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Saturday, August 25, 2018

Dewey’s Philosophy of Aesthetics

John Dewey
The central feature of John Dewey’s philosophy of aesthetics is its naturalism. In his popular book on aesthetics Art as Experience (1934), he attempts to develop an understanding of art on basis of man’s natural needs, experiences, psychology, and activities. The essence of art, he notes, lies not in the final work of art, but in the experiences of nature which inspire the creative process, and the dynamic activity through which art is created and observed.

In the first chapter, “The Live Creature,” he points out that there is a connection between the aesthetic experience and the processes of living. The live creature for him is man, and he notes that an aesthetic theory can only be developed through a study of the sensory interactions between man and his environment. He writes:

“Nature is the mother and the habitat of man, even if sometimes a stepmother and an unfriendly home. The fact that civilization endures and culture continues— and sometimes advances—is evidence that human hopes and purposes find a basis and support in nature. As the developing growth of an individual from embryo to maturity is the result of interaction of organism with surroundings, so culture is the product not of efforts of men put forth in a void or just upon themselves, but of prolonged and cumulative interaction with environment. The depth of the responses stirred by works of art shows their continuity with the operations of this enduring experience. The works and the responses they evoke are continuous with the very processes of living as these are carried to unexpected happy fulfillment.”

For Dewey, all art is the outcome of interaction between the living organism and the environment, and it entails a reorganization of energies, actions, and materials. In chapter 7, “The Natural History of Form,” Dewey talks about the formal conditions of art being rooted in the world itself:

“Interaction of environment with organism is the source, direct or in-direct, of all experience and from the environment come those checks, resistances, furtherances, equilibria, which, when they meet with the energies of the organism in appropriate ways, constitute form. The first characteristic of the environing world that makes possible the existence of artistic form is rhythm. There is rhythm in nature before poetry, painting, architecture and music exist. Were it not so, rhythm as an essential property of form would be merely superimposed upon material, not an operation through which material effects its own culmination in experience.”

He goes on to point out that “the larger rhythms of nature are so bound up with the conditions of even elementary human subsistence, that they cannot have escaped the notice of man as soon as he became conscious of his occupations and the conditions that rendered them effective.”

The rhythms of nature give rise to various sensory experiences and inspire men to perform activities that are conducive for their flourishing, and also inspire the rhythms that we find in art.

“Because rhythm is a universal scheme of existence, underlying all realization of order in change, it pervades all the arts, literary, musical, plastic and architectural, as well as the dance. Since man succeeds only as he adapts his behavior to the order of nature, his achievements and victories, as they ensue upon resistance and struggle, become the matrix of all esthetic subject-matter; in some sense they constitute the common pattern of art, the ultimate conditions of form. Their cumulative orders of succession become without express intent the means by which man commemorates and celebrates the most intense and full moments of his experience. Underneath the rhythm of every art and of every work of art there lies, as a substratum in the depths of the subconsciousness, the basic pattern of the relations of the live creature to his environment.”

According to Dewey, art can serve as common bond for humanity as it speaks the universal language of nature. In chapter 14, "Art as Experience," he suggests that art can facilitate greater cooperation and peace in society. “Instruction in the arts of life is something other than conveying information about them. It is a matter of communication and participation in values of life by means of the imagination, and works of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living. Civilization is uncivil because human beings are divided into non~communicating sects, races, nations, classes and cliques.”

Much of Dewey’s views on aesthetics is probably dated—his ideas have been contested by the analytic and the postmodern philosophers.

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