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Monday, November 07, 2011

ART AS EXPERIENCE

BOOK REVIEW
Art as Experience
by John Dewey
p. 1934
Perigree/Penguin Press

 
    John Dewey was an American philosopher of the late 19th and 20th century best known for his espousal of a "pragmatic" philosophy and progressive political ideas, but he also wrote about Art.  Art as Experience is not a book per se, but rather a rewriting of a series of lectures he gave on the "philosophy of art" at Harvard in 1931.

  Dewey's pragmatic philosophy emphasizing social relations between humans was hugely influential in social sciences like sociology, where he clearly inspired writers like Erving Goffman and anthropology (see Roy Rappaport)  His influence has been less notable in the field of aesthetics and art theory, and that's a shame, because in my mind, Art as Experience is the best book about the role of Art in human experience ever written.

    Art as Experience starts from the observation that there can be no Art without an Audience- the two are intertwined because humans are social creatures and none of us exist in isolation.  This statement about the nature of Art stands in direct contradiction to the two main schools of art philosophy: Classicism, which holds that Beauty is an objective truth that exists outside the experience of any single person and Romanticism, which postulates that the Artist stands alone in the world, without reference to his human environment.

   Much of the argument of Art as Experience takes the form of the language philosophy strategy of being extremely precise about the terms being used.  This gives the actual text of Art as Experience a tedious feel, even as the ideas expressed dance and sparkle with the light of discovery.  Dewey works his way through defining, having an experience, the act of expression, the expressive object, substance and form, etc.  I won't lie- it's dry.  Boring even.

  BUT, it's a book that every art critic, blogger, etc should be forced- AT GUN POINT- to read.  That's because to read Dewey is to understand that Artists and Critics are on the same side- they both care and appreciate art and artistic products, and they both want to share their love/interest in art with a larger audience.

  This idea of critics attacking Artists for some real or perceived "failure" is revealed by Dewey to actually be a failure of the critic- for failing to understand that his or her own experience is intruding on their understanding of the subject of their criticism.   It's a wonder to be that Dewey's Art as Experience isn't more commonly read and loved by Artists and Art critics, but I suppose he only has himself to blame- that man was not a prose stylist.

    I would say that if you were going to read a single book on the subject of the "Philosophy of Art" it would be this book- and that there isn't another book you need to read after this one. Particularly, while reading Art As Experience I thought of conversations I had with my friend/business partner- Brandon Welchez of the Crocodiles.  Brandon often espoused the opinion- common to Artists that "Writing about music is like dancing about Architecture- i.e. pointless" and my response was basically, "Um..." but now I would reply that when a critic really understand the purpose of writing about art- to help clarify, illuminate and publicize worthy artists- and sharing one's interest in a specific art and artists with the wider world- art criticism can help to create an appreciative audience for a specific artist or art product where none existed before.

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