Argument and Aesthetics

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All claims, whether of fact, value, or policy, are the thesis statements that arguments support. It may seem a bit counterintuitive that claims of fact need to be supported, but keep in mind that readers or listeners may need to be convinced that a statement of fact is indeed true. Consider, for example, the resistance to the claim that global warming is changing the earth’s climate.

Less surprising, perhaps, is the need to support a claim of value. One of the large areas in which to support a claim of value is aesthetics. Judgments about art are value judgments and are expressed through claims of value. Any time you express an opinion about a painting, a film, a book, a concert, or any other work of art, you are making a value claim. Others don’t have to agree with you, but well-written argument supporting a claim of value will rely on clear references to specific elements of the work and try to convince others that your opinion is valid.

The recent Golden Globe awards elicited a flurry of responses about the values implicit in the choice of winners. Two of the big winners were Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody. Audiences clearly liked Green Book, the story of talented black musician Dr. Don Shirley and his foray into the American South of the 1960s accompanied by his newfound chauffeur/bodyguard, rough cut Italian bouncer Tony Vallelonga. The film is a feel-good story that, while recording the animosity and blatant racism that Shirley faces in the American South, also focuses on Vallelonga’s growing realization of how ridiculous the rules are. The climax is reached when Dr. Shirley is preparing to perform for four hundred white guests, but he, in his elegant tuxedo, is not allowed to eat in the same room with them.

Less favorably impressed than many critics and moviegoers were the ones who knew the real Dr. Shirley best—his family. While audiences applauded the friendship that blossomed between the two men, the family denied that a friendship ever developed, arguing that it was merely a business arrangement. To his credit, Mahershala Ali, who played Shirley, acknowledged after the awards show that he was not aware that there were close family members of Shirley that he could have talked to in order to learn more about Shirley’s relationship to his family, which is presented negatively in the movie. To their credit, Shirley’s family congratulated Ali on winning the award for Best Supporting Actor for the movie, praising his acting ability. In depicting the relationship between Shirley and Vallelonga as he did, the film’s director chose a picture of racial harmony that people wanted and needed to see over fidelity to truth. As such, the value the movie is accorded depends on whether a viewer wanted accuracy or sentimentality.

A similar judgment call had to be made in the making of Bohemian Rhapsody. Ironically, what some view as the limitations of the movie were caused by the directors’ attempt to please surviving members of the rock band Queen featured in the film. One criticism is that director Bryan Singer and his replacement Dexter Fletcher tried to make the PG-13 movie that the remaining band members wanted by downplaying the reality of the life of lead singer Freddie Mercury. Mercury was brilliantly played by Rami Malek, and it is obvious that Mercury was bisexual, but the portrayal of his same-sex relationships is so delicate that it almost comes as a surprise when he is diagnosed with the AIDS that killed him. Some critics wanted a warts-and-all expose of Queen’s—and Mercury’s—backstory, but felt they got a sanitized stereotypical biopic instead.

As with most arguments, arguments about aesthetics are received differently by different audiences, as are the artworks themselves. A scene from an even more recent movie, All Is True, has Kenneth Branagh as Shakespeare state, “When I dip the ink and make the mark, all is true.” The quotation is more memorable than accurate.

Photo Credit: “Golden Globes Hosts Sandra Oh, Andy Samberg Preview "Crazy-Pants" Show”by Marco Verch on Flickr, 1/3/19 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.