Monday, March 30, 2015

Dewey on Substance and Form

Here I am limiting myself to the Ross selection (in Art and its
) from Substance and Form chapter of Art as Experience.  [See the end of this comment for a note on an editorial mistake in Ross.]

Dewey is relatively unique in discussing art in terms of the creative process, and of expanding the notion of the creative process to include the receiver as well as the artist.  Art is seen as communicative, as a set of languages each attached to its own medium, in which the artist says something that cannot be said in any other language, and in which the perceiver is a partner in the creative process, completing the work through his or her own experience.  The point is phenomenological in that the artist, even when alone in her studio, must bear in mind the audience with which she wishes to communicate. (Dewey is also unique in discussing the work of art “in progress” as well as at the stage of completion.)  The artist must be the audience vicariously.  Thus the creative process has two moments that mirror one another:  the moment of the artist/audience relation prior to the actual experience by the audience, and the moment of actualization of the work by the audience member.  Both involve a triadic relation of artist, audience and work, although, in the first, the work is "in process" and the audience is imagined.

Dewey then offers this wonderfully convoluted sentence:  "He [the artist] can speak only as his work appeals to him as one spoken to through what he perceives."  The artist can only speak or create if the work appeals to him when he perceives it in the way it would to an ideal audience member?  The passage is followed by a quote from Matisse speaking of how a finished painting is like a new-born child it that it will take the artist himself time to understand (he must live with it).  The juxtaposition is odd since the complex relation of artist/object/audience is at least on first sight different from that between artist and new-born work. But the idea perhaps is that the object as new-born child is something that speaks to the artist who perceives it just as it would be to an audience member. 

The distinction between substance and form is between what is said and how it is said.  Does the substance come first and then the form or way of expressing it later?   No, for Dewey, the whole creative endeavor of the artist is “to form material so that it will be in actuality the authentic substance of a work of art.”  The material is not distinguished from substance in the final product.  Another way to put this is that you cannot separate the aesthetic value attached to sense materials from that which is attached to expressive form. 

Dewey goes on, contra Plato, to argue that beauty is not a matter of some form that comes down from a transcendent realm.  Rather it is “a name for the esthetic quality that appears whenever material is formed in a way that renders it adequately expressive….”  Form arises when “an experience attains complete development.”   Form is something that happens in this world, not in another.  In short, it happens when we have “an experience.”  This, of course, is in as much opposition to the formalism of Bell as to that of Plato.

In a way, Dewey synthesizes formalism and expressionism.  Yet his view is as different from the expressionist theory of Tolstoy as from the formalism of Bell.  Tolstoy, Dewey might argue, does not pay sufficient attention to form itself.  Both Dewey and Tolstoy see art as self-expression, but, for Dewey, the self is not isolated from the process or the product of expression.  Self-expression is not external to the thing expressed.  In elaborating his own notion of self-cxpression Dewey incorporates Kant's idea of the free play of the imagination and the understanding.  He speaks of the “free play of individuality” with its “freshness and originality” as necessary for creativity in art.  He observes further that the material of the work of art comes from “the common world,” but then the self “assimilates the material in a distinctive way.”  If the work is successful the viewers will similarly rebuild old materials in their own experience. 

Dewey discusses two ways in which the perceiver can go wrong.  One is to look at the work “academically” i.e. in terms of what is familiar and related to past art.  He can also look at it sentimentally and for illustrations.  That is, he could look at it as kitsch. But to perceive esthetically is to “create an experience of which the intrinsic subject matter, the substance, is new.”

Notice, then, that creating aesthetically is, contrary to Bell again, a matter of activity and something related deeply to subject matter as well as to newness.  It follows that a poem, or any other work of art, is a succession of experiences, and “a new poem is created by every one who reads poetically” since each person is individual and brings something of his or her own”:  “A work of art no matter how old and classic is actually, not just potentially, a work of art only when it lives in some individualized experience.”  So we distinguish between the work of art qua physical object and the work of art qua work of art.  The first is always identical, but the later is recreated over and over again.  To say a work of art is universal is not to say it is always the same but to say that it can be successfully experienced differently at different times in history and by different individuals.   This is made clear when we think that a musical score is actualized in a different way each time it is played.  A work of art as like a musical score in this respect.  We can see how radically different Dewey’s formalism is from that of Bell in his claim that form “marks a way of envisaging, of feeling, and of presenting experienced matter so that it most readily and effectively becomes material for the construction of adequate experience on the part of those less gifted..”  Form is a way of doing something on the part of the artist in relation to his or her materials and subject matter and in relation to the experiencer, the audience.  The form is a triadic relation, not a singular or a dual one.   

There is unfortunately a significant error in the Ross selection of Dewey.  The selection from Substance and Form ends on page 213 with “form and substance…”  The net paragraph is actually from the chapter “The Common Substance of the Arts” and continues on page 214.  The …. After “with ourselves” on pg. 214 is wrong since the next paragraph is the next paragraph in the text.  So the title “The Common Substance of the Arts” should have been on the previous page.

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