What is art? Why do we make it? Why do we need it? If “we” are humans, shall we call humans “art-animals”? However artistic other animals act, it is humans who historicize with art, and thus progress because of art. Let me explain...
If humans are “art-animals” it is only because for humans art is always together with but also regarded outside of our animalism. Indeed animals also exhibit the creative drive to perform, adorn, and intensify—and not only towards procreation or territory-marking. These kinds of acts thus seem as pointless as those of human art. But, however superfluous art acts are to immediate survival, they are what most immediately serve life metaphysically. They are possibilities for life made through experimentation. They hold the most intensified essence of life which is, in a word, rhythm. Rhythm is so enjoyable and intensifying, that when phenomena is intentionally and intensively organized through it, it at the same time reveals a novel possibility of becoming-other and also evokes the principal feeling of life. It gives something to the soul which any more “necessary” element of life cannot. It gives to life a reason for life. In a society intentionally designed for the (supposed) good of all of its citizens, this fact of what I shall call naturalist aesthetics is exceptionally important. Justification for arts education, liberating artistic creation of the masses from corporate exploitation, and accessible public art institutions or even new visions of them in the late capitalism internet age, depends on naturalist aesthetics.
i. Politics Necessitating Exposition of Naturalist Aesthetics and Institution-Referential Aesthetic as Esteemed Opponent
Why are art institutions visited primarily by the very privileged? The contemporary state of the global artworld as a capitalist money-growing game for the megarich is no doubt relevant, but it is part of a larger narrative not expounded here. This answer—contextualizing the state of art in our larger late-stage capitalism reality—finds also its inverse truth when we consider where art is outside of the artworld, or art institutions. We might observe the creative projects taken up on social media apps as principal instances. The creative tools, training, and platforms offered through the internet certainly appear to be much more democratic than those offered by the institutions/artworld—but much less so when we consider who profits greatly off the creative work of the masses (YouTube and especially TikTok, for example, largely exploit children for the aforementioned). The privatization of the commons—the internet, the ecosystem in which we all live, now clearly being the commons—is yet another systemic issue now being met with a growing movement for more regulation. Further, the internet simply does not provide the face-to-face human connection and local community building that would a new kind of public creative institution. So, why are art institutions now visited primarily by the very privileged? Plunging deeper is necessary together with zooming out (philosophy together with politics). This question then can be explored by considering what “art” and the “institution” is. To do this, I define two kinds of aesthetic: naturalist aesthetic and institution-referential aesthetic. These frame, and give power to, art and theory alike. Expounding naturalist aesthetics—with support from philosophers and theorists who I find take a naturalist approach to aesthetics—offers implications which are liberating. Creativity is revealed to be a force in all life, and the consciousness which humans have of their creating gives all the more power to the act, which works through parallel processes of apprehending an intentionally intensified experience—an “artwork”—and producing it. Undergoing the process attracts beings to one another, reinvigorates life force, and conducts into the soul a sort of deep rediscovery of what life is.
The artworld, the art history canon, if in any development was always self-referential, must be now more than ever so. Maurizio Cattelan duct tapes a banana to a wall and sells it for hundreds of thousands, because it can sell for hundreds of thousands. That’s the current state of the artworld. If Marcel Duchamp indeed stole the urinal for Fountain from German baroness and Dada artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the situation is telling. When presented as Duchamp’s extreme readymade, the work was censured by a board of institution directors, and thus represents the kind of art which is either not art or changes what art is. If the German baroness originally produced the piece as protest against the war, perhaps by drawing attention to its underlying masculine drives, and if she indeed invented the “readymade” art piece before did Duchamp, we can see how a naturalist aesthetic emerges alongside and around the institution-referential aesthetic. This recognition is, importantly, not a revision to the canon via retroactively crediting a woman for a famous art piece which a famous male artist stole. For both artists the piece was a readymade, and the claims that the baroness invented the “readymade” first are mostly insignificant as (1) a fascination for everyday objects is probably felt by most artists so their collaboration with nature is not surprising and (2) Duchamp coined the term and changed the artworld with his positing of the readymade objects as art. I will return to the first reason as part of the foundation for a naturalist aesthetic theory. The second reason I underscore as institution-referential aesthetic, that is, made for—and/or famous in the artworld for—novelly referring to the already existing norms of institutional art at the time. A naturalist aesthetic is not anti-avant-garde, and the two are not poles that oppose each other. Rather, they are different ways of understanding art, sometimes even of understanding the same art.
