I concluded the last blog by observing that Eisner’s succinct ‘Tweet-like’ list lacks any reference to the significance and importance of context, and by saying that the arts are nothing without context. What does this mean?
As I believe Eisner did, I also owe a big debt to the American philosopher, and committed educationalist, John Dewey. In his major work on art in 1934 – Art as Experience – Dewey argues against very specific and fundamental boundaries, the sorts of boundary that radically separate people and their worlds. Prevailing ideas determine contexts.
Artistic thinking (the sort of thinking involved in making art) and aesthetic thinking (the sort of thinking involved in receiving or appreciating art) are deeply rooted in the fact that we are bodily creatures with a long evolutionary past. Unlike other thinkers who saw ‘Art’ as essentially transcendent, up there and beyond everyday life, Dewey saw it as rooted in our biological and social lives. Dewey was born in the same year as Darwin published his great On The Origin of Species, 1859. The best of contemporary evolutionary thinking supports Dewey in arguing that the earliest roots of artistic, and aesthetic thinking, go back to our evolutionary ancestors, the Australopithecines, at least two and a half million years ago.
Dewey opposes the ways in which our Western culture tends to compartmentalize life. He argues that many of the boundaries that we take for granted in our thinking about ourselves, about what we are and do as human beings are mistaken – like the idea that there is a boundary or separation between ‘mind’ and ‘body’, or the idea that ‘thinking’ is detached from ‘feeling’, or that ‘I’ am separate from ‘my world’. These are distinctions, he says, that come after we start thinking about things. Before we start reflecting on things we are first, and most of the time, ‘one’ with the world, unified with it.
It is only when we come to think about ourselves that we introduce distinctions like ‘thinking and feeling’, ‘reason and emotion’, ‘mind and body’. Dewey’s was, and remains, a radical position, and a very important one for arts education and for arts educators. To understand it we have to stop the very kind of thinking that is built into our everyday language and common sense. Not an easy thing to do, but rewarding and liberating when you can manage it.
Dewey argues that the particular value of art is that in its making, and in its reception, all aspects of ourselves are involved and required – our seeing and hearing and bodies generally; our abilities to feel and allow our emotionally-charged thinking to be shaped by what we are encountering; our values in that what we care about matters in a film or a poem, or not; our memories in that our recollections of aspects of our own lives are pulled into play; our capacity to imagine in that we find ourselves wondering or fearing or wishing for what might happen next; our abilities to critically think and compare in that we can ask how successfully or otherwise the work that this art demanded of us was worthwhile or satisfying. Good ‘Art’, in other words, involves the most complete kinds of experience that human beings can have or, more accurately, can be part of. Everything about a person may be called into play in intense and transformative ways if, that is, the art that makes the person work – which is the better meaning of artwork – is of high quality. We should also remember that just as there is bad science so also there is bad art! That is why we need to keep our critical wits about us.
A phrase I have always found helpful (I first read it decades ago in a book by Jacque Barzun called The Use and Abuse of Art) is that art involves knowledge of the world whereas science involves knowledge about the world. Like the great American psychologist and philosopher William James (Henry James’ brother and a great influence on John Dewey) I think that these tiny little words, prepositions like ‘of’ and ‘about’, play a huge role in our thinking. They deserve more attention than they get.
More on this in Blog 3.