The Aesthetic (Two)

I can’t see my way toward describing “aesthetic sensibility” without making an inventory of the features that comprise “the aesthetic.”  So my posts on this topic are going to meander back and forth across those two topics.

Dewey’s Art and Experience cover a lot of ground.  That’s a polite way of saying it’s a mess.  A kinder verdict would say the book embodies Dewey’s characteristic pluralism, offering a wide range of ways to understand art: its functions, its impact, the reasons all human societies produce it.  For my purposes, that the book offers so many different versions of what art is and what it does is useful—because I want to canvas all the different ways we can think about art.

For Dewey, however, it is not clear how the book’s pluralism can co-exist with his firm declaration, at the outset, that the aesthetic is anything “that intensifies the sense of immediate living” (6; I am using the Perigee Books paperback edition dating from 1980).  “[T]he work of art develops and accentuates what is characteristically valuable in things of everyday enjoyment.  The art product will then be seen to issue from the latter, when the full meaning of ordinary experience is expressed” (11).  Art “works idealize qualities fond in common experience” (11).  “A conception of fine art that sets out form its connection with discovered qualities of ordinary experience will be able to indicate the factors and forces that favor the normal development of common human activities into matters of artistic value” (11).

Intensity, meaning, qualities, and value.  Those key terms indicate what Dewey is aiming for.  In Dewey’s essentially Darwinian account, “life goes on in an environment; not merely in it but because of it, through interaction with it. . . . [I]n order to live, it [the organism] must adjust itself, by accommodation and defense but also by conquest.  At every moment, the living creature . . . must draw upon something in its surroundings to satisfy its need.  The career and destiny of a living being are bound up with its interchanges with its environment, not externally but in the most intimate way” (13).

Dewey’s idea is that, much of the time, we are buffeted by this interchange, submerged in what William James called “the buzzing, blooming confusion” of passing time, just trying to keep our heads above water.  But sometimes, Dewey says, an “equilibrium” (14) or “harmony” (14) is achieved.  That achievement yields what Dewey calls “consummation” (15); it renders an experience that is felt to be fulfilled.  That consummatory experience has a shape, a form, for us.  It can be named, reflected upon, and identified as desirable and satisfying.  It instantiates an ideal interactive relationship with the whole ensemble of beings and conditions that we sum up in the term “environment.”  That ideal relationship is what Dewey claims is “the aesthetic.”

I want now to offer a long quote that leads up to that final claim that “the aesthetic” is best understood as indicating experiences that embody this satisfactory relationship to the environment.  I do so because I want to focus in on several crucial moves within Dewey’s argument. (I have underlined a number of key terms.)

“The world is full of things that are indifferent and even hostile to life; the very processes by which life is maintained tend to throw it out of gear with its surroundings.  Nevertheless, if life continues and if in its continuing it expands, there is an overcoming of factors of opposition and conflict; there is a transformation of them into differentiated aspects of a higher powered and more significant life.  The marvel of organic, of vital adaptation through expansion (instead of by contraction and passive accommodation) actually takes place.  Here in germ are balance and harmony attained through rhythmEquilibrium comes about not mechanically and inertly but out of, and because of, tension.

There is in nature, even below the level of life, something more than flux and change.  Form is arrived at whenever a stable, even though moving, equilibrium is reached.  Changes interlock and sustain one another.  Wherever there is this coherence there is endurance.  Order is not imposed from without but is made out of relations of harmonious interactions that energies bear to one another.  Because it is active (not anything static because foreign to what goes on) order itself develops.  It comes to include within its balanced movement a greater variety of changes.

Order cannot but be admirable in a world constantly threatened with disorder—in a world where living creatures can go on living only by taking advantage of whatever order exists about them, incorporating it into themselves.  In a world like ours, every living creature that attains sensibility welcomes order with a response of harmonious feeling whenever it finds a congruous order about it.

For only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living.  And when the participation comes after a stage of disruption and conflict, it bears within itself the germs of a consummation akin to the esthetic” (14-15).

