John Dewey, Audience Development Expert

While doing some other research, I came across a reference to John Dewey’s 1934 book “Art as Experience.”  I have been somewhat familiar with Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy for a while.  His views on experiential learning influenced my own thinking about failure and pedagogy, but I hadn’t realized that he had also written on aesthetic philosophy.   His basic premise is that the way art is viewed, for example (and especially) in museums, separates the art from the experience that engendered it and therefore inhibits our understanding and enjoyment of it.  He writes, “Objects that were in the past valid and significant because of their place in the life of a community now function in isolation from the conditions of their origin.  By that fact they are also set apart from common experience, and serve as insignia of taste and certificates of special culture.” He goes on to ask, “Why is it that to multitudes art seems to be an importation into experience from a foreign country and the esthetic to be a synonym for something artificial.”

How can we bring art down from the pedestal, as Dewey describes it, and return it to the lived experience of communities? And why should we?  The answers seems obvious to me but I’ll explain a little bit further.  We should connect art with communities experientially in order to  develop, enrich and diversify audiences, to garner broad-based support and funding for the arts, and to provide richer cultural experiences for all.

I’ll provide an example of how this first can be done. I met this afternoon with the Home in the Desert team.  This is a project that would most likely be described as “community arts,” although in the old days might have been called “outreach” (a rightfully outdated term).  My colleague Rick Mook described what has been going on at a Boys and Girls Club site in central Phoenix where he, a hip-hop choreographer, a spoken word performer, and other guests from the community are working with a couple dozen youth from the neighborhood. The youth and the project leaders walked around the block and collected media: sounds, images, and movement from the desert neighborhood. The choreographer pointed out movement ideas inspired by the approaching sunset and developed a gesture vocabulary with them.  The kids recorded the movements on video. The next night they reviewed the material and the kids took notes of what was most meaningful for them.  Last week they had a spoken word workshop with a guest poet.  The next night they recorded some of the spoken word poetry. In the midst of developing the work they also learned how to use the sound equipment, do the mixing, set up takes, and edit on the fly.   For the last half hour, the kids didn’t need any instruction.  They kids were making art, the artists were making art, and they started from an experiential act of observation in the very neighborhood in which they lived.  In April, they’ll perform the work in front of an audience from their communities.

At (or near) the other end of the socio-economic spectrum is “Sleep No More,” the hit show from Punch Drunk Theatre based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  What makes the production unique — and exceedingly popular – is that the performance is most definitely *not* put on a pedestal.  Audience members literally experience it, masked, following performers from room to room, sometimes kissed by them, sometimes startled, sometimes locked out of little rooms and sometimes invited in.  The audience buys tickets, sometimes repeatedly, because it is an EXPERIENCE.  The audience members become a community (despite the masks).  This is not a shameless plug for the production – it definitely has its drawbacks – but rather is another example of EXPERIENTIAL artistic consumption.

For both of these groups, the creators and participants in Home in the Desert and the creators and audience of Sleep No More, the art is not separated from common experience.  It is *lived*.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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4 Responses to John Dewey, Audience Development Expert

  1. Kevin Clark says:

    I had this post open in a tab, but had not yet read it, when this morning I wrote about cultural events becoming more like parties. I really need to go back and read more Dewey – my points are mostly about the changing focus from the materials of art to audience experience, and how competing with netflix is forcing us to make cultural events more like social events. FWIW:

    • lindaessig says:

      Experiential art (or social events) seem to me to have little in common with netflix. Rather than being in competition, interactive participation is directly antithetical to the passivity of netflix.

  2. Kira Campo says:

    Another book you might enjoy is ‘The Everyday Work of Art’ written by Eric Booth. Booth touches on many of Dewey’s central themes and couples his thoughts with suggestions for application

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