A Living Web In Three Dimensions — Dewey’s Philosophy of Art and Experience
Dewey lays out his theory of aesthetics and its core belief that art is experienced and derived from the mundane with simple clarity in the opening paragraphs of “The Live Creature.” He believes that when art is declared as fine art by critics, it cuts the work from the twin tethers of context. First, by divorcing the work from the individualized experiences and emotions of its creator. Second, by placing it as a unique item of extraordinary value and thusly removing it from the natural flows of the world. In doing so, the work is irrevocably damaged and loses its capacity to elicit and encourage novel experiences for those that interact with it. For Dewey, art cannot thrive in a vacuum. It must be understood as a receptacle for the experiences of all its creators. Experiences that are tied to emotions and natural cycles of all living creatures. Art could then be considered as crystallized feeling or event, a mirror made from the experiences of its creators.
To understand art, we must understand the time in which it was created and the purpose it was created for. The Parthenon was built as a gathering place and to commemorate the wealth and power of the Athenian city-state. Even today, it serves its purpose to remind us of that great and fallen empire. Without understanding this, one might think of it as simply a place of worship. Had Athens not been near the height of its power, it would never have had the resources to devote to such a structure. Without context, we lose our ability to fully experience and understand the work.
Declaring a work as “fine art” and placing it in a museum is an effort to preserve art from experience by removing it from the mundane world. This mistake is derived from a misunderstanding of how to recognize art. For a curator, art is derived primarily from historical context. The age of the work, who created it, and its value over time are all major factors in defining the work as “art.” For Dewey, experience is the context and continuum in which art exists. What emotions inspired the work? What does the experiencer of the art feel? Is a perfect baguette, the culmination of thousands of attempts, any less a work of art than the ceiling of a chapel? In short, no. Both are the reflection of the experiences of their creators. Both are created to be interacted with by those in the everyday community. One to inspire delight, one to inspire awe. Either one could be described as a single point in a lifetime of works and experiences. Better yet, as a tangent experience in the continuums that make up the experiencer and the creator.
Dewey’s understanding of experience is based in the dueling concepts that it can never be an individual act, but at the same time is a uniquely personal thing. The former is a simple enough concept since our experiences are always in relation to someone or something else. The latter requires a view of the individual to not take the form of a point, but instead to be a continuum. Like the 1000th loaf of bread, every individual is not simply what they appear to be or are experiencing at this moment but is instead a summation of every experience they have had: a continuum from birth until death. This concept is key to understanding the use of art as a crystallization of a specific experience. A single point influenced by a million events leading up to its creation. Great art is therefore created from those experiences with an outsized impact on the creator. Art is very rarely a literal replication of whatever occurred, but instead a representation of the feelings or emotions that surrounded a specific impactful experience. Since the viewer can never truly understand the creator’s experience, a great work instead seeks to evoke similar feelings in the viewer. In its ideal form, a great work of art is a memorable experience from its creator preserved so that when another experiences the work, it becomes a similar experience for them.
The greatest works are not those with perfect technical detail, but those that create the most impactful experiences with their participants. For Dewey’s aesthetics, the Mona Lisa was not a great work upon conception. It was surely a technical masterpiece, but it took centuries of theft, scandal, praise, and envy to make it into a great work of art. Like a flower fed by the rain above, the seedling of the work’s early life was fed by the emotions and experiences surrounding it. It grew from a simple token of wealth to become a representation of France’s cultural power. It is in this way that each and every work of art is a living thing. A live creature of emotion and experience birthed from the creator’s experiences and fed by all those who come upon it and don’t just see it, but experience it.
Armed with a more animate understanding of art, we can now begin to grasp how art is created process of collective experience over time. Since art develops without a set beginning or end but rather exists as an entity in the infinite continuum of our collective experience, the most powerful and greatest works are those derived from the most common experiences. The more universal the experience that inspires the work, the more difficult it becomes to translate into art. It is therefore the work of a true master to create something that satisfies the aesthetic hunger for experience of the masses. This is in direct contrast to the popular definition of fine art, with which the many have no emotional relation and little capacity for experience. Such works are seeds that cannot germinate, for they lack the subsistence of emotion and experience required to do so.