182. John Dewey’s Philosophy of Art

The American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) offered a groundbreaking account of art in his Art as Experience (1934). This account, which reorients our understanding of art towards aesthetic experience, forges profound connections with education, democracy, and evolution. In what follows, I will try and make some these connections clear and show their importance to our contemporary culture. Unless noted otherwise, I will be quoting from Art as Experience which can be found in Volume 10 of The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press).

Dewey’s Instrumentalism

Dewey formulated all his mature philosophical ideas in light of the theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859. Dewey fully agreed with Darwin that we are changing beings in a changing world. Although nature has regularities, it contains no natural purposes or fixed species. This dynamic and constantly changing world requires us to constantly adapt to changing circumstances. The goal of inquiry is not to discover eternal, unchanging forms since according to Dewey these do not exist. Rather, it is to make coordinated and fruitful adjustments in the face of perilous situations. One can see how this biologically-based vision permeates Dewey’s account of education in this passage from his Democracy and Education:

“It is the very nature of life to strive to continue in being. Since this continuance can be secured only by constant renewals, life is a self-renewing process. What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life. This education consists primarily in transmission through communication. Communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession. It modifies the disposition of both the parties who partake in it.”

From this one passage we can see the core of Dewey’s pedagogy: education is a process of mutually informing communication through which students come to participate in a renewing process. This process has two basic factors: (1) knowledge must be passed on to students so that they are in possession of the fruits of human experience; and (2) since the world is changing and new problems will arise, students must learn to experiment with this knowledge and creatively apply it in problematic situations. Dewey’s vision thus steers between a traditional approach to education in which conformity to the past is central and a progressive approach which does away with the past in order to cultivate the novel individual. For Dewey, we do need to pass along knowledge.  But this passing cannot be a matter of passive reception. Rather, students must learn to renew the past in light of new and relevant problems. Another way to put it is to say that our knowledge needs to be instrumental to further growth through intelligent action. As Dewey says, “knowledge is instrumental to the enrichment of immediate experience through the control over action that it exercises” (294). This instrumental approach to knowledge is necessary for a thriving democracy that must face new problems and respond intelligently to them. 

Art as Experience

But how does this intelligent control over action come to pass? How can instrumental knowledge be cultivated? On one hand, we need to employ a method akin to the scientific method to obtain knowledge through verification. On the other hand, Dewey recognizes that aesthetic experience and art is essential to making knowledge instrumental.  But what is aesthetic experience? And what is art? To answer these questions we need to understand Dewey’s vision of experience. By doing so we will be in a position to return and see how art and science can work together to make knowledge instrumental for both individual and social growth.

Dewey defines experience as an affair of the intercourse of a living being with its physical and social environment. In Democracy and Education he notes that this intercourse has both active and passive elements: “On the active hand, experience is a trying—a meaning which is made explicit in the connected term experiment. On the passive, it is an undergoing”. In aesthetic experience the trying and undergoing is marked by a flow from one phase to another with no dull moments or awkward frictions. The movement from the past into the future retains meaning and, rather than coming to a mere end, leads to a point of consummation. Whenever qualities of integration, drama, and heightened meaning are present then experience has become aesthetic; it has become, as Dewey says, an experience.

It is important to emphasize that such experiences are present all around us: “In order to understand the esthetic in its ultimate and approved forms, one must begin with it in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of man, arousing his interest and affording him enjoyment as he looks and listens: the sights that hold the crowd—the fire engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing a steeple-side; the men perched high in the air on girders, throwing and catching red-hot bolts.” (11)

Aesthetic experience is something we all share in; it is not something that is confined to mysterious, ethereal things that need to be locked away in museums and worshipped as divine creations of divine people. Historically, art was always part of a culture and its activities. But in time this changed. Dewey claims that capitalism, industry, and the marginalization of artists have led to a division between art and the social order. Capitalists looking to make an investment collect art, maintain it privately, and sometimes show it off or sell it. As a result, the work of art becomes a commodity.  An increasingly materialistic public, desiring to show it is still interested in culture, erects museums, opera houses, etc. But by doing so art is divorced from common life. Industry allows works to be mass-produced and sent far beyond their indigenous location. This uproots the natural social connections and gives the impression of works as autonomous things with little or no relation to their origin. The artist, left out of the capitalist rat race in so many ways, becomes an impractical eccentric who, in turn, creates more and more eccentric and rebellious works thereby making art more inaccessible than it already is (14-15).

