Tuesday, September 1, 2015

John Dewey "The Live Creature"

The first chapter of Art as Experience appears in part Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions.  This is where Dewey tells us that understanding fine art requires a detour into the aesthetics of everyday life.  Most people today who are working on everyday life aesthetics go at it from a different angle, and so it is worthwhile to be reminded that Dewey himself was interested primarily in the dynamic relationship between everyday aesthetic phenomena and the refined experiences of fine art.  He recognizes that he is extending the concept of the aesthetic when he applies it to the experience of someone who is standing before a fire and poking the burning wood, or the experience of the housewife tending to her plants.  But he also believes this is necessary in order to uncover the vast material upon which the refined experiences of fine art are ultimately based.  In a way, he is engaged in a critique of modernity and calling for a partial return to earlier ways of dealing with the world.  When he does talk about something widely regarded as a great work of art, for example the Parthenon, he calls on us to try to re-experience the way in which this building met very specific needs of the people of Athens, needs that did not fit into the compartmentalized notion of art.  He speaks of the role that the Parthenon played in the civic religion of the people of Athens and how they experienced it in terms of that role.  For Dewey, the Parthenon is only aesthetically valuable insofar as it is experienced by human beings.  Theorizing about the republic of art of which the Parthenon is part requires moving beyond personal enjoyment to consideration of the social context of its origin.  But this is not to be seen as a mere sociological inquiry.  Rather, and this is the surprising conclusion of the paragraph, the theorizing critic needs to consider what the Athenians, both creators and appreciators, have in common with us, i.e. with "people in our own homes and on our own streets" i.e. with the average individual in the modern world.  Gadamer would say that this is a matter of fusion of horizons, but again the point is what we can learn from our understanding of the Athenian experience of the Parthenon about how to approach the theory of art.

This reference to people in our homes is the transition to the paragraph in which he talks about the importance of aesthetics "in the raw" i.e. the "sights that hold the crowd."  The Parthenon as "civic commemoration" contrasts quite dramatically with our contemporary fascination with such sights.  We are not engaged in civic commemorations of the sort we find in the Panathenaic procession when we appreciate, as Dewey encourages us, the "human fly climbing the steeple-side."  This, instead, is just the kind of thing that is commemorated in the socially engaged art of Dewey's own time, for example in popular photography of Life magazine.  

So, although we may be engaged in a civic commemoration when we appreciate this kind of thing, it is a very different kind, one that is not connected with a specific ritual, or even with something truly communal.  I said earlier that Dewey is engaged in a critique of modernity, but it is not total.  There is something of the love of modernity in this fascination with the urban world, with, e.g. "the fire engine rushing by" and with the individual's response to this sight.  There is also something democratic in Dewey's inclusion of the "housewife in tending her plants" and the "mechanic engaged in his job" under this expanded conception of the aesthetic.  What we have is a call for a return to satisfactions that would have been made available to us by "earlier craftsmen" insofar as the "conditions of the market" fail to encourage sufficiently the kind of "artistically engaged" action of the "intelligent mechanic."  But we do not have a call for a return to civic religion. 

Another feature in this modified critique of modernity is a certain amount of praise extended to the Athenians for having their various arts be parts of a "significant life of an organized community" in which painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, music and so forth are all organized together to consummate "the meaning of group life."  The opposite of the compartmentalized conception of fine art which we find today is one in which the arts work together, and also in which they work together as part of "group life." 

What Dewey wants to call us back to is the "intimate social connection" that has been "lost in the impersonality of a world market."  What we need in our own time are aesthetic perceptions that "are necessary ingredients of happiness" rather than "compensating transient pleasurable excitations."  Clearly this happiness is closely tied to the notion of intimate social connection.

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