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John Dewey's View of Art as Experience
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-01-23 10:01:06
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“By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an aesthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them. For one reason, these works are products that exist externally and physically. In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding. In addition, the very perfection of some of these products, the prestige they possess because of a long history of unquestioned admiration, creates conventions that get in the way of fresh insight. When an art product once attains classis status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human consequences it engenders in actual life experience…What Coleridge said of the reader of poetry is true in its way of all who are happily absorbed in their activities of mind and body: “The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, not by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution, but by the pleasurable activity of the journey itself.”….The series of doings in the rhythm of experience give variety and movement; they save the work from monotony and useless repetitions. The undergoings are the corresponding elements in the rhythm, and they supply unity; they save the work from the aimlessness of a mere succession of excitations. An object is peculiarly and dominantly aesthetic, yielding the enjoyment characteristic of esthetic perception, when the factors that determine anything which can be called an experience are lifted high above the threshold of perception and are made manifest for their own sake.”

                                                                                                --John Dewey (Art as Experience)

John Dewey (1859-1952) was both a philosopher and a social activist whose ideas, particularly in education, greatly influenced social policy in the United States. As a philosopher he belonged to the school of pragmatism which was opposed to the reification of dualism as exemplified by Descartes’ thought which had structured previous philosophical theories. He wrote on a wide range of topics, from aesthetics to metaphysics and the philosophy of education.

The core of Dewey’s claim in his theory of art is that art should not be conceived as a radically distinct aspect of human life. He points out that too many theories of art fail because they treat art as a fundamentally different kind of human endeavor. He insisted that art ought to be seen in continuity with prosaic forms of human activity. As Dewey sees it, the very features that distinguish art from other spheres of human life (such as form and rhythm) are found throughout our ordinary experience. This idea by itself puts Dewey at odds with such diverse theorists, that we have already explored, as Kant, Bell, and Collingwood.

The above begs the question: Where, if anywhere, is art’s distinctiveness? Is Dewey saying that everything and anything is art? Dewey’s answer to such a question is that art results when the desire to create an object whose perceptible properties will yield immediate satisfaction controls the process of its production. We may be pleased with the products of various activities, but only art-making is guided by the aim of producing just such pleasure. An important feature of this definition is that it unites various aspects of art that are often treated as distinct. For example, in this definition both artist and audience play an important role. And art object must be produced by an artist who anticipates the satisfaction his audience will receive. This is contrary to the ideal of the genius artist who narcissistically creates only for his own satisfaction completely uninterested in an appreciative audience. Moreover, for Dewey, the artistic and the aesthetic refer to two aspects of the same process (which he at times calls “aesthetic artistic”) to indicate that neither of the two terms is primary. “Artistic” refers to the physical object, whereas “aesthetic” refers to the way in which it is experienced. So, as far as Dewey is concerned, art to be art must be both artistic and aesthetic; that is to say, have both an objective and a subjective side. There is no art that is not aesthetic.

Here a caveat is in order: what “aesthetic” means for Dewey is not what it usually means for other theorists of art. Dewey holds that any experience can have an aesthetic dimension. For example, the satisfaction a mathematician experiences in constructing a proof; or that of a cobbler in finishing a shoe. This sense of conscious completion is what Dewey refers to as the aesthetic component of experience which he sees as attainable in all realms of human endeavor. There is a scene in the movie on Michelangelo “The Agony and the Ecstasy” where Pope Julius II, after celebrating Mass in the Sistine Chapel passes under the scaffold where Michelangelo is painting his masterpiece, now in its fourth year and asks anxiously: “When will you make an end of it?” to which Michelangelo replies, as the consummate artist he was: “When it is finished.” I think that exchange renders Dewey’s idea about the aesthetic satisfaction of completion. What Dewey thinks distinctive about art as a human endeavor is that it is produced exactly with this feature in mind. This is not necessarily the ultimate goal of say a craftsman or a scientist. Moreover, although Dewey views artistic activity as continuous with other forms of human production, he does nevertheless think that art is not only a distinctive form of that production but also its culmination. That is so because of its focus on our conscious appreciation of the complete process of creation, what Dewey calls “an experience.” Art for Dewey is exemplary of the possibilities inherent in human productive life.

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trol2009-01-23 10:38:13
I certainly think that the dogma 'art for art's sake" and "art as a social act" have failed to tell the whole story, so I am inclined to Dewey's approach on viewing art as a personal experience, common as it is. He does however plays a around the notion of "mestiere" but again who said art is only the noble things that conventions have made it to be? Yet, "mestiere" does refer to having mastered quite well a skill and not necessarily on how you perceive the world. (Hehe, watch me getting lost in my own words here). Maybe Dewey implies about the "possibility of art", meaning the potential of the everyday, mundane, skilled or unskilled to become or be theorized as art. And that is quite radical. Especially for his times.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-23 15:53:13
In my opinion, the dilemma seems to be this: if everything has the potential to be theorized as art then a definition of the essence of art becomes elusive and perhaps even impossible; if everything is art, then nothing is art. On the other hand, one may also claim that, like life, art is continually changing and therefore it is impossible to define it, or that while it changes it does not get any better or any worse for that matter. But if that is the case what are the criteria and who are the judges by which public funds are to be allocated to competing artists? Is it all a matter of political influence and power? Indeed, like life art seems to be an enigma feeding on a mystery, a mirror of sort which helps us to look at our own face on the way to self-knowledge and that is what fascinates us by its sheer presence from the very beginning of human kind's cultural identity and civilization, in fact a sine qua non, like language, of any kind of civilization.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-23 16:24:15
P.S. Ms. trol, stay tuned for the last theory I will briefly dwell on in this series on art's definition, that of David Hume and his slogan, so much in vogue today, that art is in the eye of the beholder, and then perhaps we can continue exchanging views on the ongoing dialogue of the essence of art; something that I am presently carrying on in a classroom with students at Barry University but even more enjoyable and relevant at a global level on line.

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