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Experience as Medium: John Dewey and Parker Day In his book, “Art as Experience” published in 1934, John Dewey analyzes the theory of aesthetics and asks the following questions: How can our everyday treatment of the subject become the creative form that we call art? How can our enjoyment in everyday life situations become pleasurable experiences that we can deem unequivocally aesthetic? Strictly speaking, how do people through their own experiences and perceptions construct reality and give meaning to their everyday activities? Dewey does not separate understanding of art from understanding the human condition. It originates from the lives that artists live and the conditions and cultures that surround them. He argues that when you set art apart from life, it loses its power and just becomes a lifeless thing. “When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human condition under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience” (Dewey 3).
Although these questions seem philosophical in nature, they are in fact reflections of practical problems which are the result of cultural and technological changes. This is even more relevant today in an ever-increasing information society and specifically when considering the creation of new media art. Dewey’s philosophical pragmatism can be seen in the approach of innumerable new media artists today. The participatory, process-oriented and inclusive nature of new media art requires this mode of thinking which Dewey understood decades ago. Los Angeles based photographer, Parker Day, is one artist who exemplifies Dewey’s theory of “Art as Experience” and builds upon it by constructing the elements of what she finds in the everyday experience of her subjects and herself. Her “ICONS” photography exhibition addresses identity construction through super-saturated, elevated versions of existing realities and modern everyday life constructs. This paper argues that although Day and Dewey differ in their conceptions of art, they share the philosophies that art cannot be separated from the everyday, that art is transformative, and that art originates from the culture that surrounds it. art should not be removed from everyday life John Dewey believes that the arts should not be removed from our everyday lives.
How it works
Dewey insists that there is a continuity between a refined experience of works of art and everyday activities and events. If we are to understand aesthetics, we must begin with the events and scenes of daily life. He asserts that art has aesthetic standing only as it becomes an experience for human beings, as it intensifies the sense of immediate living, and as it accentuates what is valuable in enjoyment. Dewey believes art begins with happy absorption in activity and those who do their work with care, such as artists, scientists, mechanics, or craftsmen are artistically engaged. Like Dewey, Parker Day believes that art begins with the events and scenes of everyday life in order to reach a deeper, more meaningful and enjoyable art experience. In her photography exhibition, “ICONS”, Day drew inspiration from her own experiences and what resonated in her everyday life and the lives of her subjects to create works which explore constructed identities. Day’s approach to her art resonates with Dewey’s rejection of the classicizing of art.
Dewey makes it clear that he sees a problem with classicising art works of any form of placing them aside as untouchable objects in galleries and museums. His philosophy is an attempt to shift the understandings of what is important and characteristic about the art process from its physical manifestations in the “expressive object”, to the process in its entirety; a process whose fundamental element is no longer the material work of art but rather the development of an experience. This theory stood in opposition to other aesthetic theories presented for example, by Kant or supporters of German Idealism, which historically favor classicized or “high art” over “popular art”. Dewey’s criticism of these existing theories is that they sever art’s connection with everyday experience and separate it from community life. Such theories actually do harm by preventing people from realizing the artistic value of their daily activities and the popular arts (movies, jazz, comic strips, etc.) that they most enjoy and drives away the aesthetic perceptions which are a necessary ingredient of happiness. Day has grappled with this very idea on her own and ultimately, maybe unknowingly, shifted her understanding to align with Dewey’s intention. Her realization embodies the importance and validity of Dewey’s philosophy which necessarily rejects historical attitudes toward what constitutes art. The idea that the components of art are not accessible or that they could not be made of everyday experience would render artmaking prohibitive to Day and many new media artists. “I got real with myself about what I liked and what I had to offer (namely freaky friends, thrift store clothes, studio lighting and a living room to shoot in, and a passion for color) [sic]” (Day). Day’s style is the result of being completely honest with herself about what she values. She explains how “I used to think I needed so many things I didn’t have in order to be successful – high-end equipment, agency models, new designer clothes, a top notch creative team – but those were all obstacles I had invented, so I recognized that and released that way of thinking” (Day).