Lots going on here.  There is the metaphysical claim that “nature” is “more than flux and change.”  It is not a completely Heraclitian universe.  Later, Dewey will assert that “the fact that civilization endures and continues—and sometimes advances—is evidence that human hopes find a basis and support in nature”(28).  “Harmony” and “equilibrium” are achievable, it seems, because life’s desire for “stability” finds an answering “order” in nature.  That order is “rhythmic” because it manifests itself even as time passes.  Thus, “form is arrived at whenever a stable, even though moving, equilibrium is reached” (14).  Form is dynamic; it must be responsive to change even as it achieves some kind of stability.

The aesthetic, then, is linked to those times when we manage to find form.  Using language current today (but which Dewey does not use), form “emerges” in the interaction with environment, but only in those interactions where some kind of satisfactory relationship is established.  And form can only be sustained through an ongoing attentiveness to change.  Like a surfer, form only avoids being wiped out by constantly adjusting to the changes of the moving wave.

Dewey–as is clear through the text’s references to Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge—is recognizably Romantic in this yoking of art to the establishment of a satisfactory relationship to nature.  He also (at least in this text) shares the Romantic faith that human life and nature are not inimical, but is some way or other made for each other.  (Recall that “beauty” in Kant’s aesthetic is basically the apprehension that mind and world are made for each other.)

Dewey insists “order is not imposed.”  But, although he doesn’t say this explicitly, order is not discovered either.  We are in the realm of “half perceive, half create” (from Wordworth’s “Tintern Abbey”), where all we need is the William James-like assertion that the world is “open.”  The world enables the creation of order, the having of consummatory experiences.  It neither makes form, consummatory experiences, impossible or necessary.  It simply makes them possible—and the esthetic is identified as those happy instances when interaction produces harmony and equilibrium.  There are potentials (“affordances” in today’s jargon) in nature that, when activated, yield consummatory experiences.  Of course, lung cancer is a natural affordance, activated by smoking, and the resultant death could certainly be called “consummatory” and qualify as “an experience” in Dewey’s terms.  So not all possible achievements of “form” need be thought positive.

In any case, Dewey clearly believes “life” becomes more significant, more meaningful, when ordinary experiences take form, acquire a “coherence” that also permits them to be recognized as (named?) an experience.  Nick calls this “ordered intensity”—and one source here may be Pater.  The esthetic points us to moments (experiences or interactions) when our sense of who we are, what we are doing, and the world (the environment) in which we are embedded is heightened.  We are most alive at such moments—and there is definitely a strain of vitalism running through Dewey’s account.  “Moments and places . . . are charged with accumulations of long-gathering energies” (24).  Dewey warns against the “dead spots” in which “the process of living in any day or hour is reduced to labelling situations, events, and objects as ‘so-and-so’ in mere succession” (24).

Instead, we need to be conscious of those energies gathered in the present—and art is the name we give to that conscious attention.  “[A]ll deliberation, all conscious intent, grows out of things once performed organically through the interplay of natural energies.  Were it not so, art would be built on quaking sands, nay, on unstable air.  The distinguishing contribution of man is consciousness of the relations found in nature.  Through consciousness, he converts the relations of cause and effect found in nature into relations of means and consequences. . . . The existence of art is the concrete proof of what has just been stated abstractly.  It is proof that man uses the materials and energies of nature with intent to expand his own life. . . Art is the living and concrete proof that man is capable of restoring consciously, and thus on the plane of meaning, the union of sense, need, impulse and action characteristic of the live creature” (24-25).

No surprise that Dewey, who in all his works advocates for “intelligence,” ties art so tightly to consciousness, to the formation of deliberate purposes.  “The rhythm of loss of integration with environment and recovery of union not only persists in man but becomes conscious with him; its conditions are material out of which he forms purposes” (15).  And intelligence entails not only the formation of purposes in response to environmental conditions, but also the shaping of appropriate means to achieve those purposes.  Art, in the largest sense, names this conception and then enactment of “means and consequences.”

I think this captures Dewey’s primary definition of “the aesthetic” as a quality of experiences and of “art” as the conscious effort to craft such consummatory experiences.  Subsequent posts will consider other ideas that get associated with those two terms.  But, for now, let me finish by considering some ramifications of Dewey’s view.

