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Art On Trial (A Mock-Court Activity)


Visual Arts
Social Studies
-- Civics


  • 3-5
  • 6-8
  • 9-12

Brief Description

Students engage in a mock trial to decide if a work of prospective public art is "art" and accepted for a city park. The goal of the lesson is to broaden students personal definitions of what art is; and to distinguish between an opinion about art and an informed judgment.





  • broaden their definitions of what "art" is.
  • distinguish between opinion and informed judgment of art works.


    art, debate, aesthetic, court, trial, mock trial

    Materials Needed

    You will need to have samples of works of art that students might debate. The lesson supplies links to some possible works of art. The following resources might also be useful in this lesson.

    The Lesson

    Many pieces of art, especially very public art, have caused stirs in the communities in which they appeared and, sometimes, in the art world in general. Thats because peoples perceptions of what "art" is can differ from community to community and person to person.

    Before the Lesson
    You might gather a variety of images (some suggestions appear below) and post them on separate sheets of chart paper. Display them around the room as a "gallery." These images will represent works of art that your students will consider for a public space in their own community.

    Ask students to write their personal definition of what makes something a work of art. Collect the students definitions for use at the conclusion of lesson.

    Display a reproduction or print of what you think might be a controversial artwork. The following links offer a few pieces of art that might be used for the purpose of this lesson.

  • Stone Field Sculpture (Carl Andre)
  • Block Sculpture (Sol Lewitt)
  • The Gates (Christo)
  • The Umbrellas (Christo)
  • Big Bird (Alexander Calder)
  • Stegosaurus (Alexander Calder)
  • Wrapped Reichstag (Christo) (Note: In this case, you might suggest "wrapping" a public building in your own community.)

    The Lesson
    Arrange students into small groups. Within each group, individual students might be assigned a specific role that represents the "eyes" through which that student must "judge" whether the proposed object is art and whether they agree that is should be purchased as a work of community art for their community. Possible roles include

  • a member of the City Arts Council;
  • the artist who created the work/object of art;
  • the mayor of the town;
  • the president of the neighborhood organization in which the art will reside;
  • a religious leader;
  • a bank president;
  • a teacher; or
  • a student
    Tailor the activity to your community by adding roles as you see fit.

    As each group moves from image to image, they might write on the chart the results of their "group vote": Did they, or did they not, agree that the work of art might make an appropriate purchase for their community?

    Once students have viewed the works of art and formulated their opinions, begin a class discussion of the art images. Talk about each object, its dimensions, what materials were used to create it, the techniques used to create it

    At some point, lead a discussion about the difference between personal opinions and informed judgments about art -- and when both can or should be used. As students share opinions of the individual works, let others help the class discern which comments are opinions and which are "informed judgments" that can be substantiated with information.

    You might take this lesson in a variety of different directions:

  • Students might present their judgments about each work and vote as a class on the work that will be "constructed" in their community.
  • Students might work in small groups to refine their supportive points for a particular work of art. Each group might pick a spokesperson to defend their position and present it to the class before a vote is taken. They might create a list of five bulleted points that present their strongest arguments in favor of the artwork. After the presentation, the teacher might review the bulleted points and lead a discussion about which of those points are opinions and which are "informed judgments."
  • Students might write an essay in which they make a case for the artwork of their choice. Their final essay should include some informed judgments.

    Discuss with students what they have learned about looking at artworks. You might ask

  • Can an artwork be disliked but agreed to be placed on public view? Why or why not?
  • Can your opinion of an artwork change over time? If so, what would make it change?


    The next day, ask students to write another definition of what makes something a work of art. Hand back to them the definitions they wrote at the start of the lesson the day before. Have them compare their new definitions to the ones they wrote the day before. Conclude the lesson with a discussion about the differences they see in their definitions. At the end of the lesson, students might write a brief statement to explain how and why their definitions changed.

    Students might also be asked to write the difference between an opinion and an informed judgment.

    Submitted By

    Diane Franken, Lincoln Academy of Integrated Arts in Davenport, Iowa

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