22 February 2007

Dewey - Art as Experience

I am teaching parts of John Dewey's Art as Experience (1934) in my undergraduate course this spring. I had been a while since I'd read the book and I'd forgotten how it opens. Here are the first paragraph and a half:

“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 esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them. For one reason, these works are products that exist externally. 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 classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.

When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in existence, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement. A primary task is thus imposed upon one who undertakes to write upon the philosophy of fine arts. This task 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.”

This, I suspect, is where I first absorbed the notion that in thinking about art generally, and photography in particular, we ought to think first and foremost not about objects - "photographs" - but more about the ways individuals and organizations produce those objects and the purposes for which they do so. It may be that Dewey is insufficiently critical in this regard, that his preoccupation with "consummatory experience" diverted his attention from the diverse, sometimes objectionable uses of visual representations. And, of course, he barely mentions photography anywhere in his writings. But the general notion that we ought to approach art in consequentialist ways is, to my mind, an invaluable insight.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good citation, general point taken. A side point that has to do with the Dewey’s premise about the ironic perversity:

Could one not say that some forms of art excel – and often with a boring result – in having a theory of the spectator of the work of art - a theory of itself? The work of art is, then, not so much measured by the work ‘itself’ but rather upon its ‘effect’ – as provocation for instance. This happens when the artist when taking the photo thinks much more about how the spectator will read/understand her work than about, well, ‘pure’ (or rather, ‘basic’) artistic elements such as form, composition and so on.

This is not to say that we should not theorize about works of art, both within its own realm and with respect to questions outside of the artistic experience that relates, as Dewey explains, to other ‘materials and aims’ of human experience. Nor is it to say that there should be no self-reference or reflection in the work of art. It is merely to say that some works of art that have too obvious a ‘theory’ – or indeed a theoretical project – about themselves result in bad artistic experiences. Which
I suppose is what Dewey means when talking of an ironic perversity.

I guess what I mean to say is that we should, as you with Dewey suggest, seek consequentialist readings of works of art. But 'consequentialist production of art' can be a boring affair.

(My feeling is, by the way and for no reason that literary ‘experiments-with-an-obvious-theoretical-project are generally worse than those in photography)

24 February, 2007 07:04  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

trane, Nice quesitons. Here are a couple of parts of an answer. They don't actually add up to an answer, but go part of the way.

(0) This remark of yours: "It is merely to say that some works of art that have too obvious a ‘theory’ – or indeed a theoretical project – about themselves result in bad artistic experiences." Seems just right to me.

(1) Dewey in particular and pragmatists generally think of knowledge and judgement and conceptualization, etc. in instrumental terms. They are tools we use to navigate the natural and social worlds. So one can see theories of say photography as useful in navigating the various practices (e..g., documentary, art, photojournalism, entertainment) that make up the world of photography.

A couple of things are impoortanat here. First, the theories can be reflexive in the sense that they can recognize that practitioners (say artists) may be trying to do outrageous things just for notoriety. And the theorist can then incorporate that into her views and pronouncements. So, she could call those trying to be outrageous for self-serving purposes or simply for the sake of outrageousness on their self-absorbtion or venality or triviality or whatever.

(2) None of that means that seeking to provoke (in whatever way - think of the sappy photos on greeting cards of various sorts) is itself a negative characteristic. We might take pictures in order to have effects. Hence, Martha Rosler claims: "documentary engages with structural truths and social injustices, ooften to provoke active responses." One might make similar claims about "art photography" for instncae. BUT, I think a pragmatist would ask the question what is the provocation for? What is the point? What are do you hope t accomplish by using this image? And so forth ... And figuring out the answers to such questions, not just in specific instances, but in general domains of photographic practice is among the tasks of theory.

(3) As I've noted, pragmatists generally take an instrumentalist stance toward practices. So, they would see photography as a technology useful for doing things (such as amplifying our ability to see, pay attention, imagine and so forth). They are typically dismissive of "spectator theories" of knoweldge and so would likely be critical of the effort to simply create spectators for the purpose of doing so. (At least this pragmatist would be.) The point of art would be to invite active participation in the world and to enhance and enrich experience. Among the reasons why I think Dewey, Peirce, etc. (all writing in the first half of the 20th C) paid almost no attention to photography is that they probably accepted too readily a sort of spectatorship view of the medium. They were wrong to do so.

(4) In order to make a consequentialist reading we typically - perhaps always? - have to pay quite close attention to the content of the image or images we are discussing. So, I don't see a dichotomy here, but a sort of reciprocal attention to content, 'the point' and the degree to which that point is actually, successfully made.

All that is probably more than you wanted! I hope at least some of it makes sense. A friend often tells me that her grandmother regularly says "careful what you wish for!".

24 February, 2007 09:59  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, thanks for your reply.

I see your point about there not being a dichotomy, but instead 'a reciprocal attention'.

Anyway, last night I read a funny story that recalled me to this discussion. Somehow the story seems to state - in a much subtler, more readable and more precise way - the point I was trying to make. I have tried to translate it below. Whether it makes the point or not, I think it is worth reading. The story is from a small collection by the Danish author Peter Adolphsen called 'Små historier 2' - Little stories 2. The translation is very unofficial and quickly made.

Here it goes:

"Equestrian Statue
- Recipe of a sculpture

For this work of art is needed an equestrian statue made of bronze, appx. 20 electro-motors with cords and operating system, one sturdy steel pipe, nuts and so on.

All joints of man and horse are cut off, the neck of the rider, his shoulders, wrists, the horse’s ears, legs, tail etc., all places where it is possible and aesthetically appropriate. An electro-motor is installed in each of the cut-off joints so that it holds together the two parts and drives the one of them round. They revolve first the one way and then the other so that the cords – that are drawn on the inside of the statue and down through a steel pipe – will not become twisted. All motors drive slowly, but each at its own pace, to the effect that the finished statue once set in motion will never repeat exactly the same posture.

As regards the technical exhibition accessories, title of the sculpture, reflections reproduced on plates and in interviews, it is up to individual taste and temperament whether one will stress the status of the equestrian statue as a symbol of power in the history of art and claim that its unnatural movement is an illustration of art’s traditional surrender to the biddings of power, whether one will claim that the partially portrayed hollowness of the statue contributes to the old debate of shell and matter, or if one will let the visual impression stand alone to form a more naked presentation.

It is also up to the individual whether the sculpture should be in constant motion or be set in motion by the audience’s turning of a switch. Note that the latter solution appeals to children."

Peter Adolphsen
- Translated from “Små historier 2” (Little Stories, 2), Samleren, Copenhagen, 2000

13 March, 2007 06:28  

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