The questions asked in naturalist aesthetic theory—why we make art, why we enjoy art, its role in our society and personal lives, the mental processes involved in creating art, the mental processes involved in perceiving art, and how or whether humans are more artistic than animals—are only different ways of asking what art is. And what art is, in terms of what art objects are, is always changing in the institution, because of the institution-referential aesthetic. But if we take seriously Korsmeyer’s claim that the canon is constructed by and for a very specific social group, then institution-referential art may be trapped in infinite recursion. That is, if we unmask the canon and reveal that what we think of as “art” has not been “some basic human activity” and the canon not “an expression of universal artistic values,” we see instead how doing “art” has been a “historically specific role for (male) professionals” and the canon “the expression of particular social values which have been assigned precedence over other cultural activities (PR 202). This specific social group has generally been well-off males in the Western world or of Western origin—a privileged minority. In light of this, we see why institutions of art are primarily visited by the very privileged. Nonvisitors are not part of—or have not been conditioned to think like or look with the gaze of—this social group. But art, in and of itself, is not simply what exists inside of these institutions. It cannot be, unless we are referring to the “art” which is only that of institution-referential aesthetic. If we reconsider what art is—by way of defining a naturalist aesthetic—and so consider what it does for all of human life, we stimulate possibilities of creating public art institutions which are for not only the privileged but rather for all members of the surrounding community.
ii. Humans and Animals as “Artistic”
An encounter with art reawakens a sense for what life is and also creates new possibilities for life. The artistic tendencies and dispositions that humans and animals share, especially those observed by Darwin and so which correspond with natural selection, reveal this natural essence of art. This “art” which inspires such reawakenings and possibilities, and what warrants the attribute “artistic,” must first be defined. Art is an intensified and intensifying experience undergone by the live creature via interplay between its own collected past, its sensing and communicating body, and its present environment, which culminates in new understanding of life and new attraction between beings. “Understanding” here does not necessarily refer to some logical, explicit conclusion but rather a feeling—perhaps something like a renewed feeling for life. The simplest and most sensuous way animals and humans are reawakened to the essence of life is via rhythm in art, and the grandest way in which art allows creation of the new leads to what we might call “evolution” in animals and the evolving spirit of humanity.
The entire naturalist aesthetic finds a sort of summary in this brief genealogical or psychological segment of the first ever literary theory, Aristotle’s Aesthetics:
Imitation, then, being natural to us—as also the sense of harmony and rhythm, the metres being obviously species of rhythms—it was through their original aptitude, and by a series of improvements for the most part gradual on their first efforts, that they created poetry out of their improvisations.
I will return to this part by part in explicating this naturalist aesthetic theory, these parts being: imitation, rhythm, improvisations, and improvements. First, we see imitation, which on the other end of creation, that is, observation, finds itself as reawakening of the same.
The understanding and the attraction, which is in what art results, before being totally new are first renew-ing, insofar as they remind us of what had already constituted life and the world only before without our fixed attention. In his book Art as Experience, John Dewey says art “quickens us from the slackness of routine.” In being such a “full and intense experience, [it] keeps alive the power to experience the common world in its fullness” (138). And yet the renew-ing indeed brings about new too. If everyday life didn’t demand your attention like some happened upon artistic phenomena does, there must be something novel, out of the ordinary, about it. It doubles down and also opens up. This meeting with resistance is essential in any “normal experience,” which for Dewey should be understood first to see how art is “intensified” experience (AE 12). That is, when the factors which would make something an experience are “lifted high above the threshold of perception and are made manifest for their own sake,” the experience is aesthetic (AE 59). “In a work of art there is no … single self-sufficient deposit,” and the end “is significant not by itself but as the integration of the parts” (AE 57). Nothing is “solved” in artist nor art observer other than whatever the art itself presented as needing work—and both artist and observer certainly need to work at the thing until it gets there. However, the consummation felt in the end is not satisfaction from solution of a practical matter, as all the material and interplay leading up to it was not practical—it was all excess and working with the excess. The satisfaction is both immediate pleasure in sensing rhythm, and from realizing the intensification of matter, of that excess, for its own sake. What is outside of basic life, the excess, indeed affirms life by exploring this new thing. The excess is used to imitate and yet in its imitation the new phenomena does not serve the same purpose of whatever it imitates, and so something new is created. And, further, the new can integrate into life after its first presentation as possibility during the art experience.
