Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dewey - Perceiving/appreciating vs. recognizing

I went to a particularly inspiring gallery guide training workshop a few weeks ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and I've been mulling through some of what I gleaned from the teaching and assigned readings and trying to appropriately integrate some of the philosophy discussed into my classroom teaching.

There's too much swimming around in my head to cover in one post, so for now I'm just going to concentrate on one topic from a reading out of John Dewey's "Art as Experience" - derived from a series of lectures on aesthetics he gave at Harvard in 1932.

I was particularly struck by a passage in the book in which Dewey comments on the difference between perceiving & appreciating art versus merely recognizing. Dewey discussed how when we recognize, we fall back on some sort of previously formed scheme relating to arrangements of details as a cue for identification.  We begin to perceive the work, but arrest using our senses to experience the work, and instead focus on clinical analysis. By contrast, Dewey speaks of perceiving and appreciating art as a process of responsive acts that accumulate through our surrendering to the experience and putting forth energy in order to receive it back from the work.  Dewey felt the beholder must perceive and order elements of the whole, much as the artist conceptualized and ordered them, so we in a sense emulate the process of the artist.

When reading this passage, I immediately realized that portions of the way I test students (and by extension imply importance) is linked to students being able to recognize particular works, however, recognition had nothing to do with my most profound experiences with music and art ....the time my dad played Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta  for me the first time and I was floored by its sublime eerieness, my first visit to Europe when I wandering about the ruins of a medieval church in England running my hand along the carefully wrought stonework, even visiting LACMA a few weeks ago and sitting in front of a Rothko piece for 20 minutes, where I first tested out what I read in Dewey about surrendering to a work.  These are all incredibly vivid memories of experiences where I was not totally in control...where something outside of me affected me in a way that was intense and difficult to express, and that had great personal meaning.

So now my question becomes, to what extent can/should the idea of experiencing art be a part of an art history survey course? Is mere recognition enough? Or perhaps a blend of recognition and historical context?  Is it up to the individual to seek out art experiences? If we are going to attempt to engage our students in experiencing art, how can we go about making it fit with the goals of an art history survey course?

I'd love to hear your view on this, and any ways you might be integrating art experiences into your classroom!

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