physical world. To Ms. Wynter, art is playing the guitar as a stress-relief mechanism. While music can be a channel to express tension, Justin Bieber-esque odes in no way represent tension. For art to be representation, Ms. Wynter argued, anything you feel can necessarily be found in the concrete world, yet this is obviously not the case. “Art invites you to understand yourself and experience your humanity.”

Mr. Mouch urged the society to stick with the spirit of the debate as he and Ms. Wynter framed it, and not to spend floor speeches redefining “art” and the concepts at hand. If truth can be found inside of reality, then art represents. If not, it expresses. Mr. Mouch argued that the easiness of revealing enigmatic truths through art relative to other channels does not mean those other channels don’t exist. Language, for example, is an admittedly imperfect medium, but can surely express truths just as art can. The affirmation must prove that these truths lie outside of our immediate reality and thus can only be accessed through art.

Ms. Laura Kurek spoke of an exhibit in the Hirshhorn Museum involving wax, index cards, and a couple lettuce-munching slugs, a mix so eclectic it surely couldn’t represent anything literally but conveyed a feeling of desperation painfully clearly. Mr. Luke Young argued that although art both represents and expresses, it first and foremost represents. Art is a relationship between not just the artist and the work, but also between the you as the participant. Mr. Agree Ahmed countered that if art is indeed a mixture of the resolution’s two warring sides, the only way to discern which takes precedence is by taking both to their logical extreme. “Art that is one hundred percent representation is no more than this wooden podium right here. Is that art?” Ms. Madeleine Ringwald, pointing to the MoMa exhibit forcing visitors to walk through a doorway occupied by two naked women, argued that much of modern art uses stark reality as a method of expression.

Vice President Spagnuolo argued that art needs no context to convey its meaning, an appeal to something transcending time and individual circumstance. Mr. Daniel Kendrick countered that art does in fact depend upon context, pointing out that without some sort of tangible representation, that which art expresses has no channel through which to travel. Ms. Colleen Wood argued that Georgetown students learn one skill alone, that is, viewing everything with a critical eye. As such we become unable to appreciate beauty, such as the beauty in art that diverges from its literal meaning. Mr. Jacob Arber argued that art’s meaning transforms alongside culture and throughout time. “If there’s always something in art we can connect with – and there is – even if it may not be the artist’s intent, then that’s what it represents.”

Ms. Bella Blakeway-Phillips (SFS ’16) contended that the most impressive works of art show you some intangible meaning, something deeper than what it presents at face-value. Mr. Alden Fletcher (SFS ’17), arguing that art represents life itself, said that our ability to understand art shows that it must represent something we are familiar with and thus exists within our reality. “Once you’ve lived, you understand.” Ms. Rosa Cuppari (SFS ’17) responded that people go to an art gallery not to see but to feel. “While that feeling is different for everyone, it doesn’t show you what is, but rather inspires you to see what could be.” Ms. Natalie Caceres (MSB ’16) asked the Society how it is that art tends to evoke a consensus emotion or feeling, if not by representing something familiar?

In trying to discern what exactly falls in our elusive realm of reality, Mr. Evan Monod spoke to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception. The film ends with (spoiler alert) cuts out on a spinning top that will determine whether reality is truly reality, expressing that ultimately, all that matters is what we ourselves choose to believe is real. Mr. Warren Wilson urged the Society to redirect the debate back to the framing. Are there feelings evoked through art that are impossible to articulate through the channels of our reality? “I challenge the affirmation to tell me something you can’t express and why you can’t express it.” President Peter Prindivilleaccepted that challenge and spoke of being moved to tears, inexplicably, by music. “There’s some yearning beyond our reality only accessible through art.” Ms. Abigail Grace argued that context is why we connect with mediums of art we are so familiar with. “We connect because, the large majority of the time, we have a shared experience with the artist.” Mr. Greg Miller asserted that art makes us look at the world from a different perspective, a point of view that is alien to our personal realm of reality.

Mr. Chris DiMisa posited that if you believe that the sublime can be contained or even explained, as many of us do when we speak of the value of art, then you must affirm. Ms. Heather Regen clarified that a canvas with paint is not art, but the experience it gives you. Art is defined by the relationship between you, the viewer, and the object creating that feeling. Mr. Taylor Willis protested that art cannot exclusively be an experiential relationship between the viewer and the medium, for if that were the case, seeing a beautiful tree would be art. No, the artist’s inclusion in the relationship implies that something is being represented. Ms. Emily Coccia spoke of a broken camera with strong symbolic meaning to her parents and their relationship, providing an example of an expression of love far beyond what is tangibly available.

To close, Mr. Mouch expressed regret that the affirmation did not come close to lifting his metaphorical gauntlet, a burden of proof so large that Mr. Mouch himself did not seem surprised at the floor speakers’ inability to carry it. The affirmative did not prove that art operates outside of our reality, Mr. Mouch argued. In fact, floor speakers’ ability to articulate what exactly art communicates to them proves that language, too, can represent these supposedly inarticulatable truths. 

Ms. Wynter clarified that while not everything is art, anything can be art if it arouses in you that which you had not been able to express. The resolution, Ms. Wynter conceded, presented a somewhat limiting and false dichotomy in that art is both expression and representation. However, it expresses before it represents. Pointing to a Philodemic favorite of the night, Harry Potter, Ms. Wynter spoke of our scrawny, imperfect hero’s many failed attempts to create a Patronus. It took Mr. Potter the full force of an indescribably happy memory to allow him to release that which could save him. Much as a Patronus, “Art allows us to abandon ourselves and be saved.”

The Society voted 33 – 3 – 16 to affirm.


Madeleine M. Ringwald

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