First, he has a relatively benign view of nature—and the conditions within which humans live.  It is not inimical to human desire. But it is also not inert, so cannot be simply passive material in human hands.  Furthermore, time disrupts everything, since it precludes the establishment of persisting satisfactory states of affairs.  Art, then, is the human response to these conditions.  It is the conscious effort to create the best relations possible to the prevailing conditions in which someone finds him- or herself.

Second, Dewey’s view means that he is against any and all forms of aestheticism.  Art is continuous with, in fact an almost ever-present feature of, all experience.  We are very often striving to make our experiences satisfactory and conscious.  Dewey accepts that at times we are just slogging along, mired in “mere succession,” one damn thing after another.  But whenever we are more actively working to shape our relation to the environment in more satisfying ways, we are engaged in artistic activity.

Third (I find this troubling, but Nick does not), this raises for me the question of the status of the art work.  Is that work a representation of a consummatory experience?  Or is the work itself a consummatory experience? (This question, of course, reprises the modernist project of making the work an event, as opposed to a representation—the focus on the question of what the work “does” as opposed to what it “says” or “means.”)  I think Dewey either waffles on this question—or never grasps why it could and should be asked.

Two further complications arise once we try to think about the relation of art works to the experiential definition of the aesthetic that Dewey is pushing. A) Dewey very much wants to reintegrate the aesthetic into the ordinary.  He offers a sharp critique of museums early in the book (pp. 8-10).  The art work, then, could be diagnosed as a symptom of the regrettable extraction of art from the everyday, an alienation Dewey decries in both the first and last chapters of his book—and that he argues is an indication of the pathologies of modern life and of capitalism.  In this view, art works are not the epitome of the aesthetic, but evidence of its degradation.  Yet, in other instances, Dewey clearly wants to honor the art work, not condemn it.  So the question is how do you recognize certain human works as “art” and avoid the isolation of those works into a separate realm/category that distances them from the ordinary.

B) If the art work is to be understood as “an experience” and not as the representation of “an experience,” then we need some account of that experience from the artist’s point of view and from the audience’s. They can’t both be having the same experience, since the artist is crafting the work and the audience is viewing (or reading or hearing) it. Dewey is fairly good on the artist’s experience; in fact, his interactive model works especially well in thinking about an artist’s relation to the materials of his art (stone, words, musical notes, paint and canvas) and how the work emerges through tangling with the resistances and affordances those materials present.  But he is (at least so far) almost completely silent about what the audience gets.

Fourth, which brings us to “aesthetic education.”  Generally speaking, I don’t think the term is being utilized by Nick to designate the technical training of a would-be painter or a would-be composer.  Rather, the focus is on what audiences can learn through guided exposure to art works.  What—in our literary studies and art history classrooms—are we aiming to accomplish?  The answer (it seems) to me that Dewey’s book suggests is we are trying to teach our students how to “read” situations sensitively and holistically (the “art” of judgment, of practical wisdom, of phronesis) and we are trying to teach them how to creatively respond to those situations.  What am I facing in the here and now?  What are the possible roads from here to a desirable future?

Fifth, I don’t know if there is any direct road from this view of what an aesthetic education aims for and a leftist politics.  I am inclined to think not.  I do think a “liberal” education tends toward that open-minded, holistic reading of situations that seems inimical to right-wing sensibilities of our day.  But there isn’t a necessary connection here that I can see.

Finally, in his last chapter especially, Dewey argues that modernity makes having an aesthetic experience more difficult.  I may want to go into his argument in a subsequent post.  But for now I just want to register the issue: are both the project of “aesthetic education” and the opportunities for having a consummatory aesthetic experience severely curtailed under contemporary conditions?  If so, why?  And, more importantly, are these two things—the aesthetic and an education that alerts us to it—cures for what ails us?  That may be where the political rubber can really hit the road.  What would be needed would be a convincing account of the deficiencies of contemporary life (an account that would actually convince people that their lives are deficient)—and a convincing account of how the aesthetic is the path toward a better life.

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