Sensing rhythm affirms life to us in the most immediate way. Thus it is the most sensuous, direct form of the renew-ing. For animals and humans alike, “there is something about vibration and its resonating effects on material bodies that generates pleasure, a kind of immediate bodily satisfaction.” Grosz find that the closest thing to a universal postulate which Darwin claims is that “rhythm, vibration, resonance, is enjoyable and intensifying” (CT 32). In her book Chaos, Territory, Art, Grosz reproduces the following from Darwin:
The perception, if not the enjoyment, of musical cadences and of rhythm is probably common to all animals, and no doubt depends on the common physiological nature of their nervous systems. Even Crustaceans, which are not capable of producing any voluntary sounds, possess certain auditory hairs, which have been seen to vibrate when the proper musical notes are struck. It is well known that some dogs howl when hearing particular tones. Seals apparently appreciate music, and their fondness for it was well known to the ancients, and is often taken advantage of by the hunters at the present day. (CT 32)
The predilection for rhythm that humans and animals share, that “physiological nature,” makes art characterized by rhythm a direct, sensuous delivery of the essence of life. This universal aptitude, however “discovered” by science via Darwin, was already suggested by Aristotle. This, and imitation, are for Aristotle the original aptitudes which lead to the creation of art. That is, there is no question of its inclusion or exclusion in art, a potential character of some art object and not of another. Rather, as Dewey posits:
The first characteristic of the environing world that makes possible the existence of artistic form is rhythm. There is rhythm in nature before poetry, painting, architecture and music exist. Were it not so rhythm as an essential property of form would be merely superimposed upon material, not an operation through which material effects its own culmination in experience. (AE 153)
In environment and in live creature there is rhythm, and our process for working through art as artist or observer is also rhythmic. The consummation reached is relative because it is recurrent and so is only final in an “external way”—that is, in isolating a single art experience—yet “as we turn from reading a poem or novel or seeing a picture the effect presses forward in further experience, even if only subconsciously” (AE 143). Within the isolated experience, even, the consummation is “anticipated by rhythmic pauses” (AE 143). Grosz describes the “artistic release and propagation of sensation” as a “mode of resonance or harmonious vibration, an oscillation extracted from the fluctuating, self-differentiating structure of the universe itself used to pace, measure, and provide discernment in a universe in which nothing is self-identical, all substance is movement, modes of contraction/dilation or difference/repetition, and generates not only perceptions, that is, auditory and visual images, but, above all, rhythm” (CT 19). The rhythm found then in universe and live creature, and also being the primary characteristic and feeling of art, serves as foundation for a naturalist aesthetic which sees animals and humans interacting with their world artistically.
While the physiological fact of predilection for rhythm is, in the intensified experience that is art, felt by us most directly and so delivers that essence of life, it is not enough to see fully how art is of the animal. And yet art is of the animal. Grosz holds that art:
… comes, not from reason, recognition, intelligence, not from a uniquely human sensibility, or from any of man’s higher accomplishments, but from something excessive, unpredictable, lowly. What is most artistic in us is that which is the most bestial. Art comes from the excess, in the world, in objects, in living things, that enables them to be more than they are, to give more than themselves, their material properties and qualities, their possible uses, than is self-evident. Art is the consequence of that excess, that energy or force, that puts life at risk for the sake of intensification, for the sake of sensation itself—not simply for pleasure or for sexuality, as psychoanalysis suggests—but for what can be magnified, intensified, for what is more, through which creation, risk, innovation are undertaken for their own sake, for how and what they may intensify. (CT 63)
In feeling rhythm one can be in the most basic way attracted to life and, their body stimulated, attracted to the other beings which made the artistic experience possible. And this intensification of life, leading to stimulation and attraction, is not necessary for basic survival yet is for something like long-term camaraderie. Feeling like always only serving itself to serve itself, the necessity is indeed metaphysical. One example Grosz takes from Darwin of these seemingly inconsequential artistic acts by animals is that of the theatrical battles between males like those of the bird species Teatro umbellus, commonly known as the ruffed grouse. Darwin writes that the battles “are all a sham, performed to show themselves to the greatest advantage before the admiring females who assemble around; for I have never been able to find a maimed hero, and seldom more than a broken feather” (CT 68). The males who win these battles, or best fend off predators, do not always subsequently attract a mate, and further it is not even clear that success in these battling spectacles shows the skills which attract females. These animals are acting artistically not to a specific end but rather seemingly to intensify simply to intensify. They are artistic with excess life things in order to feel themselves living, especially to and with one another. The effect is not immediate—winning a mate or territory, or living instead of dying. Rather, it is long-term—metaphysical.
