Art and Experience

I was working on a design for a trestle table last month, trying to improve the base structurally, when before my eyes a perfectly utilitarian base changed into a pair of clown feet. I stopped working on the design, assuming that I had gone off the deep end in some way or other, and went off to do something else.

Sure enough, the clown feet didn’t make it into the final design. However, they have stayed in my mind ever since. When they appeared, I’d been working on designs intensely for a couple of days and the clown feet were the first bit of fun I’d had. Three potential commissions were on my desk, and I was focusing hard on how to get the most satisfaction – for me and the clients – out of their desires and budgets. I suspect that something was missing, however, until the clown feet showed up.

clown feet

I was not really trained as an artist. I had art lessons for several years as a child, and my dad taught me things about drawing and woodworking when I was small that have stayed with me; but by the time I got to junior high I was more focused on academic subjects, at least when I wasn’t playing baseball or something, and I read all the time. Only after college did I rediscover the experience of making things with my hands, and by that time I had learned to be suspicious of direct experience.

Still, life has a way of making you re-examine old issues. After returning to full-time woodworking four years ago, I have found repeatedly that the best designs seem to happen when something interferes with an idea I have been pursuing. I am learning to embrace these experiences and to see in them the germ of artistic activity.

John Dewey, lecturing at Harvard in 1931, developed a theory of art on the basis of the response of an organism to its surroundings:

Experience in the degree in which it is experience is heightened vitality. Instead of being shut up within one’s own private feelings and sensations, it signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events. . . . Because experience is the fulfillment of an organism in its struggles and achievements in a world of things, it is art in germ. (John Dewey, Art as Experience)

The act of drawing is experience, and the thing drawn not just an extension of the self but part of the great world of objects and events.

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