The Laws of Nature

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Failed Theories and Context

Art as Experience
by John Dewey (1934)

Image: sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy

Our good friend Casey was correct when he stated that Dewey is THE man when it comes to authority on this subject. So, let’s explore this book a little more. As you know, I’m not covering it chapter by chapter because it’s encyclopedic in scope. Rather, I’m cherry-picking quotations that I think will give rise to interesting discussions here. So far, Dewey has ignited a firestorm!

So, here’s more to consider: The theories that attribute direct moral effect and intent to art fail because they do not take account of the collective civilization that is the context in which works of art are produced and enjoyed. I would not say that they tend to treat works of art as a kind of sublimated AEsop’s fables. But they all tend to extract particular works, regarded as especially edifying, from their milieu and to think of the moral function of art in terms of a strictly personal relation between the selected works and a particular individual. Their whole conception of morals is so individualistic that they miss a sense of the way in which art exercises its humane function.

Go for it!

P.S. If you’re new to this blog and haven’t read the posts and comments from the past two days, please do. My readers made awesome comments! Please feel free to join in and WELCOME!


Mark Sheeky said...

Well, humanity IS individuals. I expect that most artists paint for themselves. Some maybe just for a market or one individual. Probably not many artists create art for society. Even Diego Rivera probably painted his political art for himself. If an artist sees something that needs commentary, he might comment, but it would be rather arrogant and big headed to comment at or for society.

Mark Sheeky said...

or art has no moral function for anyone except the artist. Other functions are merely interpretations.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I'm following--took me a while to figure out "MFOA."

Casey Klahn said...

Har har - I gotcha there. The Moral Function of Art.

I'm over at my blog writing a post @ this topic in the context of my current topic.

Mostly, I wish I had already read this book. maybe I can get it to play aloud on my PC while I do housework this week.

I'll comment some more later, too.


Casey Klahn said...

Here's a window into Dewey's thinking: Art is morally powerful because it is indifferent to moral praise and blame. This is not a direct quote, but a synopsis, or review, of his philosophy.

-Don said...

Sorry, but I'm still exhausted from yesterday's discussion. All extra energies must be conveyed to the canvas in front of me right now. I'm still following along, though.


Dan Kent said...

I think this is awfully interesting. Whereas yesterday (or the day before) we concluded that Dewey was saying that the individual had to follow his own truth without regard to the reaction of society, here Dewey says that to solely focus on the relationship between the individual and the work of art is a mistake. He seems to both focus on the artist as a product of his or her civilization, and the art itself as a product which reaches out to society to exercise a "humane function", whatever that function may be.

This must be some tough book to read. Two sentences and I'm exhausted.

Unknown said...

Hi All - you're making some important distinctions that we should further explore. My take on Dewey's quotation is that individual works of art should always be placed in the context of the society and time in which they were created. To impose moral values from a different time and society would be to misinterpret the art itself. Additionally, we tend to select historical works of art as paradigms that represent our present set of morals and sensibilities, even if the art didn't represent them at all when it was made. The individual artists of these works would, therefore, be attributed with embuing a particular moral meaning to their works that they never intended. But, can we ever control what others will do with our work after we've created it and died?

This is great ... keep going.

Dan Kent said...

OK I lied, I'm not exhausted, I'm energized. I am addicted to these discussions.

Before I read your comment, Kathy, and during my morning jog I came up with the idea that perhaps the distinction between the two quotes you selected is point-of-view.

The first is from the point-of-view of the artist who must leave expectations of society out of the equation, and the second is from the point-of-view of society itself, and how society must not focus entirely upon the artist-art relationship.

After reading your comment, Kathy, although I understand that we must interpret historical artworks in the context of the time and society of its creation (although we are probably doomed to inadequacy in this regard based upon our limited understanding of that other time and place), it seems to me that the art of another place and time also reaches to our society to exercise a "humane function" that we may use as we wish in our place and time. I'd be interested to know what Dewey envisions this humane function to be.

I also do not think that today's quote is limited to historic works or works in other societies.

Robin said...

I have been sucked into this discussion and love it but have to admit, it gets too heady for me at times. As much as I care about the way Dewey explains, questions, and stimulates our ways of viewing art and artists, moral functions, context and theories, the bottom line for me is I am addicted to making art in order to live my life to the fullest. I wish I had chosen to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or one of many other professions, but my passion for life put me here. Aside from all of the mental turbulence this blog has brought me this week (and I mean that in a really good way), it also somehow tied into my willingness to explore painting in new ways and I think I did a pretty good job pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Not sure if it's a moral motivation, or a response to a theory, it just happened. Thank you everyone for that.

Anonymous said...

I'll admit, I'm lost.