We can see how animals act artistically, to a metaphysical “end”, also in song. Birdsong, human music, and the music of whales—“the most sophisticated animal music”—are “commonly learned rather than innate, a melodious movement of tones rather than a fixed repertoire of signals” (CT 38). Thus animals can and do change their songs via improvisation and improvement—that which for Aristotle builds on innate aptitude for imitation and rhythm to create art. Grosz thus claims that animal song “accomplishes something new in its oratory, a new art, a new coupling of (sonorous) qualities and milieus that isn’t just the production of new musical elements, materials—melodies, rhythms, positive music contents—but the opening up of the world itself to the force of taste, appeal, the bodily, pleasure, desire—the very impulses behind all art” (CT 39). The battling spectacles, so theatrical and seemingly inconsequential, and animal song, so exploratory with their excess, indeed appear to work to plunge to the core of the life experience, which is sensation. These artistic tendencies in animals indicate for Grosz that “(sexual) taste and erotic appeal are not reducible to the pragmatic world of survival, although of course subject to its broad principle as a limit: they indicate that those living beings that ‘really live,’ that intensify life—for its own sake, for the sake of intensity or sensation—bring something new to the world, create something that has no other purpose than to intensify, to experience itself” (CT 39). Whatever end towards which animals fight or sing—attraction to each other, to reawaken their lust for life—is not the same as whatever sense of fulfillment animals feel in resolving some practical problem (this would constitute a “normal experience” for Dewey). Instead, attraction and reawakening are more like the forces working from art for humans. And though “art is of the animal to the extent that creation, the attainment of new goals not directly defined through the useful, is at its core” (CT 65), the human recognition of the creative process which animals are only intuitively involved in, however much it serves them evolutionarily, is what makes art art. Animals too have excess and so intensify for the sake of sensation itself. These artistic tendencies—like those of the birds—demonstrate the acts of intensifying which in fact necessitate their other side: taking part in the intensified experience.
What constitutes a normal experience for Dewey is Hegelian: it is when one “falls out of step with the march of surrounding things and then recovers in unison with it,” and this recovery is an “overcoming” which leads to a “transformation” and “expansion” (AE 14). And because “experience is the fulfillment of an organism in its struggles and achievements in a world of things, it is art in germ” (AE 19). Indeed, there is never the “totally new” in art, yet the doubled-down, the renew-ing, does lead to a kind of new, a becoming-other, a possibility. And this is what an experience must lead to if it is to be “aesthetic.” Animals and humans alike have “experiences” which in resolution delight the live creature. And yet, to be art, the delight must not be purely from the satisfaction of overcoming resistance. It must, as Grosz describes, construct new sensations using prior ones to create new becomings:
The arts, each in its own way, are not just the construction of pure and simple sensations but the synthesis of other, prior sensations into new ones, the coagulation, recirculation, and transformation of other sensations summoned up from the plane of composition—indeed becoming itself may be understood as the coming together of at least two sensations, the movement of transformation that each elicits in the other. Art is this processes of compounding or composing, not a pure creation from nothing, but the act of extracting from the materiality of forces, sensations, or powers of affecting life, that is, becomings, that have not existed before and may summon up and generate future sensations, new becomings. (CT 75)
We as humans share the faculty for “sensation” with animals. And yet we construct new becomings in ways animals do not. This is not because we repress it and use some other faculty, possessed only by humans, for art. On the contrary, it is the very recognition of sensation working in man as in animal that allows us to “carry to new and unprecedented heights that unity of sense and impulse, of brain and eye and ear, that is exemplified in animal life, saturating it with the conscious meanings derived from communication and deliberate expression” (AE 23). Humans have tended to separate sensational bodily experience from intellect, and so are repulsed in thinking of our sensing. Dewey posits that moralists, in scorning sensation, are at least more aware or honest about its emotional effect than the psychologists and philosophers who wholly disregard it in considering sensations mere elements of knowledge (AE 22). And yet its role in our (and all organisms’) experience, is integral: experience is the result of interaction of organism and environment, interaction transforms into participation and communication, and “sense-organs are the means of this participation” (AE 22). Artist and philosopher alike must “trust to his ‘intuitions,’ to what come upon him in his immediate sensuous and emotional experiences, even against objections that reflection presents to him” (AE 34). Dewey calls this preference used to guide their thinking “animal-like” (AE 34). Reflection and objections are what is human, yet what is there is not what gets at the essence of life. It must be the deliberate plunge back into sensation and intuition, those faculties we share with animals, that stimulate such revelations.
