A Single Stroke a Thousand Times Over: A Philosophical Examination of How Art is Made
Written by: Nicole Valkova
The following article is a paper I wrote last April for a third year Philosophy of Art class. Through sharing this paper, I am interested in providing artists with a theoretical perspective on the applied practice that is artmaking.
In his major writing on aesthetics, Art as Experience, John Dewey tells us a lot about art and the methodology behind it. I find Dewey’s approach to the philosophy of art is more relevant than many other approaches because of the subjectivity of art. Instead of describing aesthetics by drawing from a preconceived definition of what art is, Dewey takes his readers through the process of art; from its creation to our reception and analysis of it. He describes viewing art as an experience of its own, as a closed system outside of everyday existence. He argues that, like particular events that stand out in your daily and ongoing life, an effective work is its own satisfying story of problem and solution.
John Dewey identifies five conditions of aesthetic form: continuity, accumulation, conservation, anticipation, and tension. The element of continuity describes the coherency of a work. A work that is not cohesive does not satisfy us, but instead frustrates us. Contrasting elements push and pull our attention to emphasize certain aspects and add interest. But, for this to be done effectively, a certain level of consistency is necessary. Accumulation is the practice of layering or slowly building which creates the suspense required for a successful experience of art. Conservation is then inherently necessary for this build-up to occur since accumulation requires the conservation of what came before it. Anticipation concerns future decisions, referencing the anticipation built after every step taken which has us looking forward to what comes next. The condition of tension refers to the reason that the result is so satisfying. Satisfaction is achieved through the solution of a problem, and the problem can only exist with the presence of initial tension. Artists themselves work through problems to achieve their result of expression. In revealing these problems in the work, the viewer can then have their own satisfying experience of the piece. This act of problem-solving exists in the perceiver as well as the artist; a certain level of engagement with the expression as well as knowledge of the problem-solving process is crucial in this observation. A show is nothing without an audience, and so, without a willing and/or knowledgeable viewer, the work may not be fully appreciated.
Every single layer and every single step of the artmaking process is made of decisions: decisions made by the artist to achieve their final expression. Dewey emphasizes in this context specifically that what differs between a mechanist and an artist is the idea of a specific ending. The artist has an idea of what to accomplish, but not a single vision of this. Every step forward contributes to the result; the expression. This idea can be overwhelming when broken down a little further. Every single stroke made has a particular hue, placement, and shape, each chosen from countless options. When thinking of art in this way, it can be thought that every work could be any work if each decision was different.
Van Gogh’s Yellow House (painted in 1888) is a great example in terms of visualizing this process as it consists of carefully placed swatches of colour. It employs the idea of contrast that I previously used to explain the element of continuity. The blue of the sky is beautiful, but it would not be in a position to be appreciated nearly as much if the whole work was done in blue hues. The presence of yellow means an absence of blue and so we pine for more. This is a satisfying sort of tension. Simply put, we are always left wanting more and are therefore drawn to continue looking at the piece. The same can be said about the use of yellow; if the sky was a similar hue or tonal value, the result would not be as powerful. However, the similarity in stroke-making offers a continuity that makes this contrast most effective. With something to tie the sky and building together, their differences are appropriate. This is an artful decision by the artist, placing swatches of yellow directly next to swatches of blue. And, the lack of blending makes this all the more striking.
The basis of the work is also important to consider in Dewey’s writings. In this case, a painting done from a reference puts us in an appropriate position to tackle the act of looking in terms of the artist’s gaze and interpretation of the scene. The artist has a natural process of interpreting a scene by dissecting the shape and colour of what is before them. In Art as Experience, Dewey refers to Roger Fry who comments on the ability of the artist to not see clearly. By this, he means that the artist instead observes the relations that are presented before them, and certain elements naturally become more emphasized than others. This process is different for every artist and is what I find to make art inherently interesting. Artists practice art-making; but, in order to do so, they first practice looking. An artists’ natural inclination to see what they see is then translated into their work and allows viewers to pay attention to something they may not have noticed before. In other words, the artist leads the eye of the viewer. As Dewey says, art appears to be universal since its foundation is as real-world components passed through an artist’s perception. So, in combination with the public sphere and the personal processing done by the artist, we see something entirely new. In identifying elements as important to them, an artist makes these elements important simply because they think of them as such. Artists shine a light on what we do not see and allow for more intentional viewing practices.
Since The Yellow House is painted from a reference (one of Van Gogh’s living quarters) we can see how this scene can be depicted differently from artist to artist. In fact, this piece has been recreated by artist Paul Signac, and the difference in emphasis is evident. As mentioned above, Van Gogh emphasizes the presence of yellow and blue, while Signac uses a wide variety of colour and stroke-making. Van Gogh’s interpretation could be based on a sheer affection for these colours which would encourage his subconscious emphasis on them when he practiced looking. But, it is also rumoured that he may have had a vision problem that actually enhanced these hues in his sight. Regardless, either case provides a fantastic example of how art is tied to the way we look. We can also see, for example, how Van Gogh saw the empty depths of the house through windows almost black and the texture of the road depicted with yellow highlights.
The idea of the pure line (as opposed to the illusion of line created by colour and value) is also important to investigate when considering the form of a work. In our perception of the outside world, we cannot actually discern a line, which is one-dimensional. Instead, the line stands for a boundary or an edge. A viewer’s perception and understanding of art are directly affected by the understanding and knowledge of experiences in the real world, and these memories become especially important when representation is less direct. Dewey also adds that our optical perception is not independent but connected with our motor skills, as memories of touch are related to certain forms and combinations of lines and provoke different feelings and expressions.
The lines of Picasso present chaos and demand untangling. A general expression of displeasure and even agony is shown in his painting Guernica, from 1937. We can look to the form to see how this is done. The representation of bodies is made identifiable with the simple act of creating shapes with five prong-like extensions, reminiscent of hands. This hint has us looking for further evidence of persons and we look for the faces we are wired to see. We can identify a wailing face on the left-hand side, and with a small mass clutched in arm, we can infer the relationship of mother and child, all from a few strokes making gentle suggestions.
This expressiveness can be seen even without the knowledge of the work’s backstory, but upon learning about the setting of the image, it is striking how powerfully Picasso depicts the scene to the point where the energy can be assessed with no formal knowledge of its history. Picasso created Guernica to address the Nazis’ bombing of the Spanish town the painting was named after. With this new information, the tension in the image is satisfied with the knowledge of what each stroke worked to accomplish. Now looking back at the image, more faces are seen with new meaning. The chaos is understandable and there is now a feeling of the need to escape close quarters, with concentrated light shown through the white triangular forms. This component evicts the image of light spilling from an open doorway. The scene almost looks like a trample zone with the way the figures seem to be rushing, especially in the presence of animals. The form of the bull is even more meaningful with its accompanied symbolism of the strength of Spain, which is now, itself, in fear.
With this introduction to John Dewey’s philosophy of art and applying it to the examination of two randomly chosen works, my hope is that you may gain a new perspective on how and why you are creating art the way you do. It is special, and I hope this adds a layer of conscientiousness to your act of creating the world for itself. You don’t have to know what you’re doing, but I hope you know why.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York, New York: The Penguin Group, 1958.
“Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso.” 10 Facts About Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Accessed March 12, 2020. https://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp.
“The Yellow House, 1888 by Vincent Van Gogh.” 10 Facts You Don't Know About Vincent van
Gogh's "Yellow House". Accessed March 11, 2020. https://www.vincentvangogh.org/the-yellow-house.jsp#prettyPhoto.