Art as Experience: John Dewey on Why the Rhythmic Highs and Lows of Life Are Essential to Its Creative Completeness
By Maria Popova
“Artists have no choice but to express their lives,” Anne Truitt wrote in her penetrating reflection on the crucial difference between being an artist and making art. This creative inevitability is at the center of artistic endeavor and has been articulated by a multitude of humanity’s most celebrated artists. “Every good artist paints what he is,” Jackson Pollock asserted in his final interview.
So why, then, do we so readily reduce works of art to objects and commodities, forgetting that they are at heart transfigurations of lived human experience?
My recent conversation with Amanda Palmer about patronage and the future of art reminded me of Art as Experience (public library) — a terrific little book by the pioneering philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (October 20, 1859–June 1, 1952), based on a series of ten lectures he delivered at Harvard in the winter and spring of 1931, in which he addresses this very question.
In the opening essay, titled “The Live Creature,” Dewey argues that by reducing works of art to material products — paintings, buildings, books, music albums — we forget that “the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience.”
Considering the need to “restore the continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings” of the human experience, he writes:
When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance… Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.
In order to understand the esthetic in its ultimate and approved forms, one must begin with it in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of man, arousing his interest and affording him enjoyment as he looks and listens: the sights that hold the crowd — the fire-engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in air on girders, throwing and catching red-hot bolts. The sources of art in human experience will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd; who notes the delight of the housewife in tending her plants, and the intent interest of her goodman in tending the patch of green in front of the house; the zest of the spectator in poking the wood burning on the hearth and in watching the darting flames and crumbling coals.
The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged.
What severed this intimate relationship between art and experience, Dewey argues, is the rise of capitalism, which removed art from life by making it a commodity of class, status, or taste. He writes:
Objects that were in the past valid and significant because of their place in the life of a community now function in isolation from the conditions of their origin. By that fact they are also set apart from common experience, and serve as insignia of taste and certificates of special culture.
[This is] deeply affecting the practice of living, driving away esthetic preconceptions that are necessary ingredients of happiness, or reducing them to the level of compensating transient pleasurable excitations.
Art in its proper form, Dewey suggests, transmutes the common activities of human life into matters of aesthetic value. Any theory seeking an understanding of art must therefore be concerned with understanding the larger ecosystem of experience from which art springs. In a sentiment that calls to mind Richard Feynman’s memorable “ode to a flower” — a parallel that exposes the common ground between true science and true art — Dewey observes:
Flowers can be enjoyed without knowing about the interactions of soil, air, moisture, and seeds of which they are the result. But they cannot be understood without taking just these interactions into account — and theory is a matter of understanding.
It is a commonplace that we cannot direct, save accidentally, the growth and flowering of plants, however lovely and enjoyed, without understanding their causal conditions. It should be just a commonplace that esthetic understanding — as distinct from sheer personal enjoyment — must start with the soil, air, and light out of which things esthetically admirable arise. And these conditions are the conditions and factors that make an ordinary experience complete.
Dewey’s most salient point — a point that applies not only to art but to our deepest sense of ourselves as agents of aliveness — deals precisely with this question of completeness. Life, like art, is never complete without what he so poetically calls “all the rhythmic crises that punctuate the stream of living.” Our creaturely destiny is intimately entwined with the realities of nature, and nature is forever oscillating between mutually necessary highs and lows. Echoing Nietzsche’s immortal wisdom on why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, Dewey writes:
The career and destiny of a living being are bound up with its interchanges with its environment.
Life grows when a temporary falling out is a transition to a more extensive balance of the energies of the organism with those of the conditions under which it lives.
These biological commonplaces are something more than that; they reach to the roots of the esthetic in experience. The world is full of things that are indifferent and even hostile to life; the very processes by which life is maintained tend to throw it out of gear with its surroundings. Nevertheless, if life continues and if in continuing it expands, there is an overcoming of factors of opposition and conflict; there is a transformation of them into differentiated aspects of a higher power and more significant life… Here in germ are balance and harmony attained through rhythm. Equilibrium comes about not mechanically and inertly but out of, and because of, tension… Changes interlock and sustain one another. Wherever there is this coherence there is endurance.
In a sentiment that calls to mind children’s literature patron saint Ursula Nordstrom — “That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist,” she wrote in her beautiful letter of encouragement to a young and insecure Maurice Sendak, “wanting to make order out of chaos.” — Dewey adds:
Order is not imposed from without but is made out of the relations of harmonious interactions that energies bear to one another. Because it is active…order itself develops… Order cannot but be admirable in a world constantly threatened with disorder.
For only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living. And when the participation comes after a phase of disruption and conflict, it bears within itself the germs of a consummation akin to the esthetic.
The artist — that is, the creatively whole human being — is one who embraces this harmonious interplay, with both its positive and negative energies. Dewey writes:
Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension. He rather cultivates them, not for their own sake but because of their potentialities, brining to living consciousness and experience that is unified and total.
