The relationship between art and morals have been discussed and theorized for as long as they have existed as concepts. Various philosophers, from Plato to Immanuel Kant to David Hume, have attempted to break down and analyze the complex relationship between art and morality, what kind of effects it has on society, and how it affects politics. Despite numerous analyses and theorizations, philosophy doesn’t settle with one answer since the theories are all slightly different or because it argues against any positive correlation between art and morals. It is, however, possible to draw upon Aristotle’s theory of catharsis and John Dewey’s theories of art as experience to demonstrate the idea that art and its experience plays a big part in the development of a better character: the open-mindedness of the experience leads to the mental peace of catharsis.
Aristotle was Plato’s prized student. Unlike his master, who claimed that art/mimesis is bad, Aristotle claimed that mimesis is good. Plato makes clear his theory on mimesis in his text The Republic. First, there is the epistemological viewpoint: Plato gives an example of a painting of a bed and its removal from the truth since it is not the original bed and is merely reflecting a real one or even a real bed based on the first bed ever made; the theological viewpoint: representations of certain objects that may be blasphemous; and lastly, the psychological viewpoint: imitation may undermine real life and lead to depression. In contrast, Aristotle establishes the following benefits of mimesis in his writing on dramatic theory, Poetics: imitation is crucial in childrens’ education; tragedy has educational values for the human emotion and logic; and tragedy – only tragedy, not other forms art – produces catharsis.
What is catharsis? Aristotle defines catharsis via tragedy in Poetics: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions.” As said here, catharsis is the purgation and purification of pity and fear that is achieved through the viewing of tragedy. Aristotle theorizes that through catharsis, built-up tension is let go of and one’s level of pity and fear is brought to an equilibrium. It is comparable to the theory of sublimation – both catharsis and sublimation are the channeling of certain emotions through means that are more socially acceptable.
John Dewey was a philosopher from the late 19th century to early 20th century. As an American philosopher, educator, and activist, he sought to theorize methods of education and the importance of experience in learning. He has also had quite an influence in the philosophy of art and aesthetics. In his book Art as Experience, Dewey seeks to convince his readers that the entire process of art – creation, pause, background, thought, culture, viewing, critiquing, and more – is important, claiming that, to develop an experience, the entire processes of creation and viewing should have more emphasis than the completed physical product. He says in chapter 1 of his book, “When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.” Dewey makes it obvious from the beginning that the current way of seeing art – physical material as end product – is not the correct way of experiencing art, as viewing the end product is devoid of the process that was involved in its creation. He continues, “A primary task is thus imposed upon one who undertakes to write upon the philosophy of the fine arts. This 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.” Clearly Dewey is proposing that all of art philosophy direct its attention to reestablishing the connection between the art experience and daily experiences.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy very well sums up the definition of “experience” as seen in chapter 3 in Dewey’s text: “‘An experience’ is one in which the material of experience is fulfilled or consummated, as for example when a problem is solved, or a game is played to its conclusion… Dewey believes his talk of ‘an experience’ is in accord with everyday usage, even though it is contrary to the way philosophers talk about experience. For Dewey, life is a collection of histories, each with their own plots, inceptions, conclusions, movements and rhythms. Each has a unique pervading quality.” The text continues, “In ‘an experience’ every part flows freely into what follows, carrying with it what preceded without sacrificing its identity. The parts are phases of an enduring whole. Nor are there any holes or mechanical dead spots in an experience. Rather, there are pauses that define its quality and sum up what has been undergone.” The fact that even pauses contribute to the sum of the experience is rather intriguing, as many artists will not usually count time spent thinking or away from the studio as an act of creation, and thus not count as studio time. An experience begins even before physical creation has begun, and continues even after the piece sees its final form.
Currently, most viewers, especially people who are not involved in the field of the arts, view a piece of art as a physically complete whole with certain physical characteristics. When an artwork is on display at a gallery, the work is assumed to be finished and is intended to be enjoyed by viewing the physical, viewable aspects of it. Dewey touches on the current problem of art being canonized and becoming an untouchable object, or the way it loses connection from life in the first paragraph of the first chapter in Art as Experience: “When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.” Unless the viewer of a classic work of art is an artist his/herself, the work will primary be identified and analyzed through its physicality. This is not the right way to approach art, according John Dewey.
How should art be approached? To Dewey, art is not a thing – it’s something that happens; it’s the experience of the artist making the work and also of the audience receiving it. In chapter “The Act of Expression”, Dewey states, “Were expression but a kind of decalcomania, or a conjuring of a rabbit out of the place where it lies hid, artistic expression would be a comparatively simple matter. But between conception and bringing to birth there lies a long period of gestation. During this period the inner material of emotion and idea is as much transformed through acting and being acted upon by objective material as the latter undergoes modification when it becomes a medium of expression.” In other words, art does not follow the concept of input and product; instead, there is a long period of “gestation”, or development, that goes on that transforms the emotion and idea behind it since its conception.