The kind of intuition, so natural to animals in motivating their next move, must be deliberately recognized by humans to create or observe art. This difference is what makes art art. In all animals, however, artistic tendencies or dispositions, even if not in and of themselves art, do reveal predilection for art, that is, for intensifying and intensified experiences which reinvigorate life, inspire attraction, all towards new possibilities. The intuition in animals which retains creative processes where humans do not, must be deliberately grasped for by humans involved in art. Yet this intuitive process in animals, still exploratory, is what leads to evolution via natural selection for animals. According to Grosz:
The evolution of life can be seen not only in the increasing specialization and bifurcation or differentiation of life forms from each other, the elaboration and development of profoundly variable morphologies and bodily forms, but, above all, in their becoming-artistic, in their self-transformations, which exceed the bare requirements of existence. … Life comes to elaborate itself through making its bodily forms and its archaic territories, pleasing (or annoying), performative, which is to say, intensified through their integration into form and their impact on bodies. There is much “art” in the natural world, from the moment there is sexual selection, from the moment there are two sexes that attract each other’s interest and taste through visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory sensations. (CT 6)
The natural selection discovered in animals, which is incited by artistic acts in animals, is congruent to a similar kind of evolution in humans. Darwin’s influence indeed can be seen as enabling a philosophy of becoming which was already widely developed only without such naturalist authorization as offered by the Darwinian Revolution, this radical shift in understanding the world. For Dewey, that Darwinism "embodied an intellectual revolt and introduced a new intellectual temper is easily overlooked," as "the conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years, the conceptions that had become the familiar furniture of the mind, rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and final.” It is for good reason, however, that Darwinism serves as foundation for the metaphysical schemes developed by Dewey and Grosz. And it is perhaps in development of the arts which this becoming was most immediately apparent, as already for Aristotle progress—together with imitation and taste for rhythm—create the arts. I repeat the segment from Poetics again which I call a summary of this naturalist aesthetic theory, with emphasis now on the progress implied by those improvisations and improvements:
Imitation, then, being natural to us—as also the sense of harmony and rhythm, the metres being obviously species of rhythms—it was through their original aptitude, and by a series of improvements for the most part gradual on their first efforts, that they created poetry out of their improvisations.
Progress created and creates the arts; art creates progress. That is, art, understood in this naturalist aesthetic, is what advances the evolving spirit of humanity. To understand what we as humans are in need of, we must see and understand each other as closely as possible. This is both by the aforementioned possibilities which are generates and, before even this, the attraction made possible by art. Thus far in this section “attraction” has been important in how beings are attracted to life and to other beings via art. This is first of all as the immediate bodily stimulation from rhythm—which is both in the intensified phenomena of life that comprises art and in the rhythmic process of the aesthetic experience—and also as the attraction to each other which arises out of intensification of life using what is excess to basic life to an end in and of itself, that is, an end which is simply to intensify, reinvigorate life, and stimulate attraction to each other. Thus we see how “works of art are the only media of complete communication between man and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience” (AE 109). For animals, the artistic is the excess to the primary necessities of life, yet it is necessary to keep the beings attracted to each other and to life, in order to keep at those primary necessities. We may say it is the same for humans. And though it seems like we have much which is excess to primary necessities, there is only one way in which we can communicate with each other so deeply and directly via universal phenomena, to reinvigorate sense for life and create new possibilities for what happens outside of this universal communication, and this is art. For Dewey:
Expression strikes below the barriers that separate human beings from one another. Since art is the most universal form of language, since it is constituted, even apart from literature, by the common qualities of the public world, it is the most universal and freest form of communication. … That art weds man and nature is a familiar fact. Art also renders men aware of their union with one another in origin and destiny. (AE 282)
All that art leads to, reaffirmation of life—“origin”—possibilities of becoming-other—“destiny"—, is done by way of the art process. This process is what links art and life, and it is carried out as, simply, imagination.
iii. Art for Life via Imagination
To see how imagination characterizes the necessary link between art and life, we can look at two processes. The first is the artmaking process which resembles child’s play, and the second is education—in the school classroom and elsewhere— which teaches about life, or for life, using art-like experiences.
