The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Art as Experience: The Moral Function of Art

Art as Experience
by John Dewey (1934)

We’ve had a lively discussion here over the past week and in the last post I polled my readers to see how many of you would prefer to continue the open discussion forum versus book review discussions. Most of my long-term readers encouraged me to continue the books reviews, so I will. However, I hope that you'll continue to feel free to discuss whatever concerns you about art. We learn from each other.

Over the past week I’ve been reading John Dewey’s seminal book on art theory entitled Art as Experience (1934). This book is based on Dewey’s lectures on aesthetics at Harvard, and is considered the most distinguished work ever written on the topic. You might think that it’s too dated since the book was written so long ago, but that’s not the case. He deals with timeless issues in the broadest sense.

I can’t begin to review this book in its entirety because it would take years. However, I would like to spend a week or two considering Dewey’s ideas on the things the most interest us.

I’ll begin by citing Dewey’s belief that the moral function of art itself is to remove prejudice, do away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, and perfect the power to perceive.

We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog discussing the definition of art, but we haven’t explored the moral function of art. Perhaps it’s in that function that we may find a definition – one that encompasses the entire spectrum of what it is we deem as “art.”

In considering the moral function of art, we can also flip over this coin and explore what would be an immoral dysfunction of art (did I express that correctly??). By contrast, art would become dysfunctional if it’s confined by bias, intellectual blindness, tradition, and lack of imagination.

But, are we ever completely free of our biases and traditions in artmaking? Should we be free of them? Do these hamper or facilitate the progress of art (e.g. innovations)?

Is there a better description for the moral function of art?

Here’s something we haven’t yet considered on this blog. What do you think?


Claire said...

to quote wassily kandinsky: 'art has much in common with religion' - not least, i think, a moral dimension. i think you're spot on with your observations, esp. re. 'bias, intellectual blindness, tradition, and lack of imagination'! i'll be interested to see how the discussion develops...

M said...

This post is stretching my sinus addled brain this morning. Dewey presents a convincing argument for the moral function of art. This is not really an area I've given conscious thought to so I'm embracing the discussion that I know will evolve from this post.

I think Dewey's definition adds dimension to my previous questioning of serious art versus fluff and how we know the difference.

I'd like to focus on prejudice.
To remove prejudice can be examined on so many levels. It is in the hands of each artist as they go about creating their own work to remove prejudice, but prejudice abounds in the art world in general and we have little control over much of it.

Some examples that come to mind include:rejudice in the usual sense of the closed minded perceptions of race, deed, religion etc.; prejudice regarding what is worthy of art comment; prejudice in judging what has transpired through art history; prejudice in comparisons of the careers of artists; prejudice in the writing of art critics and art curators. The list goes on . I look forward to hearing the comments of others.

Linda Roth said...

Why is it so important to come up with an absolute definition of Art when it's so obvious Art covers a broad spectrum of expressions of the human condition--morality being just one? When we attach words to a painting, they always sound like so much huey--afterthoughts. Paintings express what can't be expressed in words. The Scream, Evard Munch, is my favorite morality painting--and I don't have to read the title to get horror.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the artist need worry about the moral implications of their work because if their work is authentic to them, their moral intent will be evident.

On the other hand, when an artist makes a conscious effort to be moral or deliver a message, it can come off as placating, insincere, bland and self indulgent.

The essence of the artist always makes it to their work, morality need not be forced or coerced or pointed out to the viewers.

Living here in the Bible Belt, I know too well how people use "morality" as a weapon. I can only assume that approach works because so many people buy into it. I would hope the artist could rise above such trickery.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - I think Dewey is referring to the moral obligation of art in general rather than the morality of the individual artist. There's a distinct difference between the two, although you could argue that the ultimate goal of the artist is to meet the moral obligations of art in their own practice. However, the type of morality that Dewey lays out is different from the moral codes establishsed by religions. Rather, it appeals to us to be more broad-minded and open to all the possibilities. That's inclusionist thinking. Religions are usually exclusionistic. At least - that's my take on it.

Robin said...

Morality to me means honesty. If we are honest in our intentions, then we are true to the creative process. I had to google the definition of morality to make sure I wasn't drifting off base:

–noun, plural -ties for 4–6.
conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct.
moral quality or character.
virtue in sexual matters; chastity.
a doctrine or system of morals.
moral instruction; a moral lesson, precept, discourse, or utterance.
morality play.

Aren't artists notorious for being rule-breakers, possibly crossing the line if their art takes them there? I think it's most important to be honest with our intent regardless if it's defined as moral or not.

Anonymous said...

I see the difference of what you are saying Kathy.
Moral implies "right". In this sense, I don't think art has a moral function.
I'll give it more thought.

Unknown said...

