The Art of Argument

Blair defines argument by saying that arguments must make an assertion that can be said, have reasons for why it should be believed, someone who asserts it, someone who is meant to hear and respond, and someone must be able to oppose the argument if they wish. He writes that arguments must be propositional or express judgement or opinion. There needs to be a possible counterargument, and a visual argument should not just be a value judgment without context (such as saying, “that’s awful” without any other piece to the argument). While arguments can focus on an effect, not all communication that attempts to persuade is an argument.

Argumentation, he writes, should not merely rely on moving an audience member through pathos, or feeling, but push him or her to consider an issue or point of view. In this way, Blair stresses issue relevant thinking. A visual argument, then, is propositional and can convey an attitude or value judgment in a single frame.

A visual argument cannot function as an argument if someone cannot object. For example, a picture depicting poverty would not function well as a visual argument because people primarily agree that poverty is negative. This, in my opinion, is difficult to achieve with iconic images — such as Kevin Carter’s image of the vulture stalking a child — that tend to immediately draw an emotional response. While emotional engagement is often blended with the reason, cognition and rationality of argumentation, Blair does not support the unreasoned, irrational, unconscious and non-intellectual avenues. But iconic images, while they tend to be linguistically explicable, dangerously straddle the line between an argument and emotion.

I believe that a visual argument can have premises in the way that it is composed. Different elements of the image can work to draw attention to different points of the overall argument. So it is important to consider frame, focus, depth of field, angling, tone and contrast, and the like when structuring our arguments. A visual argument, then, can compel a viewer toward a specific action or conclusion in the way that the premises or technical elements work together. The argument may be more pointed if its primary argument is expressed through a largely noticeable technical element. For example, if the image is angled or closely cropped on a specific portion of the overall image, it will convey a more specific message.

When approaching my own visual argument, I appreciate that we are able to include a few words to frame the arguments. This will fix the image and anchor its meaning a bit more than a single photo may have.  To make my work compelling, I plan to juxtapose two images to help convey my argument, and pay close attention to image composition to create a visual argument that is fairly straightforward.

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