Instead, now Day creates the environments and characters she envisions, shooting almost exclusively on film with no retouching after scanning her negatives. She takes Dewey’s assertion that art has aesthetic standing only as it becomes an experience for human beings. She intensifies it with a sense of immediate living and accentuates what is valuable in its enjoyment. Where she diverges from Dewey is in the conception of her work. In addition to using the everyday experience in her work and the generally Deweyian philosophy toward artmaking and its accessibility to both artist and audience, she expands on this with complex constructions that bring out elaborate narratives in her work. It’s not just about the everyday. Day’s art uses those components to elevate the everyday and create art that is a point of discussion for these ideas. When building the portraits of her subjects, Day creates a dialog with her models, piecing the elements together in collaborative efforts of costuming, make-up, and props. “I like to be very improvisational and give room for the unexpected to creep in. It’s in my nature to lead but I love welcoming new ideas and am happy to take a step back to let someone else’s brilliance shine” (Day). This genuine process of fabrication allows Day to indulge in elaborate narratives and create art that is accessible to her and her audience. In addition to gallery shows, she makes her art available through social media and the internet. Such a change in emphasis of accessibility does not imply, though, that the “expressive object” has lost significance, but instead it’s importance is recognized as the primary site for discussion of the processes of experience and serves to unify these experiences. “We must recover the continuity of aesthetic experience with the normal processes of living. It is the duty of the theorist to make this connection and its implications clear. If art were understood differently by the public, art would gain in public esteem and have wider appeal. The task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience” (Dewey 10). Creating a wider public appeal and representing a broader scope of experience is central to the work of Parker Day’s “ICONS”. The exhibition focuses upon the malleability of identity, the construction of it and how it fits into society. Day is interested in photographing people who are strong and courageous in how they present themselves, inviting the audience to consider the meaning and implications of identity and how its constructed.
Within each constructed identity, narratives arise expressing super-saturated, bold versions of existing realities that push cultural archetypes to their extremes. She includes different sexes, races and genders, which doesn’t happen that frequently in art and injects humor that fosters wide appeal among people of varied cultures and backgrounds. The products of Day’s process or “expressive object”, as Dewey puts it, serves to unify experiences and represent possibilities that may not have existed before. art as a powerful, transformative, imperfect form According to Dewey, art is a powerful, imperfect form and the experience of it has the potential to be transformative. While art is not disconnected from our everyday lives and experiences, Dewey does acknowledge that it is an intensified form of experience. For Dewey art is not an object, it’s something that happens. It’s the experience of the artist making the work and also of the audience receiving it and being transformed by that experience. Of the artist, Dewey says, “A lifetime would be too short to reproduce in words a single emotion. In reality, however, poet and novelist have an immense advantage over even an expert psychologist in dealing with emotion. For the former build up a concrete situation and permit it to evoke emotional response. Instead of a description of an emotion in intellectual and symbolic terms, the artist does the deed that breeds’ the emotion” (Dewey 67). Dewey’s concept of experience is rooted in ideas around education, democracy, and change, therefore, art carries an enormous potential for changing both artists and audiences. I particularly like that he’s clear that this transformation isn’t always easy or comfortable: “For taking in’ in any vital experience is something more than placing something on the top of consciousness over what was previously known. It involves reconstruction which may be painful. Moreover, resistance and conflict have always been factors in generating art; and they are, as we have seen, a necessary part of artistic form” (Dewey 42). This idea is also evidenced in Day’s work. Her portraits use symbolism and metaphor as touchstones of familiarity within the context of the unknown. “If I can use metaphor and symbolism to tap into people’s unconscious feelings, there’s a lot of power in that. I want my images to connect with something deep, the feeling of something lost in time, but add something new and mysterious to experience” (Day). In Day’s work, the art experience not only constitutes a relationship between the artist and audience, but also with the subject of the work: people. Day collaborates with her models to attempt to “tap into something about my subject”, (Day) intensifying the experience for all involved.
