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John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934)


 The live creature

"The roots of every experience are found in the interaction of a live creature with its environment" 218.0).  The work of art must be understood in connection with "the human conditions under which it was brought into being and . . . the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.  [The perceiver must, in some measure, bring to mind the process of making, and the maker must work with the perceiver's perspective in mind.]  Is there a connection between aesthetics and the philosophy of living?  "A primary task . . . imposed upon one who undertakes to write upon the philosophy of the fine arts . . . is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience . . . ." (204.2)

  Having an experience

In the hectic quality of daily life, we often have experiences tumbling in on one another, and an experience with a quality of unity to it that runs through to its completion stands out—this is a necessary condition for aesthetic experience (study the description of the unity of an experience on 206.1-2 [indented paragraphs one and two]).  "This unity is neither emotional, practical, nor intellectual" [cf. beauty, goodness, truth] since these qualities are so blended in the experience [take that, Kant] that only after the experience could we discern, say, which of these qualities may have predominated.  Indeed, this is true of all experience [and it's the mission of art to teach us the character of experience in general]; even though the experiences of the scientist and philosopher are intellectual "in final import," "in their actual occurrence they were emotional as well; they were purposive and volitional.  No thinker can ply his occupation save as he is lured and rewarded by total integral experiences that are intrinsically worth while.  Without them he would never know what it is really to think and would be completely at a loss in distinguishing real thought from the spurious article." (206.3).

            There are two sides to art that cannot be separated, "doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy" (208.1): the producer's doing or making, and the consumer's appreciating, perceiving, and enjoying.  "Craftsmanship to be artistic in the final sense must be "loving"; it must care deeply for the subject matter upon which skill is exercised" (207.4).  The artist takes the perspective of the perceiver and fashions the work with an eye for the way it will be perceived.  [Does this principle, if accepted and transferred to the art of living, promote narcissism?]

            The expressive object.  Art does not have meaning the way a sign pointing the direction to Cleveland has meaning, but neither is it utterly meaningless.  Art is representative in the sense that "the work of art tells something to those who enjoy it about the nature of their own experience of the world: . . . it present the world in a new experience which they undergo" (209.0).  Scientific statements are meaningful by stating meanings, leading the reader to experiences beyond the statement; art expresses meanings by already constituting an experience in itself. 

 "Is 'beauty' another name for form descending from without, as a transcendent essence, upon material, or is it a name for the esthetic quality that appears whenever material is formed in a way that renders it adequately expressive?" (211.3)—a rhetorical question, taking a pot-shot at a distorted Plato, whose forms are not spatially remote from any object. 

Substance and form. 

"All language, whatever its medium, involves what is said and how it is said, or substance and form" (211.3). [If how we speak or act is at least as important as what we say or do, does artistic living concern itself with the how?]   Substance and form cannot be separated.  Why?  There can be self-expression only because the self is not isolated from its doings; its expressions are not external to it (212.1).  "The work itself is matter formed into esthetic substance" (213.2).

            The work of art must be derived from the materials of the common world; to draw on a purely private source would be "the state of a mad-house" (212.2).  Aesthetic experience creates "an experience of which the intrinsic subject matter, the substance, is new"; "a new poem is created by every one who reads poetically" (212.3).  "The" meaning of a work of art cannot be fixed; even the artist "would find different meanings in it at different days and hours and in different stages of his own development" (213.0).  The universality of a work of art is its ability to "continuously inspire new personal realizations in experience" (213.0); the perceivers interacting with the work should have "more intense and more fully rounded out experiences of their own" (213.1).  To "have form" "marks a way if envisaging, of feeling, and of presenting experience matter so that it most readily and effectively becomes material for the construction of adequate experience on the part of those less gifted than the original creator. 

            "The undefined pervasive quality of an experience is that which binds together all the defined elements, the objects of which we are focally aware, making them a whole" (213.3)  "The sense of an extensive and underlying whole is the context of every experience and it is the essence of sanity" (214.0).  "A work of art elicits and accentuates this quality of being a whole and of belonging to the larger, all-inclusive, whole which is the universe in which we live.  This fact . . . explains also the religious feeling that accompanies intense esthetic perception.  We are, as it were, introduced into a world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world which we live in our ordinary experiences.  We are carried out beyond ourselves to find ourselves.  I can see no psychological ground for such properties of an experience save that, somehow, the work of art operates to deepen and to raise to great clarity that sense of an enveloping undefined whole that accompanies every normal experience. This whole is then felt as an expansion of ourselves. . . .  Where egotism is not made the measure of reality and value, we are citizens of this vast world beyond ourselves, and any intense realization of its presence with and in us brings a peculiarly satisfying sense of unity in itself and with ourselves."(214.1)

 The Common Substance of the Arts.   

"The needs of daily life have given superior practical importance to one mode of communication, that of speech" (211.1); nevertheless, each of the arts that do not use speech has its own special communicative gift, its own language, that cannot be reduced to speech.  Whatever medium is selected becomes the carrier of what address all the sense organs; thus color in painting, for example, attains a special purity, intensity, and focus, for it carries "the qualitative presence of the whole" (214.2-215.2).  The media of the arts are inherent in the work, not mere external means, just a way to get a job done.  [Cf. for Aristotle techne is simply a means to a product beyond the production process, whereas in praxis the value in the activity is inherent.]  "When the Greeks identified the good and beautiful in actions, they revealed, in their feeling of grace and proportion in right conduct, a perception of fusion of means and ends" (216.3).  And "spiritual" or ideal values become unattractive when exalted in such a way as to lose all connection with the means of approaching them.  Those who are intimately involved in science find "a fulfilling and consummatory quality" in scientific inquiry, as business persons find an aesthetic quality in the game of business (217.0).  Is beauty "a kind of ethereal essence which, in accommodation to flesh, is compelled to use external sensuous material as a vehicle"?  Then if the soul were not "imprisoned in the body, pictures would exist without colors, music without sounds, and literature without words" (217.1—another critique of Plato and maybe of the notion of celestial arts). 

 The Challenge to Philosophy. 

Imagination is the "gateway" through which meanings and values derived from absent prior experiences "can find their way into a present interaction" (218.0).  The linking of past and present reconstructs the past and adjusts past and present into a certain fit, except in cases of mere mechanical repetition.  When mind, "the body of organized meanings," is unable to interpret something, it may enjoy entertaining ideas that float without anchor in the real (218.2).  "In every work of art, however, these meanings are actually embodied in a material which thereby becomes the medium for their expression"—this is the defining character of the aesthetic (218.3).  "The imaginative quality dominates, because meanings and values that are wider and deeper than the particular here and now . . . are [expressed]."  "The work of art is . . . a challenge [to the perceiver] to perform a like act of evocation and organization" 219.1).  Aesthetic experience is "freed from the forces that impede and confuse its development as experience; free, that is, from factors that subordinate an experience as it is directly had to something beyond itself" (219.2).  The philosopher's aesthetics is the test of a philosophy's account of experience (219.3).  Typically, philosophy errs by emphasizing just one factor among many which are blended by imagination in art—the paradigm of experience (219.4).


Heide Göttner-Abendroth, Nine Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetic

Do we see the following factors as unbeautiful?  Do we sense the possibility of a significantly enhanced way of living for ourselves and our communities? 



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