Art As Experience: Book Club #2 | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios


OK, folks, I was about 20
pages into our current book club read, John Dewey’s
“Art As Experience,” when I realized
that very few of you were actually going
to read this book. Yeah, because it
is impenetrable. So we’re not going to pretend
that you actually read this. Instead, this is going to be the
most awesome kind of book club where we read the
books, and tell you what’s important with
no pressure for you to read it at all. I, I did not read it, actually. I read, I read about 20 pages. Well, I did. So let’s start out with a
little context about John Dewey. Yeah, so John Dewey
was a, uh, philosopher who was extremely
important in the school of American pragmatism. And he was
tremendously important, particularly in education. Like, part of the reason
that you go to public school is John Dewey. And you must remember that this
was published in 1934, which was quite a long time ago. A lot has changed. It was really
progressive at the time, but now there’s some stuff
that you have to overlook. Like the constant use of,
uh, “man” when he means human. It was very distracting
to me, because in almost every sentence of the book he
talks about the nature of man, or the will of man, or whatever,
and I just want to be like, or woman. So we’re going to spare you
a close reading of this book, and instead we’re going
to talk about some quotes and some big ideas. Because there are actually
really interesting ideas inside of this book, it’s
just that they’re disguised by, like,
80-year-old dead, cold prose. I’m sorry. I really did not like this book. So Dewey’s biggest
idea in this book is art is not just
the thing itself. Yeah, there’s a quote about
this. “The actual work of art is what the product does
with and in experience.” So what he’s basically
saying is a sculpture alone in a gallery isn’t
really artwork. It’s artwork when people go
in and they walk around it and they talk about it
and they experience it. And he also goes on
to describe, like, art not being an object but kind
of an intensified experience. Another big idea that I
think is really interesting that’s in the book is
that, uh, art should not be remitted to a separate realm. Like, when art is put into the
world of museums and galleries and seen as separate
from, like, regular life and regular people, it’s bad
both for art and for people. Right. And he blames this on a
lot of different things, like imperialism, and
sort of the loot of war, and capitalism, and
all of these things that have served to
remove art from life, take it out of our communities
and kind of box it up and put it in these
cold, dead museums. So Dewey’s arguing that when
you take these things out of life, out of their context,
they become less interesting. And so for Dewey, he’s
not at all surprised that people, most people,
aren’t that interested in art. And I think that that’s a
really fascinating thing to think about. And it used to be that you
didn’t have to convince people that art was important, at
least according to Dewey, because art was
just part of life. When it was masks, when
it was looking at the fire and seeing the shapes
that would develop, nobody questioned whether
that was important. One of the things I
can’t really understand is, like, what the difference
between art experiences and non-art experiences is. He doesn’t totally answer that. But in general, he says
that an art experience is an experience. Like, you say, like, well,
that was an experience, and it’s something that has
sort of unity and closure. And I don’t necessarily
believe that. I think there’s
a lot of good art that kind of acknowledges the
fractured and open-endedness of experience. I, I also, uh, have
some closed experiences that are definitely
not art, like watching Liverpool play West Brom. So one of the great things
about Dewey’s philosophy is that it’s completely
open to all of the arts. He talks a lot about music. He talks about dance. He talks about all
these different realms. And doesn’t sort of delineate
them into different worlds. And I think that’s sort
of an important and really progressive approach. So you’re saying that he could
think of Liverpool as art? Sure. So, Sarah, during the 20
pages of this book that I read, um, I would estimate
that the word “esthetic” was used perhaps 400,000 times. No, not that many. It was a lot. You exaggerate. It was a lot. But he does talk about it here. And he talks about it, I think,
in a really redeeming way that should make you reconsider
your aversion to the word “esthetic.” Um, but he says that “the
esthetic is no intruder in inexperience from without.” I’m reading that
quote in context and I still don’t
understand what it means. What, what does that mean? Well, he says that “the
word ‘esthetic’ refers,” as he’s already noted, “to
experience as appreciative, perceiving and enjoying. It denotes the consumer’s
rather than the producer’s standpoint.” So this goes back to that idea
of, like, not really existing until it’s out in the world. That the esthetic is
sort of, as opposed to like the artistic– for him,
artistic is about production and the esthetic is
about appreciating, or taking in the art. So the esthetic is
about me and, uh, like, what’s pleasing, or
interesting, or valuable to me as, uh, a consumer of art? That’s exactly right. And he says also that
receptivity is not passivity. Even a book is not “lean
back entertainment,” as we like to call it. Like, it involves
your participation even if you’re not,
like, physically moving. But you’re thinking,
you’re interpreting, you’re sort of filtering it
through your own experience. And so art requires
people to be receptive, and that is not the
same as being passive. That’s good. I like– you’re
right, I like that. But then there’s
also other stuff in the book about how,
like, art is the greatest thing that man– always
man, never woman– can do, and like it’s the end
goal of manhood itself. And I, I just don’t
know that I, I buy that. Like, there’s the quote
“art is the living and the concrete proof
that man is capable of restoring
consciously, and thus on the plane of meaning, the
union of sense, need, impulse and action characteristic
of the live creature.” It’s a little much for me. Yeah, it’s, it’s
seductive, and I, I want to believe
it but I just don’t. It’s like, it’s too perfect. He goes on to say 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 want and custom, perfect the power to perceive.” I mean, that’s very beautiful. It is. And I hope that
art can do that. Yeah. Art when it’s amazing
I think does do that. I mean, I want art to do that. I want art to sort of make us
all realize that we are human and we do have things in common,
but we also don’t in a lot of ways. Right. I also want art to be– Our experiences are
so varied that it, it’s hard to be that optimistic. Yeah, I want art to reflect
the diversity of experience and the ways in which
we are different as well as the ways in
which we’re the same. Yeah. And I think a powerful
part of this theory is that he says that
art, art is important and it’s a part of our life. It shapes us and that
it’s not removed, it’s not a separate thing,
but it’s just integrated. Yeah. I think too often we see art
as, like, over here and math as over here. Yeah. And what he’s
saying is that art is part of being human, an
important part, and also, uh, a part that you can’t get
rid of, even if you want to. Oh boy, was reading
this book an experience. Yeah, uh, one that I don’t
particularly want to repeat. Speaking of which,
Sarah, I, I really found the ideas in
this interesting, but it was presented to me in a
totally inaccessible way which made me think that maybe
if you could make, uh, videos for me about this kind
of stuff it would be helpful. Like for instance,
why I should, uh, like or be interested in a
particular artist’s work– like, say, Andy Warhol. I could do that. Yeah. I think that would be great. OK. Let’s try that next
time. (WHISPERING) I’ll never read this again. On the off-chance that
you did read this book, let us know what you
thought about it. You are my hero. And even if you didn’t,
let us know what you think of Dewey’s ideas. Thanks for watching.

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