Further regarding the transformative nature of the art experience, Day remarks, “I believe that seeing ourselves as shifting, malleable creatures, fosters empathy. I may not be in your shoes now, but maybe I was or maybe I could be, and the only thing that separates us is time and circumstances. I think seeing the world that way is very healing” (Day). Day’s work oftentimes constructs issues of gender and sexuality in a very matter-of-fact way, forcing the resistance/conflict factor Dewey cites as the vital art experience. “I like to use sexuality in such a way that the viewer is repulsed and attracted at the same time. The former makes you accept sexuality at face value and the latter makes you question yourself and your desires and taboos”. She believes that art exists in communication. “I can’t control what the viewer sees or feels, but I hope they can see some of themselves in my work, especially those parts that they’ve repressed or lacked the confidence to express”. (Day) When asked how creating images that deal with constructed identity affected Day’s own art experience, she replied, “Weirdly I feel more solid in my identity, as it were, since I started working in this vein. I’ve wondered if it’s just a factor of getting older (I’m 34 now) but I think it has more to do with the fact that I get to experience these alternate selves through meeting disparate people and creating characters with them and living with the printed portraits themselves and seeing my reflection in them. I think the solidity I feel in my own identity comes putting less emphasis on it, if that makes sense. It’s a paradox. I don’t think that any one identity is true or absolute, or essential to one’s being, so I feel more in touch with something deeper in myself. So, it’s that ground which forms the security I feel regardless of the outer identity that manifests (Day). art comes from culture and vice versa Day’s inspiration for her work came directly from the culture by which she was and still is surrounded. Her early influences growing up in an iconic comic book store, her journey through art school and then living in Los Angeles as an adult among club kids and social media personalities, shaped and inspired her perception of everyday life. She draws from all of that and her subject’s personal experiences to create art that at once mirrors and exaggerates culture at large. She borrows and utilizes things familiar to American culture. Her work draws on a lineage of artists who celebrate outsiders like Diane Arbus. Day’s play between external self-presentation and internal emotion reference Gillian Wearing and her theatricality and character creation is often compared to the work of Cindy Sherman. Dewey acknowledges that culture and art culture is a standard practice of artists. “There has been no great literary artist who did not feed upon the works of the masters of drama, poetry, and eloquent prose. In this dependence upon tradition there is nothing peculiar to art. The scientific inquirer, the philosopher, the technologist, also derive their substance from the stream of culture. This dependence is an essential factor in original vision and creative expression” (Dewey 276–7).
Dewey believes that works of art are the only “unhindered communication between man” (Dewey 109). He believes that the artist should know that they should not accept what constitutes art: “We are not sufficiently alive to feel the tang of sense nor yet to be moved by thought. We are oppressed by our surroundings or are callous to them. Acceptance of this sort of experience as normal is the chief cause of acceptance of the idea that art cancels separations that inhere in the structure of ordinary experience” (Dewey 271). Conclusion Art exists in and cannot be separated from everyday life, especially when it comes to new media art and the inevitability of ever-changing technology. John Dewey’s philosophies on art as experience has never been more apropos and this resonates with artists like Parker Day. Art has the power to transform not only its applications and meanings, but the people who make and experience it. The culture that surrounds art constantly informs and influences how we perceive art, our culture and ourselves.
Day, Parker. Personal interview. 21 Nov. 2018. Dewey, John. Art As Experience. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1980. Print. Musial, Thomas J. “Aesthetics and Pragmatism: John Dewey’s Art as Experience.'” Notre Dame English Journal, vol. 3, no. 1, 1967, pp. 7–13. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40066419. Smith, Ralph A. “Symposium on John Dewey’s Art as Experience’ [Introduction].” Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 23, no. 3, 1989, pp. 49–50. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3332760. Haskins, Casey. “Kant, Autonomy, and Art for Art’s Sake.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 48, no. 3, 1990, pp. 235–237. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/431766.
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