To deal with this unfortunate state of affairs, we must return to aesthetic experience as the foundation of our philosophy of art and seek to regain art’s integral place in everyday life. This will entail making a crucial distinction between the work of art and the product of art. Dewey claims that the work of art is the aesthetic experience and the product of the work is the outcome that can be presented for consideration. This part of Dewey’s analysis is very much in line with expression theories of art which maintain, roughy, that an artist has an idea or feeling which is expressed through a medium for others to experience as well. According to Dewey, we have the following:

(1) First someone has an aesthetic experience which is the work of art: it is the process of trying and undergoing that unfolds with a quality of continuity toward a consummation.  

(2) The aesthetic experience can then be translated into a medium. If it is, then we have a product of art.

(3) If we have a product of art then it will have the potential to give rise in others to a new work, that is, a new aesthetic experience. This experience will entail another trying and undergoing, an interaction of the product and the audience. Dewey explains:

“[T]he product of art—temple, painting, statue, poem—is not the work of art. The work takes place when a human being cooperates with the product so that the outcome is an experience that is enjoyed because of its liberating and ordered properties.” (218)

So someone can have an experience of the sea and then, having undergone or perhaps while undergoing aesthetic qualities, can write a poem which would be a product of the experience. The experience and the process of creation would be the work—an experience that entails resistance, risk, imagination, and the restructuring of habits, perceptions, and beliefs—and the product would be the written expression of these factors. When others read the poem they may have a similar aesthetic experience, a similar work. But each individual is unique and will interact with the product in unique ways.

Aesthetic Experience and Imagination

In the above quotation you see that Dewey thinks the experiences we have with products of art should be “liberating”. This word enables us to grasp how his vision of art is, despite its expressive dimensions, also instrumental or concerned with function and the cognitive affects art can have. For Dewey, art isn’t only a matter of feeling what someone else felt: it is about having our cognitive faculties stimulated and developed as well. Feeling is indispensable in aesthetic experience. But art can be instrumental to so much more than the experience of feeling. Indeed, Dewey claims that “Art is a mode of prediction not found in charts and statistics, and it insinuates possibilities of human relations not to be found in rule and precept, admonition” (352). This “mode of prediction” is not about verifying propositions with the scientific method. Rather, it is about generating new imaginative visions and possibilities so that our knowledge can become flexible, intelligent, and meaningful. Reason and analysis are, of course, important. But it is through the liberating powers of imagination that the past gets creatively renewed; and imagination is most fully present in aesthetic experience: 

“Aesthetic experience is imaginative. This fact, in connection with a false idea of the nature of imagination, has obscured the larger fact that all conscious experience has of necessity some degree of imaginative quality. For while the roots of every experience are found in the interaction of a live creature with its environment, that experience becomes conscious, a matter of perception, only when meanings enter it that are derived from prior experiences. Imagination is the only gateway through which these meanings can find their way into a present interaction; or rather, as we have just seen, the conscious adjustment of the new and the old is imagination.” (276)

In art, this imaginative process will unfold in relation to material and will involve a conflict of inner and outer vision. Thus imagination doesn’t refer to some mysterious faculty of the mind. Rather, it refers to a conscious process whereby inner and outer vision fuse and result in a new pattern or unity. Dewey goes so far as to call imagination the “chief instrument of the good” in its ability to elicit the “possibilities that are interwoven within the texture of the actual.” He continues with a passage that shows the deep power of art to contribute to social critique and change:

“The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art. The impregnation of the characteristically new art of a period with a sense of different values than those that prevail is the reason why the conservative finds such art to be immoral and sordid, and is the reason why he resorts to the products of the past for esthetic satisfaction.” (342) 

It is the imaginative dimension of art that enables us to elicit possibilities that can then guide our rational inquiries in new ways.   

