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Rachel Cohen


Passages: Dewey

Here are two passages I've been struck by recently in reading John Dewey's Art as Experience.  

(Perigree Trade Paperbacks, Berkeley Publishing Group, Penguin, originally published 1934, edition August 2005 p84, p98.)

Throughout the book, Dewey argues that esthetic experience is a heightening of every day experience, that all experience has, immanently, the possibilities of order and understanding that are reached in esthetic experience.  This continuity used to be more commonly felt and understood when many people were engaged in crafts, and when the arts had not become specialized, cordoned-off areas.  Dewey argues for re-establishing the sense of continuity between life and art:

The problem of conferring esthetic quality upon all modes of production is a serious problem.  But it is a human problem for human solution; not a problem incapable of solution because it is set by some unpassable gulf in human nature or in the nature of things.  In an imperfect society -- and no society will ever be perfect -- fine art will be to some extent an escape from, or an adventitious decoration of, the main activities of living.  But in a better-ordered society than that in which we live, an infinitely greater happiness than is now the case would attend all modes of production.  We live in a world in which there is an immense amount of organization, but it is an external organization, not one of the ordering of a growing experience, one that involves, moreover, the whole of the live creature, toward a fulfilling conclusion.  Works of art that are not remote from common life, that are widely enjoyed in a community, are signs of a unified collective life.  But they are also marvelous aids in the creation of such a life.  The remaking of the material of experience in the act of expression is not an isolated event confined to the artist and to a person here and there who happens to enjoy the work.  In the degree in which art exercises its offfice, it is also a remaking of the experience of the community in the direction of greater order and unity.  

In the fifth chapter, "The Expressive Object," Dewey presents a very helpful set of ideas about how the act of expression involved in making art and the esthetic experience of perceiving that art are related to the art that he calls "the expressive object."  In one nice passage he points out that "expressivity" by no means excludes abstraction:

Art does not, in short, cease to be expressive because it renders in visible forms relations of things, without any more indication of the particulars that have the relations than is necessary to compose a whole.  Every work of art "abstracts" in some degree from the particular traits of objects expressed.  Otherwise, it would only, by means of exact imitation, create an illusion of the presence of the things themselves.  The ultimate subject matter of a still life painting is highly "realistic" -- napery, pans, apples, bowls.  But a still life by Chardin or Cezanne presents these materials in terms of relations of lines, planes and colors inherently enjoyed in perception.  This re-ordering could not occur without some measure of "abstraction" from physical existence.  Indeed, the very attempt to present three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane demands abstraction from the usual conditions that exist.  There is no a priori rule to decide how far abstraction may be carried.... There are still-lifes of Cezanne in which one of the objects is actually levitated.  Yet the expressiveness of the whole to an observer with esthetic vision is enhanced not lowered.  It carries further a trait which every one takes for granted in looking at a picture; namely, that no object in the picture is physically supported by any other.  The support they give to one another lies in their respective contributions to the perceptual experience.  Expression of the readiness of objects to move, although temporarily sustained in equilivrium, is intensified by abstraction from conditions that are physically and externally possible.

I especially like "Expression of the readiness of objects to move."