Experience Economy - Art as Experience - Relational Aesthetics

Perhaps it's obvious that one of the central texts guiding LeisureArts is John Dewey's Art as Experience. Then again, it might not be considering how marginal the text is in contemporary art discourse. The book was published in 1934 and yet we can still have legions of artists and critics discussing Nicholas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics published some sixty years later as if it raised something new. In some sense, admittedly, it did, but the current amnesia about Dewey's rich theoretical precursor diminishes its significance. Judith Rodenbeck does an excellent job exposing the same amnesia with regard to the history of art practices that precede those Bourriaud dubs as "relational" in her lecture "The Open Work: Participatory Art Since Silence."

Art as Experience does a good deal to complicate the simplistic division between object based work and experience based work by noting the experiential dimension of all art. From the opening paragraphs [emphases ours]:

By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them. For one reason, these works are products that exist externally and physically. In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding...

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. 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.


Likewise much of the discussion of the experience economy (Pine and Gilmore) and its various critics would be well served by reading Dewey. While we're at it, the current champions of Jacques Rancière would benefit from coming to terms with Dewey as his work on the relationship of aesthetics to ethics precedes Rancière by about a half century. Of course Dewey, will never have the theoretical sex appeal of the "continental" intellectual set. He, like the other American pragmatists, and their Transcendentalist antecedents just don't seem to captivate the art intelligentsia the way the French seem to even though they worked out anti-foundationalist, and radically contextualized epistemologies many decades beforehand. Don't get us wrong - Bodies without Organs, Différance, and the litany of other poetic-theoretic tools invented by continental theorists and their progeny are important and useful, but there is much to be done with the tools of the American philosophical tradition in art circles as well.