Speaking to what Alan Lightman would so lyrically term the “creative sympathies” of art and science many decades later, Dewey considers the deep commonalities beneath the surface contrasts between these two modes of understanding human experience:
In contrast with the person whose purpose is esthetic, the [scientist] is interested in problems, in situations wherein tension between the matter of observation and of thought is marked. Of course he cares for their resolution. But he does not rest in it; he passes on to another problem using an attained solution only as a stepping stone from which to set on foot further inquiries.
The odd notion that an artist does not think and a scientific inquirer does nothing else is the result of converting a difference of tempo and emphasis into a difference in kind. The thinker has his esthetic moment when his ideas case to be mere ideas and become the corporate meanings of objets. The artist has his problems and thinks as he works. But his thought is more immediately embodied in the object. Because of the comparative remoteness of his end, the scientific worker operates with symbols, words and mathematical signs. The artist does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in, and the terms lie so close to the object that he is producing that they merge directly into it.
With this, Dewey returns to the indelible interchanges between the human animal and its environment, out of which arises the experience that becomes art — experience that encompasses the full spectrum of darkness and light, ever-flowing into one another. He writes:
Direct experience comes from nature and man interacting with each other. In this interaction, human energy gathers, is released, dammed up, frustrated and victorious. There are rhythmic beats of want and fulfillment, pulses of doing and being withheld from doing.
All interactions that effect stability and order in the whirling flux of change are rhythms. There is ebb and flow, systole and diastole: ordered change… Contrast of lack and fullness, of struggle and achievement, of adjustment after consummated irregularity, form the drama in which action, feeling, and meaning are one. The outcome is balance and counterbalance.
This dance of balance and counterbalance, Dewey reminds us, is the beauty of life and a function of life’s singular conditions — it is possible neither in a world of frantic flux without rhythm, nor in a static world calcified into immutability:
In a world of mere flux, change would not be cumulative; it would not move toward a close. Stability and rest would have no being. Equally it is true, however, that a world that is finished, ended, would have no traits of suspense and crisis, and would offer no opportunity for resolution. Where everything is already complete, there is no fulfillment… The live being recurrently loses and reestablishes equilibrium with his surroundings. The moment of passage from disturbance into harmony is that of intensest life. In a finished world, sleep and waking could not be distinguished. In one wholly perturbed, conditions could not even be struggled with. In a world made after the pattern of ours, moments of fulfillment punctuate experience with rhythmically enjoyed intervals.
Inner harmony is attained only when, by some means, terms are made with the environment.
But because the highs of life are so intoxicating — from the scintillating sensory pleasure of the perfect chocolate cake to the deep gratification of professional achievement — we sell ourselves short of completeness, warping this vital rhythm by tipping over into excess, which is invariably deadening to the spirit. A few years before Henry Miller’s timelessly insightful meditation on how the hedonic treadmill of material rewards entraps us, Dewey admonishes against this deadening effect of reaching for further and further highs while running from the lows:
Happiness and delight … come to be through a fulfillment that reaches to the depths of our being — one that is an adjustment of our whole being with the conditions of existence. In the process of living, attainment of a period of equilibrium is at the same time the initiation of a new relation to environment, one that brings with its potency of new adjustments to be made through struggle. The time of consummation is also one of beginning anew. Any attempt to perpetuate beyond its term the enjoyment attending the time of fulfillment and harmony constitutes withdrawal from the world. Hence it marks the lowering and loss of vitality. But, through the phases of perturbation and conflict, there abides the deep-seated memory of an underlying harmony, the sense of which haunts life like the sense of being founded on a rock.
Perhaps this rhythm is what Edith Wharton meant by “unassailable serenity.” Its supreme mastery lies in fully inhabiting the present, which requires learning to befriend the pitfalls of our past and the uncertainties of our future — that is, learning to live with our imperfect and fragile humanity. Dewey captures this beautifully:
The live creature adopts its past; it can make friends with even its stupidities, using them as warnings that increase present wariness… To the being fully alive, the future is not ominous but a promise; it surrounds the present as a halo. It consists of possibilities that are felt as a possession of what is now and here. In life that is truly life, everything overlaps and merges.
This merging of experience, Dewey argues in delivering his central point, is the wellspring of art:
The happy periods of an experience that is now complete because it absorbs into itself memories of the past and anticipations of the future, come to constitute the esthetic ideal. Only when the past ceases to trouble and anticipations of the future are not perturbing is a being wholly united with his environment and therefore fully alive. Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reenforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is.
Art as Experience is a terrific read in its totality, containing ten equally insightful meditations on various aspects of creativity. Complement it with Jeanette Winterson on what art does for the human spirit and Anne Truitt on what sustains the artist, then revisit Dewey’s abiding wisdom on the key to finding a fulfilling vocation, the art of fruitful reflection in the age of information overload, and the true purpose of education.
Published February 11, 2016