Dewey Out Loud

If it weren’t for the memory of the friend who gave me a copy of John Dewey’s Art as Experience I probably would not have worked all the way through it.

Its fourteen chapters are based on ten individual lectures Dewey gave at Harvard. Therefore any continuity or cohesion that one might desire from a book had to be crafted after the fact of these separate lectures. There’s a lot of repetition. Dewey’s ideas on what it means to have an experience, particularly as this relates to aesthetics, don’t seem extensive enough to require such elaboration. One needn’t demand continuity or cohesion from a book, but Dewey’s defects are glaring from page to page. From an aesthetic point of view Art as Experience is ungainly, awkward and difficult. It is not a work of art per se and I do not judge it as such, but I cannot understand why someone whose basic theme is that aesthetics inhere in all of experience could be such a lousy writer. It damages his thesis that he did not even seem conscious of the need to bring any aesthetic sensibility to the act of writing Art as Experience. For me, this contradiction overwhelms all other considerations.

The lectures were given at Harvard in memory of William James. In other words, Dewey spoke from the highest academic point of the pyramid. The book has never been out of print since its publication in 1934, and seems to be regarded today as a classic American text on aesthetics. Yet, strangely, Dewey’s knowledge of art stops at about the year 1900. While we see a few nods to Matisse, there is no mention of Surrealism or Picasso and very little mention of any piece of music or literature contemporary with the lectures. Already in his seventies when he gave the lectures, Dewey was apparently content with the 19th century knowledge that he had. However, it becomes a problem when he writes about sculpture. Dewey writes as if Brancusi had never been born.

Despite the omission, Dewey’s essential ideas on experience are intact. Still, the reader must contend with Dewey’s incongruous and confounding neglect of the craft of writing the book as an art experience. He is intent on impressing upon us the aesthetic component infused in the experience of drinking a cup of tea, yet where has it gone in the experience of writing—hence in reading—Art as Experience? Dewey was apparently blind to the desirability of a graceful prose-flow. Long passages are so laborious as to be virtually unreadable. Individual sentences are tortuous. His use of commas is confusing and at times maddening:

But in every experience, this complex, this differentiated and recording, mechanism operates through special structures that take the lead, not in dispersed diffusion through all organs at once—save in panic when, as we truly say, one has lost one’s head. (p 204)*

Why did he not simply write, but in every experience this complex, differentiated and recording mechanism….? And why is “head” italicized? Anyway, I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

He formulates murky metaphors, such as the one on “drawing” on page 96. And for someone who notes that, “Nowhere are comparisons so odious as in fine art” (p 321) his compulsion to synthesize the modes of various types of experience results in some odd comparisons—precisely in the fine arts. One of the weirdest appears on page 216. So Beethoven’s 5th and Cézanne’s Card Players mostly resemble…. rocks, and together evoke something like a “massive…. bridge of stone”. A bridge to where, one might ask? When I read this passage to my wife, a singer, she said, “Was this guy on drugs? I’m serious. Did they have LSD back then? Because people on LSD came up with weird shit like that.” Then she pointed out, with just a few words, that Beethoven’s symphony quickly develops into patterns that evoke quick-moving, dynamic phenomena that are not at all stone-like. I forget the few words she used, but I got her meaning quickly, along with the underlying sense that it was stupid to have to say it. At which point a Captain Beefheart song popped into my head.

I’m serious, too. Captain Beefheart’s floppy boot stomp is like a Masterlock compared to Dewey’s examples. Don Van Vliet’s way of singing lyrics that perfectly match the sounds of the band (“A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous”) perfectly interlocks language and sound. But one needn’t look past the mainstream for a perfect union of lyric and performance: The Spinners’ Rubberband Man will do. Beethoven’s 5th is not Cézanne’s Card Players is not a stone bridge, although rotten apples and oranges come to mind. For crying out loud.

Almost as maddening is that such absurdities appear alongside incisive statements, alternately, throughout all of Art as Experience. Here are a few of the latter:

What most of us lack in order to be artists is not the inceptive emotion, nor yet merely technical skill in execution. It is capacity to work a vague idea and emotion over into terms of some definite medium…. between conception and bringing to birth there lies a long period of gestation. (p 78)

The moments when the creature is both most alive and most composed and concentrated are those of fullest intercourse with the environment…. (p 107)

A work of art no matter how old and classic is actually…. a work of art only when it lives in some individualized experience. As a piece of parchment, of marble, of canvas, it remains (subject to the ravages of time) self-identical throughout the ages. But as a work of art, it is recreated every time it is esthetically experienced. P 113)

…. it is the office of art to be unifying, to break through conventional distinctions to the underlying common elements of the experienced world, while developing individuality as the manner of seeing and expressing these elements…. (p 258)

First hostile reactions to a new mode in art are usually due to unwillingness to perform some needed disassociation. (p 260)

A catholic philosophy based on understanding of the constant relation of self and world amid variations in their actual contents would render enjoyment wider and more sympathetic. We could then enjoy Negro sculpture as well as Greek; Persian paintings as well as those of the sixteenth century by Italian painters.

Whenever the bond that binds the living creature to his environment is broken, there is nothing that holds together the various factors and phases of the self. ( p 262)

Art is thus a way of having the substantial cake of reason while also enjoying the sensuous pleasure of eating it. (p 269)

Mind is primarily a verb. (p 274)

The perceiver, as much as the creator, needs a rich and developed background…. (p 278)

There is always a gap between the here and now of direct interaction and the past interactions whose funded result constitutes the meanings with which we grasp and understand what is now occurring. Because of this gap, all conscious perception involves a risk…. (p 284)

I like these passages quite a lot. Most of the book’s content can only be tied to views of art that have been outmoded for a hundred years. But these passages are still timely. Unfortunately, they’re just not enough to establish a special place for this book in my library. Art as Experience is an extremely laborious 360 pages to slog through to get the ideas on experience in it that are still resonant. I wish that people could learn to attune themselves to the aesthetic qualities of everyday experience and to realize how this is connected to the art experience, to know that life comes first and that art serves life. But I doubt this is the book to teach it in 2017. Dewey’s views on art, already old fashioned in his day, together with his own lack of artistry undermine his ideas. An elegantly written book would have been the first and best proof of them.


*John Dewey, Art as Experience, Perigee trade paperback, Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York (all quotes from this edition)

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