In reenvisioning who can do art and how, Korsmeyer calls attention to feminist theorists’ use of psychoanalysis “for a dynamic model of consciousness that links gender to the development of the subject” as no form of the philosophical tradition within which aesthetics arose “accommodates more than a superficial understanding of the development of gendered consciousness” (PR 203). Philosophers like Sarah Kofman, for example, offer theories of art which span far and deep towards what art means for humanity beyond the slim Western male canon, and she does so using psychoanalysis. Her view thus helpfully underscores the aforementioned power of art to advance the evolving spirit of humanity. This is done, I have said, through the attraction which art stimulates and possibilities it generates. For Kofman, the process of making art is, first of all, playful and imaginative, yet it is also more complex in its nature as a coming-together of many outside forces. “Aesthetic pleasure is thus a ‘composite’ pleasure in which it is difficult to determine the part played by the different factors that make it up and contribute to its general effect,” thus it cannot be “disinterested” (CA 111). These sources gather together and with the force of imagination can work towards expression and, thus, becoming-other.
Kofman says that in art “the artist’s desires are not the only ones in play, since those of the art lover and the society in which he lives are involved as well” (CA 106). This psychoanalytic framework, adopted and adapted from Freud, sees art as phenomena which plays with and is within the “economy of life.” The way in which children learn about life is through play so “art, then, is a substitute for child’s play” (CA 113). It is learning about life, for the adult. What Dewey calls “animal-like,” the intuitive thought and action which artists deliberately try to veer towards while veering away from reflection and objection, Kofman identifies as childlike. The artist “tries to repeat what the child does in his play before reason and judgment come to impose constraints,” thus this “‘revered’ man, the artist, is at bottom only a child who gives other people the joy of being able to find their way back to the paradise of childhood” (CA 112). It is not the child, through this art-like process, who truly does art, in the same way that the artistic tendencies of animals do not imply that animals do the same kind of art that do humans. Rather, these processes are what for all—animal, child, adult human—get at the meaning of life and advance it. Yet, it is only the adult human who undergoes this process as a return, as a simplification. As Kofman says, art is a “regressive, retrograde activity, a repetition of playful childhood activity, a sublimation” (CA 132). It is via imagination that this activity advances, and “imagination is part of the ‘economy’ of life” as an “originary reserve” (CA 134, 141). By way of the Freudian framework, Kofman posits imagination as able to “yield many productions all having the same aim, which is to deny originary difference and death” (CA 141). In other words, imagination is what stimulates productions, which is art, that aim at the core of life. And “what essentially distinguishes art from all the others is the contact which, in spite of everything, it maintains with the real” (CA 141). Essentially, art uses the child-like process of play, thus deliberately regressing to a state of universality and openness, in order to use imagination to rework, create understanding, of present phenomena. And yet it is inevitable that it is connected with the real, for the openness is to the reality of the artist and art observer which had, before this process of imagination, been unprocessed and thus ignored.
The way imagination stimulates this production first of all renders anyone capable of being that “artist” or “art observer,” though this is not to say that there aren’t some who are masters having more of, or having developed in themselves more of, some combination of intelligence, sensitivity, and skill (AE 45). The basic art-making process is available to all and beneficial for all, as is the art-observing process. It only requires some degree of intentionality in undertaking. However, it is important that the layman doesn’t require any specific knowledge to find something in artwork that is by some degrees foreign to him, only intentional observing. In “Eye and Mind,” Merleau-Ponty describes how a historian might, with his long familiarity with history, find in an old piece of art a “possibility,” a “texture which was preparing a long future.” This is, I note, the kind of possibility and future-looking which art by definition creates. However, Merleau-Ponty says that “since the power or the generativity of works of art exceeds every positive causal or filial relation, it is not illegitimate for a layman, speaking from his memory of a few pictures and books, to say how painting enters into his reflections, and to register the feeling of a profound discordance, a mutation in the relationship between man and Being, when he brings a universe of classical thought into confrontation with the investigations of modern painting” (EM 368). What the layman makes of the painting is based on a “sort of history by contact that perhaps does not go beyond the limits of one person, though it owes everything to the frequentation of others.” In taking all he knows, even or especially subconsciously, and taking in the piece of art, Being is redefined for the man. Whatever he imagines from the work, so differently from any other observer, still takes him to this place. Indeed, for Schopenhauer it is art especially, in comparison to philosophy, which is most for the laymen. It will always be that philosophy’s “public remains small, while that of the arts is large.” That is, philosophy is explicit and comprehensive in its wisdom, and thus takes great commitment and a handing-over of oneself to undergo, while art is implicit, open, unfinished, can enter nicely into any self, precisely so that the observer can use her imagination to finish the wisdom, to, in a way, teach herself. Imagination is, in Dewey’s words, “a way of seeing and feeling things as they compose an integral whole”:
When old and familiar things are made new in experience, there is imagination. When the new is created, the far and strange become the most natural inevitable things in the world. There is always some measure of adventure in the meeting of mind and universe, and this adventure is, in its measure, imagination. (AE 278)
Dewey’s conception of imagination in experience is also integral to his most important project, education.
