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  • Experience as Medium:John Dewey and a Traditional Japanese Aesthetic
  • Joseph D. John

In Art as Experience (1987; 1934), John Dewey seeks to undermine the idea that art has a place above and distinct from ordinary human experience. Instead, he argues that an adequate aesthetic theory must take into account that all art originates in ordinary experience. Artists who create classic works of art do so by finding, manipulating, and developing the aesthetics they experience in everyday life. In other words, Dewey writes, "Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one if its manifest operations" (9). Unfortunately, he notes that most aesthetic theorists attempt to consider art "in itself"—a tendency that can be traced back through Plato. Art is thought to be beautiful not because of how it is experienced, but because of its correspondence to an other-worldly ideal. For the purposes of this paper, I will refer to this view as the Western view of aesthetics, realizing that it is a broad overgeneralization.

One of Dewey's foundational concepts is that experience involves more than our intellectual account of it. Consequently, he argues that the Western attempt to capture art entirely in theoretical knowledge is inherently problematic. Having defined art and aesthetics as "the sort of thing that is in museums," we dichotomize our experience into things aesthetic and things useful, cheapening our understanding and experience of both. We cut off one from the other not only in thought, but in the way we organize our environment. We fail to observe or appreciate other kinds of aesthetic experiences that, if developed, could be far more relevant to our lives than the art in museums. Furthermore, by focusing on ideals instead of experience, we diminish those experiences that we already consider aesthetic.

In this paper, I will discuss some traditional Japanese aesthetic conceptions, as articulated by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1977) and Leonard Koren (1994). These thinkers describe how a different historical experience has led to a set of aesthetic ideas that oppose the Western one in several ways. Like Dewey, they emphasize the importance of "ordinary" experience. Notably, they consider elements unique to experience—ones that resist being made into timeless ideals. I hope that my [End Page 83] consideration of these thinkers might illustrate how the application of Dewey's ideas might bring deeper significance to our "ordinary" experience.

In the face of the error and ambiguity, thinkers have sought refuge by claiming, in various ways, that there exists a reality apart from our experience (Dewey 1984, 21–22). Our imperfect experience, therefore, is something less than real. It is to be disregarded upon the attainment of proper knowledge. Dewey argues that all experiences, even those that involve mistake and ambiguity, are real. Knowledge is only one mode of experiencing (1977, 158–67). He gives us the example of a person startled by what turns out to be simply a harmless breeze at the window. He differentiates between two experiences: the "I-know-I-am-frightened," and the "I-am-frightened". The initial fear he terms "cognitive"; only later, after it was reflected on, could it be "cognized, as a known object" (161–62). Both of these are real experiences.

We must question the assumption that we have knowledge of everything we experience, and that everything we experience is expressible in terms of propositions. In Art as Experience, Dewey writes, "the eye is not an imperfect telescope designed for intellectual reception of material to bring about knowledge of distant objects" (1987, 27). Everything we see is real—not just the things later verified as true. In fact, the "true" things depend on context for their label. There is no strict separation between the "mistake" and the "correction": our experiences do not exist as isolated events. The experience of correcting a mistake would not be possible without the mistake, nor would the mistake be realized as such without an experience of its correction.

By focusing on our "knowledge" of what is occurring, we limit our engagement with our environment it to the things we "know." This imposes an artificial precision that presses us to identify...


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