Art as Experience

A quick academic post today.

As part of the day job, I have been doing some reading for a scholarly article I am writing about the Body Shop Quilt which has featured so much on this blog for so long.  In fact, I think I need to organise a separate permanent page for it.  Note to self.  For my published academic work, I have been looking at what people say about using art as a research technique, and it always seems very wooly and declamatory to me without that much actual evidence for its big claims.  As a contrast I turned to John Dewey’s famous work, Art as Experience, which was orginally published in 1934.  Very roughly, Dewey claims that art is a natural part of human existence and that we are all art-makers by inclination, but that economic forces have changed the role of Art to the point where it is now a special activity practised by Artists.  Art, he says has become separated off from everyday life and made into a special category of activity.  In a fascinating passage very early on in the book he sort of predicts the rise of tacky game shows and reality tv:

When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of art seem anemic to the mass of people, esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar. (p. 4)

But a bit further on he says something which I think will ring true for anyone doing arts-based research and is a real challenge to how we think of ourselves.  He says that artists have been made special and excluded from ‘the main streams of active interest’ (p. 8) and that this leads to a pronounced form of individualism (Dewey sees art and the collective going hand in hand).  This in turn leads to artists seeing what they do as ‘self-expressionism’ – which is incidentally, how Lady Gaga defined art in an interview I read with her this week.  Anyway, Dewey writes:

In order not to cater to the trend of economic forces, they often feel obliged to exaggerate their separateness to the point of eccentricity.  Consequently artistic products take on to a still greater degree the air of something independent and esoteric.  (p. 8)

I thought this was a fantastically succinct statement of the position I find myself in.  The economic forces in play around me are of a highly positivist nature and I find myself insisting on my separateness, even to the point of eccentricity that Dewey suggests.   I don’t fit the mainstream of empirical research based on interviews and case studies and hard data.  I often describe my research as being at the bonkers end of qualitative research, and I complain to my boss (although he wouldn’t see himself in that role) that there are very limited opportunities for people who do the sort of work I do because it is so unusual as to be incomprehensible – even though non-academics often really like it.  Because the mainstream does not understand or welcome what I do, I exaggerate my own specialness, my self-expression, to the point of presenting myself as an outsider and an eccentric.  Dewey knew what he was on about.

So, even though I find his prose quite hard to read (styles have really changed since the 1930s) I was almost physically jolted in my seat when I read this.  A voice from the last century exactly describing my experience of the twenty-first.  It was as another twentieth-century artist, Bob Dylan, put it as though it were ‘pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul, from me to you…’

Seeing through new eyes, seeing familiar things afresh, accounting for experience through theoretical understandings.  All these things are what I think education is about.  Mind you, that also makes me slightly eccentric.  So I wonder if that makes my teaching art.  Better stop right there, I think.

3 thoughts on “Art as Experience

  1. during childhood i met several adults who wanted desperately to force me into the special individualist category becase i was what they thought of as “clever” (used in the derogatory sense) and arty – they made me uncomfortable. they themselves revelled in thier own lack of imagination (I’m thinking very specifically of one of my grandmothers friends and a girlfriend of my fathers) and cultivated a sort of wilfull stupidity and ignorance almost as a form of self expression of the basest kind – perfect reality tv fodder, in fact. I’m afraid I came to think of them as slightly less than human, becuase the more I learned about human history the more i came to think of the urge to create as one of the defining characteristics of humanity itself. I can’t help thinking that a lot of popular culture, by lowering the common denominator further than one would have imagined possible, is taking something away from what makes us human.

    not sure am making sense, shouldn’t try to type first thing in the morning, need breakfast

    1. Your comment makes me think of my own family who sometimes had an inverted snobbery about anything cultural. I remember one of them glaring at me and announcing Shakespeare was rubbish and throwing me a defiant look. I blame our divide and rule class and education system, which is alive and well and the divide part is getting bigger!

  2. I think the education system would improve if it went back to divide and rule with some sort of grammar school system again – thick kids get so much help but even the gifted and talented program in schools does very little. Maybe I’m feeling a bit jaded tonight as this morning I was In a primary school in one of the rougher areas, and no matter how hard the teachers try they can’t erase the permeating influence of chav culture the children get from home. Whne they see someone in costume even well behaved kids will try and get your attention – I’ve learned to ignore knocking on classroom windows – but at this school they never give up and usually start hurling insults through the window within five minutes or so of being ignored. At the same school five year six boys once decided to move my vehicle, they just shoved at it and moved it about six feet.

    hmmm…personally i think a lot of shakespeare is a bit mediocre – often what he was plagiarising was more entertaining. it depends heavily upon who is performing it but I dont think the best actor in the world could change my mind about romeo and juliet, it has long topped my personal list of worst plays ever written. I did a four week acting shakespeare at rada a few years back, and the abysmal student version we were forced to sit though didn’t help change my opinion very much! Its mainly the plot I have problems with as my cynical side always thinks they’re both better off dead at the end, cos if they lived juliet would be knocked up and locked up in romeos pallazo within the year, whilst he’d be out catching the pox from some harlot

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