Musings: John Dewey

Over a year ago I began reading John Dewey’s “Art as Experience.” As best as I could tell in the first fifty pages, Dewey feels that art has lost its vitality. His basic thesis seems to be that he feels that art has lost its importance because it is no longer connected nor springs forth from daily life. He says that there exists a great chasm between the esthetic experience of art and our ordinary experience of daily life.

Dewey puts forth the following explanation for the forces (as evidenced through our modern day museums) that came together to create this chasm:
· The rise of nationalism and imperialism: every capital city must have its own museum for the exhibiting of the greatness of its artistic past and for exhibiting the loot gathered by the conquering monarch.

. The growth of capitalism: As people, governments and other institutions began to acquire wealth, they began to amass fine art as evidence of good standing in higher culture.
· The growth of economic cosmopolitanism: Mobility of trade and populations weakened the connection between works of art and the genius loci of which they were once a natural expression. The works become specimens of fine art and nothing else, the production of which is influenced by the economic patronage of wealthy individuals.

· Changes in industrial conditions: Artists are pushed aside to make way for the mechanized process of production and as a result must workout an isolated means (apart from the realities of daily life) of self-expression.

Dewey says that before this “art of for art’s sake” would not have even been understood. He writes: “The forces at work are those that have removed religion as well as fine art from the scope of the common or community life. The forces have historically produced so many of the dislocations and divisions of modern life and thought that art could not escape their influence.”

For the last several years, everything I read gets filtered through the following screen – “what has this got to do with my understanding of the Church?” Scott and I long ago felt a chasm between our aesthetic experience in church and the actual experience of our daily lives. Sunday church experiences were like walking into a museum, oohing and ahhing over the artwork that meant little to us and leaving the building completely unchanged because it had no connection with our daily lives.

Of course, in reading those 50 pages, I couldn’t help but ask a few questions: Are our church buildings meant to exhibit the greatness of our past and “monarchically” collected “loot”? Do we amass (property, people, money, etc.) for evidence of good standing in higher culture? These are topics for another time…
But Dewey writes: “These things [the amassing of art and the buildings that display them] reflect and establish superior cultural status, while their segregation from the common life reflects the fact that they are not a part of a native and spontaneous culture.”

Something spoke to me in those words – native and spontaneous culture. Native – belonging to a person by birth. Reflecting back on this idea of Christendom made up of scattered seed, it seems that if the seed is to germinate and grow there must be a Something - a Substance - that is native to us and allows us to grow no matter what earthly culture we are planted in. I need to think about this more. Guten Nacht my fellow saints.
- Alicia Laumann