Joseph Swenson, "Experience in Context: Revisiting Dewey"

Sunday, May 23, 2010

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[Below Joseph Swenson, a grad student affiliate in Philosophy and recipient of a Unit for Criticism travel grant last fall, writes about his conference paper on Dewey's theory of aesthetic experience]

Experience in Context: Revisiting Dewey

Written by Joseph Swenson (Philosophy)

In October 2009 I presented a paper at the 67th Annual Meeting for the American Society for Aesthetics in Denver, Colorado. I had never presented a paper at this particular society and so I will admit I felt a bit giddy upon arrival—whether that giddiness was due to an atmosphere of anticipated intellectual intensity or simply a mile-high atmosphere slightly deprived of oxygen, I do not know.

But what I do know is that these engagements are always exciting for grad students. You get to meet some of those theorists you spent all that time reading and discussing in hushed, reverent tones in the back corners of Champaign coffeehouses. You also get to check out whether these people are as good in person as they are on paper. You even occasionally get to notice that they are human beings: that is, you notice things like they are just as capable of drinking one too many glasses of wine at a reception as anybody else and they stand just as much of a chance of spilling mustard all over their shirts from those weird conference hors d’oeuvres as you do. Most of all, you are pleasantly surprised that they are often quite friendly and even remember how important conferences like these are for those of us still early in our careers.

While the ASA is primarily a philosophical organization, it was nice to see a number of different presenters from different fields on the conference schedule. I attended a lot of good papers ranging from technical questions about the ontology of art to Jane Adam’s contribution to
pragmatist aesthetics. My particular paper was an attempt to defend the U.S. philosopher John Dewey’s account of aesthetic experience against the charge that Modern Art has made it obsolete.

The idea behind this Modernist claim is that works like John Cage’s moments of performative silence, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, and, above all, the granddaddy of all problematic Modern works—Duchamp’s Fountain—cannot be incorporated into tra
ditional accounts of aesthetic experience. Why? Well, perhaps the most basic reason is that an ordinary urinal and Duchamp’s urinal appear to be experientially identical to one another and so one is forced into the rather weird inference that either both are objects of aesthetic experience or that neither is. Since most people do not want to consider their daily forays into the restroom on the same qualitative plane as their enjoyment of a painting by Caravaggio, many philosophers in the 20th century began to reject the concept of aesthetic experience when talking about Modern art particularly, and even in regard to art generally.

Perhaps this rejection is justified for many traditional accounts of aesthetic experience that still cling to a rather narrow and empirical conception of what "experience" entails. Dewey’s account, however, is hardly subject to such problems of narrowness; and so I pleaded with my audience not to lump him together with traditional accounts of aesthetic experience. One of the great benefits of Dewey’s theory in comparison to such traditional theories is that Dewey is contextual to the core. Experience always takes place in a context and that context is not only comprised of a physical environment but also a context of history, culture, various normative schemes, and even the context of one’s own personal narrative. If this idea is taken seriously, or so I argued, then there are quite distinct contextual differences between our experience of Duchamp and our experience of a restroom. Duchamp’s work is able to be experienced aesthetically not by virtue of some extra-empirical property it possesses which makes it art, but because of the evaluative attitudes it invokes by virtue of its contextual placement.

To put this in different language,it might very well be the case that modernity and techniques of reproduction can deprive artworks of their "aura" (as Walter Benjamin famously argued), but we should not forget that "aura" can just as easily be re-instituted by their re-contextualization within different normative contexts and evaluative schemes. Why even something as drab as a urinal can become something it could never have been prior to its re-contextualization: shocking, revolutionary, inspirational, voted by many to be the most significant work of art in the 20th century.

I, for one, take some solace in the redemptive idea that any chunk of the world, in principle, can become an object of aesthetic experience. If any of you, like me, happen to have a number of such "chunks" squirreled away in various drawers and boxes for sentimental reasons, the broader practical implications of this kind of argument hopefully go beyond the experiential redemption of a urinal and towards a richer conception of what it means to say that we value something.


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James Jeffries said...


Thanks for posting this and giving philosophy a presence in the Kritik blog. I basically agree with your thesis: some kind of aesthetic experience can always be drawn on as a criterion in an account of art. I'm still a little puzzled why even the old "non-contextual" accounts have such trouble with this. If it is pointed out that even a Caravaggio can be used as kindling for a fire, this shouldn't serve as a counterexample. Art never forces some kind of experience on us; we have to take up what it has to offer in a particular way. The point is, of course, that the experience of the urinal in a bathroom and the urinal in an art exhibit is never identical.

That said, I wonder (cf. Heidegger) what is added by the painting of peasant's shoes that we couldn't get from just looking at the shoes in a particular context. Anything?


Anonymous said...

Dear James,
Thanks for your post. Well, I think one of the reasons most non-contextual accounts of art have trouble with aesthetic experience is because they tend be overly essentialist in their understanding of aesthetic experience. If an essentialist theory of aesthetic experience claims that it is the sole and specific function of art to generate aesthetic experience then some trouble arises when that art-object is perceptually/empirically identical to something that is not-art (the urinal in the restroom.) Given that ‘experience’ here is pretty much reduced down to apprehension of perceptual features of an object it seems that either both urinals are art or neither are art. Or to put it more grandly, it appears that either one must choose between some kind of romanticized aestheticism that claims the world itself is a work of art or one must become a stodgy analytic reductionist who claims that aesthetic experience is just some kind of pseudo-concept that never really existed in the first place. The latter route—denial—has tended to be the direction the philosophy of art has been moving for the last fifty years or so.

I think the great benefit of recovering Dewey’s account of aesthetic experience is that he claims that the choice between all or nothing when it comes to aesthetic experience is simply a false choice. Artworks are not the sole generators of aesthetic experience. They are just particularly good at promoting experiences that allow for new meaningful identities to emerge. But such experiences happen in life as well. I just finished a really fantastic sandwich and also a section of my dissertation today—both of which gave me a sense of meaning, satisfaction and completion that are exemplary of Dewey’s sort of aesthetic experiences. In this way, aesthetic experience allows for deep and meaningful continuity between art and life. But this need not mean that the concept of ‘art’ and ‘life’ amount to the same thing. We have a variety of social practices and attitudes that effectively demarcate art from life by way of definition. But this contextual definition goes beyond merely the fact that the physical urinals are placed in different spatial locations and that different performative functions normally attend to each object.

For the ‘context’ in question is not merely physical or a matter of ‘empirical perception’ (whatever that is) but is also historical, theoretical, and, quite often, personal. I bring different pro-attitudes and evaluative stances to the urinals I encounter in galleries than to the urinals I encounter in restrooms. This allows new predicates to be ascribed to art-gallery urinals (shocking when compared to some other modern artwork) and a new space of evaluation to open up that is not often found in our everyday dealings with that other mass-produced object. This does not mean that such predicates cannot exist in real life—it is just their opportunities for emergence become less common. In fact, I really think if we always brought the pro-attitudes towards art proper to all the everyday objects in the world, all the time, I don’t think that would amount to some angelic form of worldly aestheticism but probably grounds for being institutionalized.

Anyway, so in my longwinded way, I take Heidegger suggestion in the ‘Origin’ essay that a painting of a peasant’s shoes opens a ‘world’ to be very similar to the claims made by Dewey. The shoes are placed in an evaluative context that allows for a new meaning to emerge from them—presumably the ‘meaning’ of the beauty and truth of simple pious country living in opposition to the cold technological morass of modernity—that perhaps, while also in the actual instrumental shoes, is left unacknowledged or unnoticed if the shoes are merely thought of as functional footwear.


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