A main goal for Dewey in education reform was to “see created within the nation’s schools a kind of community life that would compensate in some measure for the gradual disappearance of viable communities within society at large” (169 JD). This demise of community life in America comes just after the industrial revolution, now a society devoted to the production of material goods. Dewey believed that children, no longer learning at home and in the community what they once did, should have school itself be "a genuine form of active community life, instead of a place set apart in which to learn lessons”. Dewey designed schools where children were engaged in “occupations”—that is, being occupied mind and body with physical phenomena by way of an experiential interplay, transforming inside the child as much as the child is physically transforming outside. It “maintains a balance between the intellectual and the practical phases of experience,” and involves “continual observation of materials, and continual planning and reflection, in order that the practical or executive side may be successfully carried on” (CC 92). This description of occupation is notably similar to that of an aesthetic experience. Indeed, in these schools “children are “cooking food, building houses, dancing, putting on plays.” However, the result of the interplay that comprises both aesthetic experiences, and “occupations” described here, are not similar only in being “experiences.” As noted in the previous section, an experience is aesthetic when its elements are “lifted high above the threshold of perception and are made manifest for their own sake” (AE 59). Similarly, an occupation’s “end is in itself; in the growth that comes from the continual interplay of ideas and their embodiment in action, not in external utility” (CC 92). In his book John Dewey and the Lessons of Art, Phillip Jackson notes that for Dewey the question of “what constitutes an educative experience is the most important one that an educator can ask.” And yet, “raised to the level of philosophical abstraction, the question receives its best and fullest answer not in Experience and Education, where, based on title alone, we might expect to find it, but in Dewey’s most mature discussions of experience, particularly in his ruminations on the arts” (JD 181). The art process must serve, then, as a prime example for the kind of learning Dewey promoted, that is, experiential and intrinsically motivated.
If the art process can—and for Dewey should—be used as a model in the classroom, it can, essentially, be taught. This is yet another reason that, as aforementioned and underscored with Merleau-Ponty’s layman, anyone may undergo and benefit from the art process. And yet we can see how imagination, a train whose impetus is fascination, may be exercised more by those who are naturally sensitive to the world and thus are fascinated by it more than most. Merleau-Ponty for example discusses the phenomenon of artists who feel that “things look at them,” that is, the artist “lives in fascination,” and his “vision is an ongoing birth” (EM 358). Thus if the baroness and artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was fascinated by a urinal, or any found object, and thus celebrated it as “art”—she gave it the kind of attention that an artist, so sensitive to and fascinated by the world, does. She and the other artists may then be among those who are masters, and yet anyone who creates outside of the institution, and does not reference institution with their fascination and creation, still does art. Directed towards the institution, however, the art is trapped, inaccessible, if we see art, in naturalist aesthetics, as indeed beneficial to all. We may, then, imagine how the fascination-to-imagination progression be shared with—affirmed for—all.