Hi Robin - I think there's a difference between "moral" and "morality." The definition that best fits Dewey's concept is "according to common standard of justice: regarded in terms of what is known to be right or just, as opposed to what is officially or outwardly declared to be right or just." I think he's saying that art has its own moral code outside of the institutionalized codes. If we consider his statement as the latter then I think we miss his meaning altogether.

In writing "the moral function of art itself is to remove prejudice,etc" Dewey isn't asking art to dictate morality or to even constrain the artist to any rule of conduct other than removing the blinders and expanding our vision.

At least, that's my take on it.

Casey Klahn said...

Maybe one description of removing prejudice is revealing, or providing revelation. Certainly art has a message, but I think it is a reflection of the individual artist's ethos. Well, I guess the same could be said for a group of artists who agree.

I'm not sure I can target someone else's "prejudice" and remove it, though. I like the topic of a moral function of art, and it does raise questions.

Casey Klahn said...

I like how Linda identified a painting (The Scream). I recently posted about Käthe Kollwitz, but it soon became clear that there was no consensus on her message. Ambiguity in the audience, if you will.

I'm going to think of another artist or artwork for this. I'll let you know.

Robin said...

I appreciate your explanations, Kathy. Your take on all of this helps me understand better. Would you agree that creating art and part of it's moral function is to reflect our society and what is happening in the "right here/right now sense? Kind of a little bit of zen in the interpretation. Art can teach us and explain emotions, make social commentaries, and document historically in a way that words can not. I think this conversation has me wondering what motivates me to make art and if there needs to be a deeper meaning to it all!

Unknown said...

Hi Robin, You ask the most interesting questions! I don't think that part of art's moral function is to reflect the current society. The artist may chose to do so, but I don't believe it's a moral function because that would contradict what Dewey says about broadening our view and taking off the veil. What if we choose to connect the past to our present, or the past to what we think will be the future, and so on? I think Dewey was adept at avoiding "shoulds" and "coulds" and creating a specific context for our work. But, that's just my take on it.
Thanks all for this intriguing discussion!

Carolyn Abrams said...

I just read "Art's true function is to inspire us, mirror our thoughts, and embody our emotions. When words are not enough, we turn to image and symbol to speak for us. They are a conduit to all we contain within and a way of reflecting and recounting where we have been, where we are, and where we are going." c.malchiodi

I'm thinking that if we all create art this way and our viewers/listeners perceive it this way then the question of prejudice is moot because there is open mindedness on both ends.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I think artists are very sensitive and feel injustice in their bones. Maybe Casey's right--with no attempt to fix anything; artists just reveal their view. That view can make others stop and think.

Linda Roth said...

Casey, A couple of other painters who painted morality pictures: Goya,(Time; War 3 are excellent examples); Picasso's Guernica; Rockwell's The Problem We all Live With--the little black girl being walked to her new, all white school in Alabama.

Then something else occurred to me. I think painting has lost it's effectiveness with regards to morality since the times of Hawthorn, Shaun and Dewey. I think computers and digital cameras, albeit film, holds the moral high-ground now. Three movies came immediately to mind: The Boy in The Stripped Pajamas; Apocalypse Now; Saving Private Ryan. Then just think of the anti-war photographs we've all seen since the Nurse was lifted above the crowds in Time Square by sailors home from war to stay.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, I just got finished viewing the Picasso exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. It has paintings representing most of the periods in the artist's life. I think the moral function of art is there in all that work I saw today. The power is overwhelming and I can't quite put my finger on it. Such moral courage to express!

Dan Kent said...

I think Peggy has it right when she talks about the power of Picasso. What Dewey is saying is this: See truth, and have the courage to express what you see.

Celeste Bergin said...

Here's a great story that I heard in college that illustrates "the moral function of art". During WWII Gestapo would simply walk in anywhere they wanted day they walked into Picasso's studio. There was a printed card laying on a table of Picasso's "Guernica" (screaming people and horses, Guernica depicts German bombs dropping on an innocent fishing village). A Gestapo reportedly held up the card and said to Picasso (with distain) "so....did you do this??" and PIcasso answered....." did."

-Don said...

What an excellent discussion! I'm blown away by everyone's comments and insights. Coming in so late to the discussion gave me a chance to read everyone's comments and relate them to the original citing of Mr. Dewey's belief. Now I'm going to approach it a little differently...

I think the words 'moral' and 'prejudice' at the beginning of the sentence caused a bit of distraction to what he's saying. I think the meat of the sentence is "... do away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, and perfect the power to perceive".

While reading the whole sentence I thought of Manet's "Olympia". This is a painting that was really not THAT different from Titian's "Venus of Urbino" or Giorgione's "Sleeping Venus" - which were venerated as classics. However, because Manet directed the model's gaze towards the viewer and added symbols of position and sensuality to the composition it was considered vulgar and immoral. Thankfully Manet had some advocates who could appreciate what he was doing. I think Emile Zola put it best by writing "When other artists correct nature by painting Venus they lie. Manet asked himself why he should lie. Why not tell the truth?"

