Monday, October 27, 2014

Dewey's "An Experience" and Bell's "Significant Form"

One way to think about Dewey's aesthetics is as a response to the formalism of Clive Bell.  Bell expects us to experience art in an immediate way, without any thought about context of production or about consequences.  Dewey could almost be seen as the opposite of Bell, much like a contemporary contextualist.  Ironically, however, some of the Dewey's favorite artists are Bell's too:  for example Dewey speaks with great admiration of Cezanne.  I am sure that Bell and Dewey would also be in agreement about Matisse.  Dewey also attacks certain artworks for their overemphasis on realism or their illustrative nature in much the way Bell would.  But then Dewey is, as mentioned, against Bell's isolationism.  Dewey's phenomenology is also much more complex and interesting than Bell's.  Bell asks us to look for a special aesthetic emotion brought on by significant form.  He also characterizes this emotion as ecstatic:  it seems to exist someplace between the beautiful and the sublime.  Dewey sees aesthetics in terms of "an experience" in which the experience has a unity brought by a pervasive quality, and is also complete.  For Dewey, "an experience" involves a flow of events in which the present carries the past and projects into the future.  Pauses in music, for example, are not dead spots but actually carry meaning from past experience in this way.  Each part of the organic whole participates in the whole.  Moreover, there are also continuities with that which surrounds the whole, in this case the work of art.  For both Dewey and Bell there is something religious in aesthetic experience.  However, for Bell, it is to be found in the "significant" part of significant form:  the lines and colors are arranged in mysterious ways to give us the special aesthetic emotion, which somehow refers to an underlying reality that is like Kant's noumenal realm:  God, etc..  By contrast, for Dewey, the religious-like experience comes from the ways in which the work of art can relate to a larger whole that is not outside of our world: "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." From this we get "exquisite intelligibility and esthetic intensity" which, in turn, explains "the religious feeling that accompanies intense esthetic perception."  This, then, introduces us to "a world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences."  (Which is it:  beyond or just deeper?)  It is this idea which I have tried to capture in my notion of "aura" in The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.  Dewey thinks the psychological explanation for this is that it is a deepening and clarification of "that sense of an enveloping undefined whole that accompanies every normal experience" -- the whole then felt as "an expansion of ourselves."  His then says that "any intense realization of its [the vast world beyond ourselves] presence with and in us brings a peculiarly satisfying sense of unity in itself and with ourselves.."  

There is also a strange parallel between what I have just been discussing and Dewey's exploration of media in "The Common Substance of the Arts."  There, he sees the individual arts as purified modes of experience:  we no longer see, hear, feel, taste...etc. but simply, see, for example in painting that  "the medium becomes color alone."  And yet at the same time the color carries the other qualities.  This is then seen like the experience of a pictorial representation which, although flat, can "depict the wide and diversified universe of animate and inanimate things" in a way that seems magical or miraculous.  So this is another case of the art object referring beyond itself in a religious-like way. 


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