The fascination-to-imagination progression is overt in art, but Jackson asks if it is found also elsewhere. If so, art is either presumed obsolete or at least unnecessary for the masses. As possible other sources of this kind of progression, this mindset, Jackson describes three self-help books, all of which advocate their own kind of meditation or intentional observing practice. Yet the exercises they assign their readers do not differ greatly from those strange ones guided by artists—either in live shows or via some signage or art object in an institution. For example, one book instructs their readers to try staring at the shadows moving on their wall for long periods of time. This drawn-out and intentional observation surely encourages a kind of slow mindfulness not normally practiced by participants of today’s quick-moving society—and if one goes through the time, motions, and thought process, i.e. the interplay, demanded by the exercise, they have gone through a new experience and thus learned something that they cannot learn via passively perceiving some sound bite advocating mindfulness in the midst of our fast-paced world. And yet, in this world, it is actually impressive that one would dedicate the time and patience to do such exercises, almost of their own volition, alone. It can be argued, also, that those that need such a lesson most would not try this exercise and, more significantly, would not take the time to read this kind of book. Indeed, in light of the aforementioned nature of art as always more popular than philosophy, in being so open-ended, we see how theory which advocates change in humans’ way of being does not, in being written, reach all those who are to undergo the change. More writing about the theory helps (like Kabat-Zinn’s self-help book which borrows from the philosophy of Pierre Hadot). But, philosophy is dense, comprehensive, and explicit in its wisdom, while art is always fresh (grapes are to art as wine is to philosophy, as says Scopenhauer)—art requires unfinishedness.
The ultimate point here is meta: it would indeed be art that should teach us how to observe mindfully as an artist does. However much self-help books offer in the area would surely be multiplied, at least in accessibility and universality, if intentionally offered to communities via art. The approach involves something like a Benjaminian balance between optical perception which is contemplative and tactile reception which comes about by way of habit. Importantly, however, film cannot be the medium responsible for this, as bodies and minds must participate in active interplay with physical phenomena towards varying, non-prescribed ends.
Dewey suggests that useful objects such as, for example, a teaspoon, may be intrinsically enjoyable. This, Jackson says, is to remind us that “perception for its own sake (attention to the immediacy of experience) is always an option,” and that we “are always free to take in the aesthetic dimension of an experience, to see objects and events not solely in terms of where they lead or how they might serve us but also as centers of attention in their own right” (JD 67). Yet, this process must begin with, as we have seen, fascination. Benjaminian tactile reception, by itself, is taken in habitually and thus without contemplation or effect. Without fascination for the “here and now” we do not take the time to observe the immediate phenomena and imagine and produce in direct response. This condition of pure reception for Dewey “to be avoided at all costs”—and “works of art help to instruct us in the how and the why of avoiding it” (JD 67). That is optical reception must enter in with tactile reception to inspire fascination, and then the art process. All of these processes exhibiting imagination—that which links art and life—share fascination. Fascination is natural to the child and thus generates play, so the process which is simulated by adult artists is fueled also by fascination; the self-help books tell their readers to be very intentional in their observation, assuming they’re not, and this will inspire fascination; fascination is also encouraged by Dewey’s occupational model for school classrooms. What is capable of being most accessible to all, available as tactile reception, and also which will fascinate through optical reception, would be not of the institution-referential aesthetic but rather the naturalist aesthetic. By way of imagination, art will reinvigorate life force in all. Conscious of their creative power, humans shall enter into the art process with the spirit of children or of animals. They shall be the art-animals that they are. They shall attract and be attracted to one another and to life. They shall intensify to rediscover what life is and to create new possibilities for life.
In an imperfect society, art is simply escape from life or decoration of life. But in a better society, art is remaking community experience in the direction of greater order and unity. (AE 84). The question that remains unanswerable by me, and therefore even less so by any aesthetic theory of the past, is whether what I propose is possible in real life—by this I mean not via the internet. School is still for the most part in the former, and so at least can serve as the center of arts for the youth. However, institutions for families and communities, including all members, and where all members are socially encouraged to gather, are still necessary in real life. If this is not possible, and it in my eyes only grows less likely with time, the entire problem must be reworked. It is probable, however, that in this situation the solution must begin with revolution. Specifically, we artists should strip the skin off Mark Zuckerberg—so long as these artists are not too young to understand what I mean by “newspaper-style”—and weave ourselves a nice little net, a web, a nest, stick our heads through the holes of that skin grid and inter-face with each other, kiss and laugh and sing, in short we will be social in a way the socially-inept designer of our social world never had faculty for; we’ll roast the meat and boil the bones via that oh-so-forgotten-in-the-institution art of the culinary variety, one of those “domestic” creative endeavours which does not allow for individual-institution-genius-status; we’ll dance around the fire fueled by the gathered remains of his ten estates and invite the children to toss their Tinders to burn and to be tender with one another and to touch for the first time.