John Dewey’s theory of art as experience states that it is not something separate from the rest of life to be put on a pedestal and analyzed in a sterile environment. Art is the exemplary human act of thenatural miracle of conscious creation, and co-creation with the observer/audience. As quantum physics demonstrates, the observer is an irreversible factor in the equation of collapsing reality into matter, from a wave to a particle, as so it is with the experience of art. Dewey invents a phrase to describe this dualistic phenomenon as the artistic-esthetic, defining artistic as the material output and esthetic as the intrinsic experience of that output.
Dewey states, “The forces at work are those that have removed religion as well as fine art from the scope of common or community life. The forces have historically produced so many of the dislocations and divisions of modern life and thought that art could not escape their influence.” Encapsulated in that quote is an indication for the perspective from which he explores the nature and role of art in human life. It almost sounds like an axiom from the pop-metaphysics meme “The Secret”, in which unseen forces or secret societies intentionally kept esoteric knowledge form the masses, in particular the universal law of attraction. As silly as it may sound in regards to art, I have to say it rings true, so I am willing to “try it on” as idea.
He points out that art and artists are, in modern times, less and less integrated into the streams of activity and flow of society, echoing many of the grumbles I have personally had about art and artisanship (or the lack thereof) and its rational connection to the degree of cultural health in society. Many societies of old and some remotely surviving today incorporate art into their everyday existence to enhance and make tangibly manifest the experience of that very existence through art. That kind of true integration is an illustration of Dewey’s theory at work. Art and craft together flow seamlessly with all the goings on of a culturally flourishing community, allowing all people a glimpse into the artistic process of the makers and therefore and active participant in witnessing art, thereby co-creating it.
“The forces” he speaks of that radically sever art from life are never fully clarified, but we can see that industrial conditions, consumer society, and a general cultural “dumbing-down” all play a part in the growing chasm between the public and the artistic/aesthetic experience. Ironically, even the academic theorists of art that are looked to for answers end up reinforcing the divide by placing art and the acts of art outside of the realm of everyday life and people, exacerbating the problem by encouraging a sort of contrived individualism by the makers of art to ensure a sense of esoteric independence and distinguish themselves as “true artists” according to the trending critical philosophies of the hour.
In this way Dewey differs form Collingwood as to the unique task of the artist, and with Bell as to where art should be placed within the context of living. Collingwood’s thinking would encourage the exaggerated individualism that Dewey warns of, and emphasis on a singular work of art’s importance and exclusiveness to the point of potentially contrived eccentricity. Bell would have us believe that only a chosen few are able to experience the world aesthetically, which keeps fine art away from the masses and set only for a predetermined cultural elite, also defined by other inevitably fallible humans who will always be limited by the context of certain values in which universality is impossible.
Art done for art’s sake is not separate from life or culturally elitist. It contains within it the rhythms and form found throughout nature and humankind. Like all of creation, it is done for the sheer joy of the experiential miracle that it is. Gaudi’s architecture conjures images of a divine chorus of magical children playing in the sands of Earth for the sheer fun of it. Like a cartoon of God’s hand and “his” coinciding amusement in the makings of the world, one can be the creator and the audience simultaneously, as all people have an inner voice as well as the silent listener. Joining the dance of conscious creation, one enters the stage Shakespeare refers to, in which we are all merely players, in the ultimate performance art piece. Life itself, using the structure of context and mediums of environment and circumstance, can be sculpted consciously into a creative masterpiece.