Art as Experience by John Dewey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Some labyrinths are worth descending into just to get a glimpse of the Minotaur, even if you can't yet defeat him. Art as Experience is one of those. It will require several more descents to get the clearest picture of the Minotaur and more familiarization with the territory in order to be able to face it head on. But I have seen the face of the Minotaur, and it is beautiful and terrifying. This is my attempt to follow the threads back out of the maze.
Dewey's monstrous work - and I use this as a term of admiration, rather than derision - is daunting in scope, yet, at it's core, it is a simple argument: People change, their perception changes, so that every encounter with a potential "art" carries with it the possibility of an aesthetic experience. The imposition of one's preconceived theory on art interferes with one's direct interaction with art, since it imposes generic ideas on the mind that do not take into account both the artists and the viewers own experiences as influences in the interplay between creator and created, viewer and viewed.
This flies in the face of several philosophical traditions that tend to shoehorn art into their paradigms as an afterthought or even a necessary nuisance - philosophers seem to recognize that they ought to include art in their thought-system, but they don't really know where to place it on the map. From this springs the aesthetics-theory equivalent of Ptolemaic models of the geocentric universe, with their complicated, strained systems of deferents, equants, and epicycles.
Dewey's solution is to abandon philosophical preconception and begin from the ground up, defining the very word "experience" with some logical rigor, then examining whether or not that definition accurately communicates the difficult-to-quantify interplay between art and those who appreciate it (or not). His theory arises from art as an experience, the experience of production and enjoyment, rather than imposing his theory on art and aesthetic experience. He uses flowers as an analogy to show the difference between the mere appreciation of art and the understanding of art:
"Flowers can be enjoyed without knowing about the interactions of soil, air, moisture, and seeds of which they are the result. But they cannot be understood without taking just these interactions into account - and theory is a matter of understanding. Theory is concerned with discovering the nature of the production of works of art and of their enjoyment in perception."
Note that Dewey addresses not only the understanding of art, but the understanding of its production, as well. He gives importance to the conscious manipulation of materials during an artist's work (he is careful to identify "work" as more of what an artist does than of what an artist produces, though the word often works with both definitions simultaneously). While others work for efficiency, especially in the manufacturing and production sectors (I can vouch for this from my day job as a "Continuous Improvement Supervisor" - yes, that's my actual job title), the artist works to consciously form matter into a "work" of art that communicates meaning. I am struck particularly by Dewey's assertion that "It is possible to be efficient in action and yet not have a conscious experience." This is my experience in my day job. And this is why I love writing. Though writing is hard work, and believe me, it's a lot like real work, I am immersed when I write, fully conscious of the experience, and yet "lost" to the outside world. It's like making intellectual love with words and sentences - a very sensual, immediate experience, very much unlike the job I use to pay the bills.
That's not to say that someone can't produce something of great craftsmanship with efficiency. But Dewey is careful to indicate that the conscious work, bolstered by an emotional investment, something of the "heart" of the artist, again in an attempt to communicate meaning, is different than the work of creating a functional object. A chair is just a chair, unless the artist can somehow, in the chair's construction, communicate meaning beyond the mere utility of the chair, thus providing an aesthetic experience to the audience: "Without emotion, there may be craftsmanship, but not art"
Dewey also separates the art object from that which it represents. Once the artist has manipulated matter to create a work of art, it is its own thing, despite what it might represent. Thus, Dewey includes abstract art as fully capable of engendering aesthetic experiences, again depending on what the artist puts into it and what the audience brings to its viewing: "When someone complained to [Matisse] that she had never seen a woman who looked like the one in his painting, he replied: 'Madam, that is not a woman; that is a picture'."
The "unity" that occurs when the audience comes into dialogue with the artist through the work of art is what, ultimately, constitutes the aesthetic experience. The audience approaches the work of art with their own prejudices (Dewey uses the term "resistances") born of previous experience. The artist has also brought his or her prejudices, also born of previous experience, to the work(ing) of (the) art. In this interaction, the art itself acts as the device of communication between the two parties, and a sort of negotiation takes place. "There is unity only when the resistances create a suspense that is resolved through cooperative interaction of the opposed energies." The audience brings something of opposition to the table, and that opposition cannot always be resolved (take, for example, my utter loathing of The Catcher in the Rye which is loved by some of my close friends and many of those whose opinions on literature I hold in high regard). In the example of Matisse just quoted, one can surmise that either the prejudices of the woman speaking to him did not allow the art to "speak" to her, or that Matisse failed to create the art in such a way that the woman could understand. This is why the appreciation or rejection of art can be such a divisive discourse. Not everyone's communication style is compatible with everyone else's. As with speaking, so with art.
This leads to Dewey's criticism of criticism (!). This segment of Art as Experience is excellent in that it shows that any justification toward "objectivity" on the part of a critic is misplaced if the critic doesn't acknowledge his or her then current circumstances, which must inform the criticism. In other words, there is no absolutely true objectivity when it comes to critiques of art (or literature, etc), and such critiques can change over time, as the critics experience changes.
Now, I have merely scratched the surface. This is a work that demands to be read and re-read. I am shocked that this wasn't ever included in my studies as an undergraduate Humanities major. Perhaps the professors thought this should be reserved for graduate level studies and, if so, they might have been right. This book, like any labyrinth, is a challenge. But it is worth it, if only to get a glimpse at the horrible beauty of the Minotaur which, in my case, at least, is likely to go undefeated in this lifetime. I simply don't have enough years left to fully explore every nook and cranny of this monumental work, though what I've retained thus far will definitely inform all my own creative endeavors from now on.
Finally, I believe that the paragraph I quote below, by itself, speaks potential volumes. It might seem fairly straightforward, but, I believe, it contains subtle twists and turns that could inform ones study of art (in all its forms, whether visual art, statuary, architecture, dance, poetry, or music) for a lifetime.
"[The existence of art] is proof that man uses the materials and energies of nature with intent to expand his own life, and that he does so in accord with the structure of his organism - brain, sense-organs, and muscular system. Art is the living and concrete proof that man is capable of restoring consciously, and thus on the plane of meaning, the union of sense, impulse, and action characteristic of the live creature. The intervention of consciousness adds regulation, power of selection, and redisposition. Thus it varies the arts in ways without end. But its intervention also leads in time to the idea of art as a conscious idea - the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of humanity."
Go forth, Theseus. But please don't forget about the black sails, okay?
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