Assignment 11

Dewey dwells on the the act of expression in his chapter, and it makes me rethink my sometimes superficial experience as art audience.  Dewey’s theory of expressive acts begins with his claim that every experience begins with an “impulsion” instead of as an “impulsion;” it is the beginning of a complete experience rather than an instant impulse.  However, simply giving way to an impulse does not equate to expression – in other words – not all acts are expression.  Just merely an act of emotional discharge does not constitute expression because it lacks a medium, according to Dewey.  As a complete experience, art and expression require a “prolonged interaction of something issuing form the self with objective conditions, a process in which both of them acquire a form and order they did not at first possess” (p. 65).  A work of art does not merely happen out of nowhere or a sudden impulse, it takes time, purpose, excitement, prior experiences and the creator’s inner reflection and conflicts.  So you basically cannot just call anything art, even God took seven days to create the world, apparently.

To have or understand the entire experience of art, one should appreciate the process and purpose of creation instead of only focusing on the finished product, which we all are all guilty of doing at some point.  Like sexuality, there are many who feel that the short-living orgasm is the most important, but I believe it is the process that gives sex meaning and fulfils the purpose.  Most of the time, we put so much emphasis on the final product when it comes to art, but fail to take into account the backstory and process behind it – and most of the time that is what make the work of art special.  Same goes with the material form of a media.  For example, a movie filmed beautifully on actual analogue film would be considered specially artistic, not just because it has nice cinematography and is well put together, but the fact that a conscious choice is made to have it recorded and processed on film.  For some, it is the fact that it is shot using analogue equipment and methods that constitute the art.

Brun’s obscure rant of composing music and computers is fascinating to read even though I had a hard time truly understanding what he is trying to say.  The fact that it was written in the early seventies where digital music and recording was just starting to be in conversations and analogue production was becoming a mature technology, shows that many of his theories has come true today.  Programmed computers can compose music (or at least pleasing sounds that we consider music), we can even now endlessly and freely modify all sorts of media to a point they are not recognisable compared to its original analogue form.  With music, many mourn the loss of the warmth and realism of the analogue days, and complain about the harshness and artificiality of digital today.  Singers had skills and needed to actually be good singers back then, but now many do not even need to be able to hold a note with the advances of the digital world.  But as Brun says at the end of his piece, “it simply is not the computer that threatens to replace people, the human brain, the composer. Much rather it should be asked whether these three could eventually learn how to understand and to handle the systems which they themselves have valiantly conquered from chaos.”  I guess we did.


Artistic Practice and Composition

Consider Dewey’s ideas about artistic practice, and Brun’s ideas about composition.

How does an artist’s engagement with digital or new media differ from “old” media? Does understanding the material form of a media help you to understand the nature of its mediation?

Where do meaning and aesthetic value come from in these views?

When an artist engages in digital or new media, there is a sense of acceleration and a feeling of limitless. An example would be editing a picture digitally versus developing it in a darkroom. There is still a sense of artistic practice, but it’s different. In “The Act of Expression”, Dewey mentioned that each experience has an impulsion. According to Dewey an impulsion “designates a movement outward and forward of the whole organism to which special impulses are auxiliary (p. 70)”. He then goes on to argue about the inability for artistic expression to be spontaneous. Instead, it is expressed through emotions and past experiences.  Dewey believes that the art itself is calculated. I somewhat agree with Dewey, since there have been moments when artists get an impulse to suddenly create. Although art itself is a craft, there is also some impulse involved.

Brun also spoke about art, but his focus was on music composition. Brun believed that music had a message. He states, “Every musical composition is in this sense a message. In order to hear the musical events as they are being carried to you by acoustical events, it is necessary to find out as much as possible about the originating system before you can be sure you have heard what actually had been played and that it was music…Not only the results of the composition but also the processes of composition are parts of this message.” He compares a musical composition to a computer. Both have a set of instructions used to carry out a message.  Like Dewey, Brun put an importance on rules. He also compared music to communication, stating that it is only analog to communication since it doesn’t serve to be one, although it has the qualifications.

Overall, I do believe that understanding the material form of a media helps to understand the nature of its remediation. Just because the tools that we use are different, doesn’t mean that the value and the meaning necessarily decreases. It just means that we have to find different means of creating.

John Dewey makes me happy!


Every time I read John Dewey, I become so much more optimistic.  He sees so much value in the things people do, the ways they interact with their environment to grow and learn.  Dewey begins by describing how experience begins with an “impulsion,” which is “the movement of the organism in its entirety” towards some outward interest (58).  That true experience is something that begins with the self moving outward, towards some destination in making sense of the world.  Dewey says a “complete experience” is “an activity that calls the whole self into play” (58).  This way of looking at things, to me,  feels positive because it gives power to the individual.  To Dewey, the individual takes information and obstacles from the environment and refines their understanding, so when you read John Dewey as a teacher, you just feel good about learning!  It’s like, “don’t worry about tests, the kids should be having meaningful experiences and grappling with complex questions because that’s where learning really happens.”  John Dewey wrote this in 1935!  Why aren’t we doing this in schools?

