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  • Andrew Field

The World as Art Form, and Art Works as Doorways to Imaginative Experience



We don't have large enough notions of art or art forms or imaginative experience, and this blog post will be a tentative attempt to talk about these things and even try to provide some heuristics for speaking about them in as mature a way as possible.


When we talk about art, we tend to discuss it in somewhat predictable ways. Or we talk about it from some customary angles, let's put it that way. We talk about art in the context of John Dewey, and when we do so we are referring to art as part of the texture of ordinary experience, and therefore trying, like Dewey, to democratize art, to take it out of the more elect precincts of museum culture, say, and return it to the people, or to experience, to remove from it the shinier and more forbidding or foreboding aspects so that we can appreciate it as one more part of everyday life, just as we might the art in our own houses and lives, or objects in a Heideggerian sense. This is an important perspective, because it provides a kind of useful leveling, where art is needed, sometimes, to be seen as not something intimidating but exciting and useful because of catharsis and imagination.


The problem with Dewey's account is that it is an expostulation about art from the perspective of a philosopher, rather than an artist or critic, and therefore it does not talk about imagination while discussing art. Or even in the context of art and imagination, what is being discussed is the art work within the context of ordinary life. By this I mean that there is not much difference from reading Dewey as a student of philosophy than there is in reading a text by an accomplished Zen Buddhist, on aesthetics, if we are interested in gaining some new appreciation on ordinary experience, such as rituals (which Dewey seems to consider art in the context of somewhat), a kind of heightened consciousness of experience, first, and therefore art, second.


This is important, but we need a better account of the imagination, rather than an account of art within the context of ordinary or heightened appreciate experience, if we are to understand art at all. So what I want to talk about first is some aspects of the imagination, which seem to me somewhat general and hopefully helpful, and in doing so we can hopefully begin to have a better and more concrete understanding of what happens when we experience great works of art.


The imagination, it seems to me, is involved with resemblances and integrity. By this I mean that, when we encounter a work of lexical magnitude, in a poem, or play, or novel, or short story, what happens is that the words tap into our unconscious autobiographical lives, and, in doing so, allow for unconscious resemblances and integrity to spring up. We find this exact relationship in the term "Leaves of Grass," in the sense of both resemblances (think about looking at a field of grass), and integrity (think about the uniqueness of each piece of grass). When we speak of resemblances, we are talking about the way the unconscious mind works, since the unconscious is a kind of laboratory where composites of people, places, situations, experiences, meld and are displaced and run into each other and are pulled apart, a miasma of sorts, plasma, full of codes and symbols and a kind of shifting volcanic quality that is tapped into whenever we read words and reach behind them to really understand what is happening. A character in a novel, for example, is a composite; Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Pierre Buzukhov, they tap into our own unconscious autobiographical lives, and in so doing, they remind us of unifications of our own experience, and therefore a kind of ping-ponging of resemblances united in a form involving pathos, ethos, and logos. But the form itself, as character, to move us - to act within the constellation of the "ontology of the imagination," to invoke Kendall Walton's phrase - needs to have integrity, since resemblance alone is not enough to hold the resemblances together in form.


When we speak of the world as art form, we allow for Dewey's insights into the awareness and appreciation of ordinary experience as a kind of experience of art, and art itself as something within that texture worthy of consideration, but we must consider the world as art form while also describing art works in a way that gives us a better understanding of imagination and therefore consciousness. Imagination is a doorway to a different world, an imagined world, even as it is grounded in our own; but it takes place, in lexical works, as well as musical and visual and hybrid works, in the mind and heart, even if it involves sensory content. That is to say, if we want to center our accounts of art, we could put it that way, and not make it too specialized, in keeping with the spirit of Dewey, we would do well to remind ourselves that art occurs, through the imagination, via the heart and mind; this is is why it lasts, and this is why it reaches us.


Doorways work differently; for example, in works of lexical art we read and reach through the words; in visual art like painting or sculpture it is the surface that read and, in a kind of deep skimming, are reached into, in some sense; in film we also reach and are reached into; and the point is that every experience of meaning in art involves - has to involve - unconscious autobiographical experience, and therefore consciousness; but unconscious autobiographical experience is not itself only ordinary, but involves something called the imagination, which we do not understand at all, but which to my mind is the most powerful and meaningful operative agent in the human being.


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