"But chiefly we now engaged in mutual listening": Participation in "Art as Experience" and "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"
Howard, Catherine Elaine
Minter, David L.
Doctor of Philosophy thesis
James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and John Dewey's Art as Experience converge in several fundamental ways, all hinging on the notion of participation in art. Although Agee and Evans may seem at first glance to be stylistically mismatched in their book, an examination of their work in light of pragmatic aesthetic theories introduced by Dewey reveals several ways in which they meet. For Dewey experience and community are the major components in confronting existence; Agee and Evans also examine their tenant families in terms of experience and community. Specifically, they approach Deweyan goals in emphasizing the art of the everyday, in using art as a communicative tool to improve a social situation, and in employing art as a way to approximate "truth." Thinking in terms of experience, the more subjective individual factor, gives rise to the idea of perception, of basing one's aesthetic frame on current experience and memories of past experiences. Agee and Evans both participate in this process, which Dewey calls "consummatory experience." In addition, both artists evoke consummatory experiences from the reader. The more objective factor, community, leads to a consideration of democracy, a cooperative of shared moral values. Again, Agee and Evans come together in examining community and in searching for democracy, particularly in their uses of art for communication. A fundamental problem with subject-object dichotomy occurs both in Dewey's theory and in Agee and Evans' work. Subjects, those observing, and objects, those observed, are not equal. Some of the objects that Agee and Evans examine are human beings, potential subjects, who are not allowed to participate in consummatory experience. Dewey emphasizes that thinking of subjects and objects as separate entities is not fruitful; rather, subjectivity and objectivity are processes to be undertaken, and true art occurs when subject and object merge. Although Agee and Evans fall short of a merging of subject and object, both of them mix subjective and objective techniques in their respective portraits of a time and a place. Agee, Evans, and Dewey meet in their uses of participation, both in goal and in method.
American literature; Philosophy; Fine arts