Two weeks ago, I presented a lecture at the Art College Center of Design, in Pasadena, California, titled "Aesthetics, Ethics, and Experience." It was my first attempt to respond to the question of how contemporary artists might connect the "fine arts" to society at large, and I drew from an array of sources, classical (Heraclitus; Aristotle) and contemporary (Dave Hickey; David Milch; Erik Reece), to constellate what I'd like to think Aristotle would have described as a virtuous way of being in the world (as an artist). After the lecture, one of the students remarked that it was the "most liberal arts style" approach she'd come across in art school. I appreciated her compliment, but it reminded me of the urgent need for more generalism in arts education.
As I often insist, there is a lot of beautiful and compelling artwork produced and exhibited today, but it generally lives apart from popular culture. We -- that is, those of us active in the fine arts -- are complicit in this ghettoization because we're content to carry on a conversation among ourselves. Moreover, because we've come to preference our tribe's voices over others, there is a surplus of insider commentary and critique passed off as art. Almost all of this work and wordiness is irrelevant to the world outside the ghetto walls and, because young artists are educated in this context, with little or no pedagogical emphasis on disciplines other than art theory, the art and commentary become, over time, increasingly provincial. The wellspring of this contemporary predicament is as old as modernism.
On the heels of co-curating "A Live Animal" with Selene Foster, I've been rereading John Dewey's brilliant Art & Experience essays (1934). Dewey writes, and I quote him at length because he articulates the crux of the problem so eloquently:
" [Art is today] isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life experience. [...] 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 arts. This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience which are works of art and everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.Amen, Mr. Dewey...though I'd add that the "primary task" to "restore continuity between" works of art and the everyday is not only the obligation of the art writer; it is also incumbent upon the conscientious artist. Artists need to make art that connects to common human experience, and both artists and art writers need to communicate more effectively with the general audience.
[...] So extensive and subtly pervasive are the ideas that set Art upon a remote pedestal, that many a person would be repelled rather than pleased if told that he enjoyed his casual recreations, in part at least, because of their esthetic quality. The arts which today have most vitality for the average person are things he does not take to be arts: for instance, the movie, jazzed music, the comic strip, and, too frequently, newspaper accounts of love-nests, murders, and exploits of bandits. For, when what he knows as art is relegated to the museum and gallery, the unconquerable impulse towards experiences enjoyable in themselves finds such outlet as the daily environment provides.
[...] For the popular notion comes from a separation of art from the objects and scenes of ordinary experience that many theorists and critics pride themselves upon holding and even elaborating. The times when select and distinguished objects are closely connected with the products of usual vocations are the times when appreciation of the former is most rife and most keen. [...] Theory can start with and from acknowledged works of art only when the esthetic is already compartmentalized, or only when works of art are set in a niche apart instead of being celebrations, recognized as such, of the things of ordinary experience. Even a crude experience, if authentically an experience, if more fit to give a clue to the intrinsic nature of esthetic experience than is an object already set apart from any other mode of experience. [...The] trouble with existing theories is that they start from a ready-made compartmentalization, or from a conception of art that 'spiritualizes' it out of connection with the objects of concrete experience. The alternative, however, to such spiritualization is not a degrading and Philistinish materialization of works of fine art, but a conception that discloses the way in which these works idealize qualities found in common experience. Were works of art placed in a directly human context in popular esteem, they would have a much wider appeal than they can have when pigeon-hole theories of art win general acceptance.
[...] The sources of art in human experience will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd; who notes the delight of the housewife in tending her plants, and the intent of her goodman in tending the patch of green in front of the house; the zest of the spectator in poking the wood burning on the hearth and in watching the darting flames and crumbling coals."
I thought of Dewey's argument when watching a video of Scottish cyclist Danny MacAskill that was recently shared by a friend on Facebook. The video offers a more visceral (and therefore meaningful) aesthetic experience than most of the contemporary art I've viewed in the last weeks. An acrobat with his bike, Macaskill is Dewey's "live animal," "fully present, all there" because of he has honed his craft and is, as we often hear athletes put it, "in the zone."
Can contemporary fine art inspire people to exclaim, as one person did in the comments under my friend's Facebook posting of the Macaskill video, "That's crazy & beautiful!"? Can artists again enthuse the general audience?
I believe that we can, and I hope that I can one day have an opportunity to design (or help to design) an undergraduate or graduate art curriculum that prioritizes generalism and social responsibility.
Photo credit: photo of Danny MacAskill ripped from CyclePath Magazine