Look at what Cezanne did with the picture plane while breaking down objects to their base shapes of cylinders, cubes and spheres. By doing "away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing" he started something that ended up causing others to perceive things differently leading to major shifts in the world of art like Cubism and Fauvism. Prior to creating in the style he developed, Cezanne's "veil of wont and custom" had been torn away by the Impressionists who came before him.

OK, that's enough for now...


Casey Klahn said...

Yeah, Don. Very good. I would differentiate "truth" in art from this conversation - that's just me. Nuances of difference.

The big difference I see from Munch and the ones you list, Linda, is that the Picasso, Goya and N Rockwell images have a political undertone, and they lose power for me. I do love those works, but Munch has everyone screaming, not just the choir.

As far as Picasso, you might love his Guernica message, but do you agree when he gives the UN the same treatment in the Korean Conflict? Ugh. He was such a jerk.

Getting past politics, this is a stimulating post. Can't wait for more, and I'm still after my moral artist. Maybe A Wyeth, with his pathos about human conditions, emotions and isolation/connection. There's a fellow for you - I think I choose Groundhog Day for an example.

-Don said...

Casey, I like your "nuances of truth" observation. I would venture that to "remove prejudice" helps us find the "truth". So, does this mean that "the moral function of art itself" is to help us find the truth?


-Don said...

Oops. I meant to quote Casey correctly. I like his "nuances of difference" observation.

That's what I get for trying to sound intelligent before the caffeine kicks in...


Unknown said...

Casey and Don - I'm very interested in where you're headed with this. I agree with Casey about separating "truth" from the rest of this conversation. To me, truth has always been a plural word: "truthS." Each artist has her own truth because our situations and viewpoints are so different. You might argue that there's one universal truth, but that's a philosophical argument that has numerous counterarguments and they're all human constructs.

Casey, I had to smile when I read about your search for a moral artist and named Wyeth (Andrew, I assume). I read a lengthy biography about him - it was authorized and the condition was that the author be completely candid - and in it Wyeth admitted to being a compulsive liar. He pretty much told people what they wanted to hear. However - I don't think he was deceptive in his art. There seems to a personal truth represented in each piece - or, is there? Only Wyeth could know that. And, this could be said of any artist.

As for "moral" - this all began with Dewey's assignment of a moral "function" for art and not a definition for the artist's morality. Nevertheless, I like the direction this conversation has taken and will keep up with it!

Thanks, all.

Linda Roth said...

I love Ground Hog Day Casey! I can watch it over and over and over again.

Francis Bacon had a few things to say about the bleakness of the human condition. And Daumier wasn't too fond of lawyers. Lots of painters with lots of worldly opinions.

I just reviewed what I drew and painted the most over the last ten months. My paintings had nothing worldly to say about the human condition. The significance of the subjects most repeated was private.

When I want to make a political or moral statement about the human condition, I reach for my pen. I'm great at e-mail and writing letters to editors, congressmen and senators. I like my opinion to be clear and precise with no chance of doubts about what it's about.

Linda Roth said...

Post Script: who said I loved the paintings I mentioned. I didn't. Of all of them, The Scream is the best. --but I do get a kick out of Daumier's treatment of lawyers and heartedly agree.

As for Picasso, he was a showman. He took art and blew it wide open (for better or worse). Some of his works were crap, not crafty, in person--studio doodles. Guernica was big. something to see before it was shipped back to Spain. Good? Elaborate composition. He was flamboyant, a womanizer, knew how to play up the celebrity. And in that alone, his work is suspect.

-Don said...

I think my quote from Zola has confused what I was trying to say. I really wasn't trying to bring "truth" into this conversation. What I was trying to get across is that Manet helped change the way people saw art. He put his craft and his reputation on the line by attacking the mores established by the powers-that-be in the French Academy. I was actually trying to reinforce Kathy's statement of art becoming "dysfunctional if it's confined by bias, intellectual blindness, tradition, and lack of imagination".

If you look at art which has stood the test of time you'll find artists who were willing to express themselves through the passion of their craft while following their muse instead of the status quo. Look what the Renaissance masters did. Look what the Realists did. Look what the Impressionists did. Look what the Expressionists did. (I could go on, but you get the idea.) I think every one of those artists were believers in the "moral function of art" as Dewey defined it - whether they would have defined it that way, or not.


Anonymous said...

LW wrote about Picasso: "He was flamboyant, a womanizer, knew how to play up the celebrity. And in that alone, his work is suspect."

Uh... YIKES. I don't agree with that premise at all.
Picasso wasn't an angel. But that doesn't make his art less than or more than.
I realize it's not always possible to separate out the personality from the product, but don't judge the product on "perception" of personality alone.