The experience of art goes beyond its creation phase and covers the processes that happen after a work’s physical completion. The processes of the artist extends to the viewer, which extends to the critic, who may negatively affect the experience of the viewer and also negatively affect the work of art. Judgmental criticism can diminish the experience of the viewer and an art’s significance by the application of established standards of aesthetic value to the work, which may close off novelty and reduce the experience of it to a stereotyped, boring recapitulation of past experiences, thus “rendering the aesthetic value of an artwork objective to the extent that it succeeds in evoking common appreciative experiences among many observers by drawing their attention to the same features and relations of the artwork.” The keyword here is “objective”. The process on the viewer’s part is that subjective – not objective – first-hand analysis is required to understand and perhaps even sympathize with the artist’s emotions and ideas behind it, which then manifests the entire process from conception to viewing as a unique experience.
How may experience have a positive effect on the characteristics of a person? Having an experience encourages insight, constructive criticism, and open-mindedness from the viewer. To further analyze the critic’s capacity, or rather incapacity, to train open-mindedness in a person, consider Dewey’s view of judgment in chapter 13, “Criticism and Perception”, which Dewey saved all his moral philosophy for. Dewey opens this chapter by relentlessly attacking judicial criticism that plagued the Impressionists, quoting French critic Jules Lemaitre, “Criticism, whatever be its pretensions, can never go beyond defining the impression which, at a given moment, is made on us by a work of art wherein the artist has himself recorded the impression which he received from the world at a certain hour.” Judicial criticism does not do good for art because, like Lemaitre said from an impressionist’s point of view, it can “never go beyond defining the impression,” because according to Dewey, “such criticism reacts from the standardized ‘objectivity’ of ready-made rules and precedents.” In other words, it fails because of “its inability to cope with the emergence of new modes of life.” Dewey argues that the job of the critic, instead, is not to pass judgment on the object, but rather to point out meaningful features that indicate emotions, ideas, and process in the object in ways that enhance observers’ experience of it: “It is in effect, if not us words, a denial that criticism in the sense of judgment is possible, and an assertion that judgment should be replaced by statement of the responses of feeling and imagery the art object evokes.” He uses the judgment phases of synthesis and unification to suggest a more open-minded method of art criticism. With the unifying phase of judgment, in particular, the critic must discover a unifying strand in the work and also suggests that “parts should be seen in terms of their role within the larger integral whole.” Surely not being judgmental is a desirable characteristic in a person, too.
Dewey’s sentiment towards critics who do not keep an open mind in the analysis of art is applicable to life. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives an example of a hammer to illustrate this point. One might use a hammer and take note of its well-thought-out construction and its choice of hard materials for driving nails. The encyclopedia continues to claim that , “Such intelligent appreciation of the hammer in one’s direct experience of it amounts to an aesthetic valuation of it, insofar as the experience itself is savored and one’s perceptive faculties are not merely identifying instrumentally valuable features of the hammer for future reference but actively engaged in appreciating the aptness of its design and materials.” Through encouraging first-hand experience, supporting the unifying phase of judgment, and disapproving of judicial criticism, Dewey illustrates his point that aesthetic value is more than just what the viewer sees, but is rather the entire experience of art.
So how may Aristotle and Dewey’s theories contribute to improving the character of a person, and perhaps even promote a more mentally healthy society? In The Poetics, Aristotle defends the “well constructed plot” and insists that “the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation” because it is through these means that those who “feel,” “imagine,” and “suppose” themselves to be exempt from pity and fear realize they are, in fact, vulnerable. This realization that no one is exempt from the feeling of pity and fear points out that catharsis is a universal experience, perhaps even part of human nature. Isaiah Smithson, in his essay “The Moral View of Aristotle’s Poetics”, gives a good summary of the theory of catharsis in one sentence: “Catharsis clarifies (even purges or purifies) an illusion spectators have about their moral impregnability.” Catharsis is a reminder that everyone is vulnerable and that no one is above anyone else – it is a humbling fact to be aware of.
When a person takes part in the viewing of a work of art, the viewer appreciates the work’s aesthetic values, the processes behind its creation from conception to completion, emotions and ideas behind it, and thus takes part in the manifestation of art as an experience. An open, analytic mind is required to fully appreciate the piece as an experience. Like Greek tragedy that is done right, if an artwork offers highly emotional aspects within its experience, the viewer is triggered to relate to and sympathize with the artist, and in the process goes through his or her own course of epiphany, repentance, or purification and purgation of pity and fear. In this way, viewing art offers the therapeutic quality of catharsis.
In conclusion, Aristotle’s theory of catharsis through the mimesis of tragedy and John Dewey’s theory of art as experience offer cultivation of open-mindedness and mental peace as by-products, as successfully immersing oneself in the experience of an art work provides catharsis. Perhaps by simply redefining how the general public looks at art, mankind may be able to make society more peaceful; or maybe by establishing experience as the primary means of education, institutions may be able to convert droning classrooms into a more interactive environment that encourages free-thinking, open-mindedness, and emotional intelligence while discouraging closed-minded judicial criticisms.
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