I also think the optimism that Dewey inspires could be used to look positively on the ways an artist’s engagement is what matters, not necessarily the media the artist uses.  Yes, we could argue that much of our new technology doesn’t really give us the “complete experiences” described by Dewey, and in fact, it often takes our attention away from complete experiences.  But there’s another side to it too.  Artistic expression, as described by John Dewey is the result of a kind of a potion recipe brewing inside the cauldron of your soul (corny, I know).  It is the way old knowledge bubbles up as “coefficients in new adventures” alongside the things in the environment that help and hinder your impulsion, your purpose (61).  So expression is the coming together of the new elements in your environment, your prior knowledge, and the thing you want to do.  Creating a piece of art is solving a problem or answering a question that you have. Dewey says, “…acts once performed spontaneously in separation are assembled and converted from raw, crude material into works of expressive art.  Only where material is employed as media is there expression and art” (63).  In this sense, the process of creating art is important because the work takes form through the artist’s interaction with the materials, their knowledge, and their environment.  The materials we have in our environment are different from the ones in 1935, but the fact of the matter is that we are still trying to make meaning for through the experiences we have.  For me, this means everyone is capable of artistic expression, because everyone has the potential to have complete experiences in their lives.  That’s why giving kids amazing experiences while learning should be the number one priority, because then we can give kids the tools they need for true expression.

 Herbert Brun speaks about composing a piece of music, and it reminds me of Dewey, in that he describes creating as a methodological process, similar to creating a potion in the lab.  There are ingredients and tools.  There are the things you know about your craft and you use that knowledge to create new things for people to hear, see, ect.  “The contemporary relevance and significance of a composition should be achieved in that it does not appeal to existing means of understanding music but rather creates new means for musical understanding.”  Like Dewey, Brun highlights the importance of the ways in which an artist interacts with their materials to make something.  When he describes the ways in which a composer must understand the systems and elements of different musical instruments, he is describing how composers play with possibilities in a very logical and mathematical way.  To Brun and Dewey, artistic expression is taking what you know and rearranging it into new relationships to create something else.  

When I think of Dewey, I see this potential in everyone, but Brun makes me think about how much raw material, how much prior knowledge, you need to create something like a piece of music.  Brun says, “If I am faced with a certain state of affairs, be it in music, language, politics or family, I will, for the purpose of understanding and evaluating, not only need to know the precise present constellation of all the elements, but also the number of possible states out of which this particular one which faces me had been selected.”  Basically, he’s saying you need to study and know your stuff before you can do anything.  With Brun, I still think everyone has that potential, but we don’t all get to that point.   


Week 14: Aesthetics II

An artist’s engagement with digital or new media is different than engaging with ‘old’ media, primarily due to the differences in the systems that are being used to disseminate these two forms of mediated expressions. While digital/new media can be inferred to have a multimedia and limitless formatting interface and systems governing its execution (no analog at all), the functioning of ‘old’ media is very much contingent on the analog process itself, and usually does not require more than two systems communicating with eachother at the same time. ‘Old’ media can be briefly characterized by Brun’s statement, A system is defined by its information potential and by those algorithms that can control this particular system. Two systems are compatible with each other when they are similarly defined. The degree of compatibility of two systems determines the degree to which they can simulate each other, to which one system may behave in analogy to the other. We are interested here in three main degrees only: fully analog, partially analog, and not analog at all. The system called “Thermometer” is fully analog to the system called “Temperature”, partially analog to the system called “The Weather”, and not at all analog to the system called “Language”. An analogy is a chain of transformations in one system simulating a chain of transformations in another system.’

Having a good working knowledge of the  material form and basic elements of a media does enable us to understand the nature of its mediation, in various capacities. As with the case of understanding and deciphering a musical composition, Brun explains that In order to hear the musical events as they are being carried to you by acoustical events, it is necessary to find out as much as possible about the originating system before you can be sure you have heard what actually had been played and that it was music. For how is anyone to say whether what one heard was music or not, as long as the listener is not even sure as to what “it” was that was heard?’

Meaning and aesthetic value is derived from the connection that gets established and the transformation that occurs through the collusion of the medium and the act of expression itself. The apriori knowledge and emotional disposition of an artist plays a tremendous role in an expression of an artistic piece. Since the conversion of natural emotions into an expressive material is a major feature of creating both old and new media, Dewey makes a clear distinction between art and nature, where ‘art is not nature but is nature transformed by entering into new relationships, where it evokes a new emotional response.’

wk 14 Aesthetics

Wow, Brun was over my head for the most part. What I did get out of his writing was that essentially it is difficult to categorize anything as art for the present or future, because so much of our context for art comes with hindsight. I think Brun would agree that disregarding computers as compositional tools, or part of compositional systems, would be shortsighted. The work being done with computers does not fit in with our historical perceptions of music or art, but they help us do the work all the same. Computers are tools just like pencils and paintbrushes are tools. Maybe the use of computers has implications for analysis of music and art, as Brun tells us “Every decent analysis of a musical work will try not only to state the kind, form, and quantity of acoustical events in the piece, but, more than that, will try to find out as much as possible about the schemes, plans, processes, and logics which the composer may have employed for making decisions.” So, I think that Brun is saying that computers create a certain amount of ambiguity because the system is obscured. Thus, the way we look at the process and the materials is changed, and surely changes our perception of the final product, but is that bad? I don’t think so, but we’ll have to wait a few decades before we can make sense of the movement holistically. I think this ties in nicely with last week’s readings, which brought up the idea that the big shift in art appreciation has been from appreciating form, technique, discipline to appreciating ideas and messages.

