Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Dewey on the pervasive whole and the media of art

In his Art as Experience, specifically in his chapters on "Substance and Form" and "The Common Substance of the Arts" Dewey addresses the issues of medium and media.  In a way, this is a key to Dewey's way of thinking.  The medium is the material which is transformed in the creative process.  A good way to understand Dewey is in terms of the relationship between the public world, the creative process of the artist, the product, and the creative process of the audience.  The creative process can be seen as taking materials from the public realm translating them through the individual and then presenting the transformed product to the public again.  All of these things are organically connected.  For instance, Dewey tells us that "the work of art is complete only as it works in the experience of others." The audience's experience is required for the work to happen.  Dewey speaks specifically of the triad:  "the speaker, the things said, and the one spoken to" or the external object object, the artist and the audience.  In the creative process the artist acts as though she were the audience, and she responds to the emerging work as though spoken to by what she perceives, treating the work as if it were a new child to be understood, i.e. in order to grasp its meaning.  

Dewey suggests that matter does not come first in search of a form to embody it, but rather the creative effort of the artist is to form material so that it will be "the authentic substance of a work of art." We do not separate the aesthetic value of sense materials from that of the form that makes them expressive.  Beauty is not then seen as some transcendent essence in the mode of Plato that descends on matter from without, but as "the esthetic quality that appears whenever material is formed in a way that renders it adequately expressive."  Form, contrary to someone like Clive Bell, is something that emerges "whenever an experience gains complete development."  That is, it is a function of this three-way interaction.

We should not see the art product as a mere self-expression where the self is "self-contained in isolation" for, then, substance would be different from form.  But substance and form ultimately, and ideally, are one.  The self-revelation of the artist cannot be something external to what is expressed.  Self-expression is required nonetheless.  The reason for this is that the free play of individuality and any freshness or originality the work may have comes with this.  

Again, Dewey wants to give credit both to the public realm and to the individuality of the creative artist.  The material of the work of art comes from the common world. but self-expression exists because "the self assimilates...material in a distinctive way" a way that makes old material new, fresh and vital.  The self then also puts that material back out into the public world in the form of a created object.  If those who perceive this object also reconstruct this in their own novel experiences the result will be appropriately called "universal." The material cannot be private:  that would be solipsistic and the true solipsist would be considered mad.  It is rather the way that the common material is assimilated that is individual. 

So a work of art is only actually such when it "lives in some individualized experience," and is recreated every time it is experienced aesthetically.  Dewey uses the Parthenon as his example.  You cannot ask what its creator really meant and get anything of value since, first, he would have found different meanings in the work himself at different times in the creative process and even after completion of the work, and second, because artists generally mean by a work whatever the audience member gets out of it in virtue of his or her own vital experience.  The Parthenon continues to inspire new personal experiences and only this makes it universal.  Moreover, one could never experience it in the way a contemporary Athenian would have.  The work, or what Dewey calls the "substance," is formed in such a way that it can "enter into the experiences of others and enable them to have more intense and more fully rounded out experiences of their own."  As opposed to Clive Bell, the work as form/substance is "a way of envisaging, of feeling, and of presenting experienced matter so that it....becomes material for the construction of adequate experience" in the audience.  We just saw Dewey use the word form and the word substance, but in fact as can be seen here, he does not really distinguish the two.  His ontology of the artwork is simply this: "the work itself is matter formed into esthetic substance."  The critic or the theorist or the artist might distinguish between form and substance in terms of "the how" and "the what" of what is produced, yet the act is what it is because of how it is:  manner and content are integrated.

But what binds these things together?  It is the "pervasive quality" that makes the work of art. or any example of "an experience." a unified whole.  If a part does not have that quality it does not belong.  Again Dewey describes this in terms of sanity and the relation between the individual and the public realm.  An immediate sense of "an extensive and underlying whole is the context of every experience and it is the essence of sanity."  The insane is that which is "torn from the common context" and thus appears in a world totally other than our own.  All material requires setting to be coherent.  

It is here that Dewey seems to violate the principles of pragmatism itself since the work of art not only accents the quality of its being a whole but also the quality of belonging to a larger whole, which Dewey calls"the universe in which we live."  The "in which we live" is important here. Dewey is not speaking of the physical universe so much as of our lived universe, our world.  Each sentence of the paragraph in which this passage appears needs to be explained in detail.  The quality of unity which exists at these two levels explains "the feeling of exquisite intelligibility and clarity we have in the presence of an object that is experienced with aesthetic intensity."  It is more clear and intelligible, and perhaps even more intense, because of its harmonious situation within a larger unity. And this in turn explains why religious feeling accompanies such aesthetic intensity. 

This need not be a dropping off point for an atheist since Dewey is by not means positing a God.  He is simply pointing out the source of religious feeling and an aesthetic intensity accompanied by a sense of greater clarity when encountering great art or magnificent nature:  it is the background sense of a larger unity that is somehow harmoniously one with the pervasive quality of the work.  Oddly, the pervasive quality would not even be present without the background unity since the intensity of the pervasive quality depends on it.  Dewey speaks of us being introduced to "a world beyond this world" which on first reading might be seen as the transcendent realm.  But he makes clear this world is really just "the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences." We always live in a world.  We always experience things against a background which can be a larger whole or not. Dewey believes the "sense of an enveloping undefined whole" that accompanies every experience is clarified and deepened by the work of art, or rather, I suspect, by the great work of art. 

He speaks of this experience moreover as finding ourselves and as "an expansion of ourselves" insofar as satisfying aesthetic experience gives the world meaning that goes beyond mere egotism.  In this experience we become citizens of a vast world, and get a "satisfying sense of unity in itself and with ourselves."

Further, this sense of a "qualitative pervasive whole" is carried by the medium of the work of art insofar as a specialized organ, e.g. sight or hearing, touches the world.  A painting touches the world portrayed without the impurities of ordinary perception in which the other senses are involved.  And now color alone must "carry the qualifies of movement, touch, sound, etc.," that were present in ordinary vision.  This enhances both the expressiveness and the energy of color.      

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