The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fineness, Greatness, and the Medium

Art as Experience
By John Dewey (1934)

Have you ever looked at a painting and marveled at the masterful technique used to create it – and, that was all you took away from it? I have. I’ve seen mind-boggling technically precise work that looked more like a machine produced it than a human. Every tiny detail is perfect and the entire work is nothing but tiny details. It’s apparent that the artist worshipped technique above all else. Yes, we do appreciate “fine” works of art like this, but they’re not “great.”

Yesterday’s post featured Dewey’s comment that art is fine, it is said, when form is perfected; but it is great because of the intrinsic scope and weight of the subject matter dealt with, even though the manner of dealing with it is less than fine.

We can extend this discussion to include the relative importance of the medium employed by an artist. What is it’s role? According to Dewey:
The medium is a mediator. It is a go-between of artist and perceiver. The artist has the power to seize upon a special kind of material and convert it into an authentic medium of expression.

Sensitivity to a medium as a medium is the very heart of all artistic creation and esthetic perception. Such sensitiveness does not lug in extraneous material. When, for example, paintings are looked at as illustrations of historical scenes, of literature, of familiar scenes, they are not perceived in terms of their media. Or, when they are looked at simply with reference to the technique employed in making them what they are, they are not esthetically perceived. For here, too, means are separated from ends. Analysis of the former becomes a substitute for enjoyment of the latter.

So, I would conclude that the weight of the subject matter trumps technique and medium.

What do you think?


Linda Roth said...

Always a woman of few words: me too.
Meaning trumps medium.

RH Carpenter said...

You really got to what lies, for me, between great and inspiring technique (how did they do that?? why did they do that??) and the feeling that overwhelms when looking at great art. However, mastery of technique does not mean there is no feeling in the painting. I once cried in front of an Andrew Wyeth painting, it was so beautiful. Of course, the technique was perfect but there was feeling to the painting, too.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, I think I'm getting what Mr Dewey is saying. I can see and agree with the idea that technique and media support the idea. The idea or meaning of a piece can elevate good art into greatness.

What I take away is that I want to work on technique and media so people don't trip over it to get to the good stuff: what I want to say.

Plus, this becomes a good way to look at great art!

hw (hallie) farber said...

Peggy's second paragraph is spot on.

Mark Sheeky said...


That robot looks cool. It's inspired me to seek drawing robots on YouTube.

Celeste Bergin said...

I am glad I am the type of artist I am--instead of one of those photo-real types! gah! slavishing toiling away on something in order to make it look more and more like a photo. I realize there is plenty of room in the world for all types of art--but photo real leaves me the coldest

-Don said...

I agree with Hallie, Peggy's second paragraph IS spot on. After reading it I realized I have nothing else I can add.