Art and Democracy

Nowhere is this clearer than in art and its relation to democracy. Dewey connects his instrumental theory of art to democracy in ways that we ignore only at our peril. For Dewey, experimental education provides the content and method so that all individuals can find a way to develop their unique potentials and in doing so contribute to the democratic order.  But this order is precisely what allows individuals to develop their skills and be afforded the rights to help insure their flourishing. So we see that social and individual growth are inexorably intertwined. Unfortunately, so much of our current pedagogical practice is marked by the memorization of information, ideas, facts, theories, and arguments that someone else has discovered. But one of the more gratifying experiences in life is to discover something oneself by following an inquiry into the unknown that arrives at an unforeseen destination. Artists, if they are not simply reproducing something that has gone before, enjoy the fruits of struggling with material and seeing something gradually form out of the creative process. Their tentative plan gets altered in light of the struggle and something new emerges. Unfortunately, when it comes to education, this artistic dimension gets overshadowed by techniques of repetition. Test scores are important if one is to get a good job and our culture has placed money at the top of its value system. To be sure, those who value scores and money are not totally misguided. But to only value such things is problematic. Why exactly?

Well, to reduce education to techniques of uncreative repetition and conformity is to undermine the conditions for individuality. Recall that Dewey is thinking in light of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  He hopes that, after being empowered with the method of reflective experience, people will be prepared to adjust to the challenges of an ever-changing world. Right now, our world is changing fast. Our so-called global village is, in many ways, a village of information that is constantly being updated, revised, criticized, shared, corrupted, and stolen. To enter into this network of peril and promise with a passive mind is to run the risk of being lost in it, manipulated by it, or destroyed by it. Our world is full of career changes, relationship changes, and radical cultural changes. Can we expect a person emerging from a non-interactive education process to reflect and creatively adjust to these changes in such a way that self-realization comes to pass?   I don’t think we can.  

And what of the social order in which the individual lives?  If we foster passive reception of information we cannot expect to have engaged, critical citizens. If we foster an excessive obedience to authority we cannot expect to avoid conformists that will follow unjust and immoral beliefs into tragedy. If we produce corporate mentalities bent on winning the rat race then we cannot complain when the darker aspects of capitalism and corporate greed become so destructive. And if our citizens are not creative we cannot expect to have those aesthetic visions we need to grow. Dewey, as we have seen, tells us that the products of art enable us to see new possibilities that can help us prepare for a better future. They can help us understand those deep meanings that elude those who are only superficially connected to certain aspects of their world. Since this is an instrumental theory, it will very often be a matter of evaluating products of aesthetic experience according to how much imaginative vision they in fact bring and what consequences do in fact follow from this vision.

But this means we need, on the one hand, artists to create the products and, on the other hand, people who can sympathetically and critically experience them. Unfortunately, engaging with art is no easy task!  It is certainly not about going to museums and politely taking it all in with a camera. This is a serious problem insofar as the desire for instant gratification prevents many from undergoing art and expanding their visions for a better future. Art and science inevitably include perplexity, set backs, revisions, and doubts. Many people periodically want to engage in some creative process that will help them find their calling, be happy, or stand out as unique.  But many quit if transformation doesn’t come fast.Resistance, rather than being seen as an occasion for development, is seen as an impasse. And, to make matters worse, there are always sophists waiting to give people something that will let them appear to be what they want to be rather than being what they want to be: there are plenty of ways to spend your money if you want to pretend to be creative, thoughtful, adventurous, and politically active. 

Dewey believes this scenario should be absolutely unacceptable to us. He calls upon educators to believe that we can lay down the proper foundations in children that will help them rise to the challenges along that difficult path. But he also calls upon visionary artists to contribute their products so we can hope to grasp some of those intimations that are not accessible through cold, calculated reason. His hope is that knowledge can become instrumental if art and science come together and certain virtues of experimental inquiry can be developed. By doing so we can hope for more individual and social growth. 

For Dewey’s theory of experience and tragedy, go here.

For Dewey’s “tragedy of the individual”, go here.

For more on Dewey’s vision of the imagination, go here.

For more on Dewey’s education theory, go here.

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