Art as Argument

By Jessica Salfia

Understanding visual rhetoric is not just an important part of most AP Language and Composition curriculums, but it is an essential skill our students need as members of society. We are bombarded with images—images intended to persuade and influence us. Our students must be able to identify the arguments and claims in both text and images.

I have been crafting visual analysis lessons and units in my classroom for several years, and I have written about the importance of cultivating visual analysis skills for the WVCTE blog before. You can read that post here.

These lessons have taken the shape of a unit in my AP Lang class called “the Argument for Art” that culminates in trip to the National Gallery of Art and a research analysis essay modeled after the essay “The Capricious Camera” by Laila Ayad. Recently, several teachers have reached out asking about some of these activities, so for today’s post, here is an overview of this unit:

Introduction: Appalachian Studies Unit

My students are introduced to images as argument early in the year in our Appalachian Studies unit. Besides numerous written texts, we study several visual texts that complicate and disrupt the single story of Appalachia. We discuss how the Looking at Appalachia project complicates and disrupt the single story of our region. This project was in reaction to the “war on poverty” photos that have become representative of our region.  Karla Hilliard has written about how she uses Looking at Appalachia in her classroom for the WVCTE blog, and you can read that post here.  We analyze how the photography of Builder Levy complicates the idea that the West Virginia coal fields were populated by a white, homogenous workforce, and we study the Appalshop documentary, Sludge, as a visual essay. We then read the illustrated novel, Trampoline, by Robert Gipe and discuss the way Gipe uses his text and his illustrations to create a complete idea or argument.

After this unit, students are primed for Art as Argument.

Day 1-4 Edward Hopper and Joyce Carol Oates

We begin with a painting by Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942.


Students spend a day analyzing and discussing the painting, and then read the poem Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, 1942 by Joyce Carol Oates. We talk about if we think Oates’ analysis is accurate, and we discuss what visual elements led her to those conclusions. Then, students choose another painting by Hopper, and write a poem using Oates’ poem as a mentor text. This specific lesson is detailed in this blog post with handouts included.

Days 5-8 The Capricious Camera

Next, we read, analyze, and annotate the essay, “The Capricious Camera” by Laila Ayad. In this essay, Ayad analyzes  a black and white photo from World War II captioned, “Mounted Nazi Troops on the Lookout for Likely Polish Children.” See the photo below:

capricious camera

Ayad’s essay is an excellent model for visual analysis, but also for how to use research and source material to support your claims. I start with asking my students “What do you notice about the author’s interpretation of the photo? And what do you notice about how research impacted the analysis?” After discussing in small Socratic groups and as a whole class, I tell the class that this essay will serve as their mentor text for their own analysis of an artwork.

(This essay can be found in the ninth edition of the Bedford Reader, but can be a bit tough to locate online. Here is a PDF copy: capricious_camera_essay copy)

Days 9-13: Bansky Does New York

Next, we look at how art of all kinds, not just photography can function rhetorically by watching and discussing the documentary, Bansky Does New York. This documentary focuses on a 31 day self-proclaimed residency and pop-up project that occurred in and around New York City in October of 2013.

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From the description:

On October 1, 2013, the elusive British street artist known as Banksy launched a self-proclaimed month-long residency in New York City, posting one unique exhibit a day in an unannounced location, sparking a 31-day scavenger hunt both online and on the streets for Banksy’s work.

Capturing this month of madness, Banksy Does New York incorporates user-generated content, from YouTube videos to Instagram photos, from New Yorkers and Banksy hunters alike, whose responses became part of the work itself, for an exhilarating, detailed account of the uproar created by the mysterious artist.

With installations spanning all five boroughs of New York City, and including a mix of stencil graffiti, sculpture, video and performance art, Banksy touched on such wide-ranging subjects as fast-food wages, animal cruelty in the meat industry, civilian casualties in Iraq and the hypocrisy of the modern art world. Daily News reporter Beth Stebner, who covered Banksy’s residency, was struck by the wide array of people drawn to his work, noting, “You had art students, you had plumbers, you had gallery owners. It just brought New Yorkers out.”

The film is wonderful because of all the art analysis, but also because the focus is how Bansky’s work is functioning rhetorically. In the final moments of the documentary, Banksy’s voice over can be heard saying, “The artist asserts…” We try to hone in on the rhetorical elements of Bansky’s project and what he was arguing with the project.

Day 14: National Gallery of Art

The students are ready now to pick out a piece of art to analyze. I give them this handout which details due dates and expectations for the final paper of this unit:

Art Analysis Paper Task Sheet

I live in a place where we can take a 2hr train ride to D.C. and visit the National Gallery of Art, but this part of the project could easily be done at a local small scale museum or gallery, or even online with a webquest or a digital museum tour.

However, one of the most special days of the year with my students is when we get out of the classroom, and set off to explore the museum together. It’s a great community building and bonding experience, and one of the most memorable parts of the course.

Their goal(s) of the day is to pick a piece of art they see functioning as an argument, but also to have a lot of fun. (And I may have given them the challenge of “find a piece of art that looks like you”. Here are some hilarious kids from this year’s trip.)

Days 15-21 (or longer): The Paper

The final product of this unit is a research essay in which the student analyzes the piece of art they have selected on our trip. Again, The Capricious Camera is their mentor text for this assignment. We take this paper through the whole writing process. The final product is a 4-6 page research essay, and I also use this assignment as an opportunity to shore up my students knowledge of MLA formatting, in-text citations, and embedding figures into a paper.


This unit produces some of the most thoughtful analysis and conversations about rhetoric and language of the year, and definitely produces some of the best student writing I get to score. For most students, this paper is always one they select as one of their best pieces of writing and this unit as one of their favorite assignments when we do end of course evaluations.

Do you use art and visual rhetorical in your classroom? Share with us how!

WVCTE is wondering….

How do you incorporate visual analysis into your ELA curriculum? How does art play a role in how you teach English? Message us and let us know, or share with us on Facebook or Twitter!

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