Discovering in the materiality of the world that a work of art is not what it seems.
Reading by Benoît Labourdette of an extract from John Dewey’s book, “Art as experience” (Gallimard, Folio Essays 534, 2008. Translation coordinated by Jean-Pierre Cometti). Beginning of the first chapter “The living being” :
Through one of those ironic perversities that often accompany the course of things, the existence of works of art on which the development of an aesthetic theory depends has become an obstacle to any theory about them. One reason is that these works are products that possess an external and physical existence. The work of art is generally identified with the building, the book, the painting or the statue whose existence lies outside the human experience. Since the true work of art actually consists of the actions and effects of this product on experience, this identification does not promote understanding. Moreover, the very perfection of some of these products, the prestige they possess because of a long history based on unquestioned admiration, create conventions that hinder a new look at the works. Once an artistic product is recognized as a classical work, it is somehow isolated from the human conditions that governed its creation and the human consequences it generates in real life and experience.
In order to understand the meaning of artistic products, we must forget them for some time, turn away from them and resort to the ordinary forces and conditions of experience that we do not generally consider aesthetic. We must arrive at a theory of art by taking a detour. For theory is concerned with understanding, penetration, and not with cries of admiration and the stimulation of that emotional outburst that is often called appreciation. It is quite possible to appreciate the colourful shapes and delicate scents of flowers without having any theoretical knowledge about plants. But if one is to understand the flowering of plants, then one must learn about the interactions between soil, air, water and sun that condition plant growth.
In order to understand aesthetics in its accomplished and recognized forms, one must begin to search for it in the raw material of experience, in events and scenes that capture man’s auditory and visual attention, arouse his interest, and give him pleasure when he observes and listens, such as shows that fascinate crowds: the fire engine going by at full speed, the machines digging huge holes in the ground, the silhouette of a man, as tiny as a fly, climbing the spire of the bell tower, the men perched in the air on beams, throwing and catching up with incandescent metal rods. The sources of art in the human experience will be known to the one who perceives how the alert grace of the ball player wins over the crowd of spectators, who notices the pleasure that the housewife feels in caring for her plants, her husband’s concentration in maintaining the square of grass in front of the house, the enthusiasm with which the man sitting by the fire pokes the wood burning in the hearth and looks at the flames as they flare and the pieces of charcoal disintegrate. These people, if asked about the reasons for their actions, would undoubtedly provide a very reasonable answer. The man who poked the burning pieces of wood would then say that he was doing this to fan the flames; but he is nevertheless fascinated by the colourful drama of the change that is taking place before his eyes and that he takes part in it in his imagination. He does not remain indifferent to this spectacle. What Coleridge said about the poetry reader is somehow true of all those who are quietly absorbed in their mental and bodily activities: “The reader should be drawn forward, not by an impatient desire to reach the ultimate end, but by the journey, source of pleasure in itself”.