- Dewey for Artists by Mary Jane Jacob
Mary Jane Jacob. U of Chicago Press, 2018.
Mary Jane Jacob, the author of Dewey for Artists, is neither a philosopher nor an artist, but a renowned curator who came to the writings of Dewey in the course of her work. For many years, Jacob has organized exhibitions championing artists who make social practice art, including Rirkrit Tiravanija, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Theaster Gates, to name a few who appear in this book. Their art is not primarily about making objects but is instead about producing social interactions between people. It is Jacob's conviction that Dewey's writings help explain the aesthetic and political value of this kind of art making.
The title, Dewey for Artists, is a bit misleading as it suggests the book is for all artists, but the emphasis is really on artists who work in the mode of social practice. Painters and printmakers will not find anything specific to the concerns of their craft here. It is, however, this narrowness around a focused subset of artists that is the great strength of this book. Jacob makes no grand claims about how theory in general should relate to artistic practice at large. [End Page 108] Instead, she outlines a defined group of artists who have already found the work of John Dewey to be of practical use to them. Any philosopher interested in the relation of theory to practice will find this text an interesting case study on how philosophy is relevant to the arts, even if that relevance is limited and specific.
For those unfamiliar with social practice, this book is an excellent introduction to many of the most important pieces and artists working in this mode. Social practice goes by other names, including participatory art, relational aesthetics, and socially engaged art (SEA). The semantics are less important than understanding that this work eschews traditional materials and focuses on human interaction as its primary medium. One piece discussed in the book is Immigrant Movement (2010) by the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera. Bruguera established a center for recent immigrants to Queens, New York, in order to connect them with basic community resources and provide access to legal assistance. In form, it resembles a charitable organization; however, it was underwritten by the Queens Museum and conceived of as a work of art. It is work like this that Jacob argues benefits from the philosophic perspective of John Dewey.
The book is divided into two sections. The first shows affinities between John Dewey's naturalism and many artists' ideas regarding art making. Jacob brings to light similarities between Dewey's perspective on experience and the goal of achieving mindfulness in the art-making process. There is no critical interrogation of Dewey in this section, but it clearly lays out Deweyan ideas on topics like the aesthetic value of sensation, the role of the body in art making, and the role of memory and duration in the appreciation of art. Jacob outlines dozens of social practice pieces and teases out how artists and participants relate to the unfolding of these works along the line of Dewey's descriptions of experience.
The second section of the book pivots from the individual to the social and considers the political import of social practice art. Again, in this section, Jacob is not challenging Dewey's ideas on democracy. Instead, she builds a case that Dewey's proposal that democracy is a way of life is demonstrated and amplified in the works of the artists profiled. Sometimes this democratic ethos is explicit, as in the work of Bruguera, but in others, it is implicit, as in Michael Rakowitz's "Enemy Kitchen," where the artist coordinated US-Iraq war refugees and former US soldiers to prepare and serve traditional Iraqi dishes. Here, art becomes the reason to break bread with a supposed enemy. As Jacob argues, it is in work like this that artists and participants enact the kind of empathy and shared action that Dewey says [End Page 109] ground democracy, serving as the evidence for her conviction that "[t]hey start with food and end with politics" (96). This...