Dewey also places a great deal of value on artistic process, though not negating importance of medium and final product, and again with computers or new media, the system or process is obscured both to the viewer and the creator. The artist might not be having a tactile experience the way that they would with non-computer based mediums, but to discount the process of a new media artist would be dismissive. I appreciate Dewey’s stance on art’s place within an individual’s lifestyle, as opposed to placing value mainly in the art object, but I get the feeling that this conversation is headed in a direction where computer based processes are compared to analog processes when the value of one does not negate the value of the other.

14: Dewey & Brun

Speaking from personal experience, yet again, working with new media offers a certain limitlessness to which both Dewey and Brun refer. Its immortal materiality (unlike analog media, it can live forever, permitting the machine that holds it does not fail, fall in a puddle, etc.) lends itself to endless fragmentation – we can cut, flip, and clone pixels as much as we want without consequence. In contrast, the splices we make on audiotapes or film become part of the affected material; we cannot undo the “harm” we’ve inflicted. In this way, understanding the material form very much informs what it intends to “express.” I found Dewey’s distinction “between expression and statement” affirming: not all art has to mean something, it can simply express or evoke an emotion, feeling, or belief (Dewey, p. 90). Oppositional to science, which “states” facts and findings, art need not prove anything. I think many people (artist and non-artists alike) tend to approach art in a way that seeks to analyze a message, but, as Dewey explains, art’s duty is much purer: “Works of art are the only media of complete and unhindered communication between man and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience” (p. 105).

I’m not sure if Brun’s ideology is difficult for me to digest by virtue of his language or because music itself is so abstract to me. In terms of composing in general (here, I mean to say that we can compose writing, visual media, etc.), what I gathered was that essentially everything is a computer and all media is mediated in some way. Brun analogizes the process of scoring with pen and paper to constructing work within a digital interface; two different methods which may result in two different pieces of music, however, both involve computation. What I found alleviating was Brun’s shared interest in human potential: while I may be cynical of the proliferation of digital media, I cannot help but adopt it in some way. Following Brun, I contend that the integration of, and engagement with, all media should continue to emphasize human endeavor: “With such knowledge, we then might successfully try to make ourselves once again, even briefly, appear irreplaceable” (Brun, final para.).

Dewey and Brun

Dewey has some very interesting ideas and can write eloquently. However, much of this essay comes off a bit traditional in its perception of art practice even though he is considered to have been very progressive. He invokes “painters” and “sculptors chipping marble.” He considers precious to art making a prolonged interaction between artist and material (which has long been proven to have nothing to do with the meaningfulness and efficacy of a work of art). Dewey also seems to have a great deal of affection for the tortured artist, toiling away in their studio, driven by their suffering… speaking on behalf of my fellow artists: not necessarily. And so many of the words he uses make me shake my head: “universality” “order” “unity” “expertise” – okay I need to stop because now I don’t want to get pissed off. He does have some interesting, open-minded things to say about abstraction, so he’s not completely off track. The relationship of human experience to art experience (or to art in general) is vital. And meaningfulness reveals something about this relationship. And I absolutely believe that art has the potential to be transformative, consciousness-raising, and political. The best quote comes at the very end: “In the end, works of art are the only media of complete and unhindered communication between man and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience.” He’s clearly pronoun-challenged and male centric, but aside from that: amen!

It is perhaps possible to know what art or, in Brun’s case, music was. We can examine a history, however flawed, that traces the evolution of instruments, composition and appreciation. But is it possible to know what music is in the present or in the moment when it is being heard? If we toss sound (acoustical events) into the mix, proclaiming it to be music (which I do), our ability to sort all this out becomes complicated. The idea that new music/sounds can present new means for understanding is compelling. “It not only will show noticeable changes in the concept of the acoustical system, not only propose new schemes of organization, but also provoke the creation of new circuits in the listener’s mind.” Right on! The enormity of the breadth of sound/music possibilities in the analog world is incomprehensible and it is expanded even further by the digital world. Whether it’s a chisel, or a pencil and paper or a computer, the interaction between tool and artist creates the work. Even in the digital world someone has to write the algorithms, build the software, program, etc. a constant cycle of input and output. Thus, the computer, and all its individual parts becomes yet another tool in the production of sound/music or art. And, at the same time, new technology drives us to expand our notions of a medium – its potential, new problems, new solutions, new sounds. New tools do replace artists and composers the merely change the ways in which we make, perceive, and understand art and music.