Many of my own assumptions about the nature of art and literature (and thus the guiding assumptions behind many of the posts on this blog) are rooted in my reading of the philosopher John Dewey, most particularly his book Art as Experience. Here are the first two paragraphs of that book:
By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them. For one reason, these works are products that exist externally and physically. In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding. In addition, the very perfection of some of these products, the prestige they possess because of a long history of unquestioned admiration, creates conventions that get in the way of fresh insight. When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.
When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is build around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement. A primary task is thus imposed upon one who undertakes to write upon the philosophy of the fine arts. This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience. Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations. It is the business of those who are concerned with the theory of the earth, geographers and geologists, to make this fact evident in its various implications. The theorist who would deal philosophically with fine art has a like task to accomplish.
Note that Dewey acknowledges art as "refined and intensified forms of experience." It will be his task to "restore continuity" between art as a singular kind of human achievement and "the materials and aims of every other form of human effort." He will neither reduce art to the "materials and aims" of "everyday. . .doings"--as did the Marxist critics of that time (1934)--nor accept the metaphysical exaltation of art to "a separate realm" where the designation "classic" removes all responsibility from works of art (and from their critical champions) to provoke "fresh insight." Art has to live in the present or it doesn't live.
And when Dewey cautions that art must always be attributed to "conditions of origin," he doesn't mean that art merely reflects those origins or that our understanding of its meaning has to be tied to what it meant when those conditions prevailed. As he writes a few paragraphs later, we simply want to remember that art is a human creation, that buildings such as the Parthenon came from "needs that were a demand for the building and that were carried to fulfillment in it"; this is not "an examination such as might be carried on by a sociologist in search for material relevant to his purpose." Dewey ultimately had very little use for history or anthropology as ways of "disciplining" our understanding of human possibility, and this extends to his "theory" of art as well--we should think of the Athenians as like "people in our own homes, and on our own streets." The Athenians are projected into the present as people we would recognize, their art as relevant to us as to them.
In fact, Greek art (and, ultimately, our own art) can survive only by continuing to project itself into the future, as a manifestation of aesthetic accomplishment and possibility:
By common consent, the Parthenon is a great work of art. Yet it has esthetic standing only as the work becomes an experience for a human being.
Too much criticism and interpretation of art, especially traditional art, actually inhibits its ability to become "an experience for a human being." The works themselves become encrusted with tendentious commentary meant to advance one external ideology or another, protect one or another cultural bias, rather than allow viewers/readers/listeners to judge for themselves. A proper Deweyan critic would either seek to help the audience for art have a more satisfying experience of it (in the ways Dewey will discuss later in the book) or otherwise just get out of the way.
To be continued. . .