The Aesthetic (Six)

Today’s post will introduce three additional features/effects often attributed to the aesthetic.


  1. The aesthetic has the effect of widening our sympathies because it bring us into contact with a diverse range of content—and allows us to “get inside” the motives and ways of being of that diverse content. George Eliot offers a much-cited version of this argument in her writing about the novel, and this assertion also figures prominently in Martha Nussbaum’s work.  If it is true, as I argued some posts back, that compassion (which grows out of sympathy) is a key feature of left/liberal sensibility, then the connection between the aesthetic and a leftist politics is fairly direct if the arts do make us more sympathetic.


Dewey offers his own version of  the “sympathy” assertion (even though only in passing and even though that assertion would not seem connected—or even compatible with—the main argument about consummatory experiences.)  Here’s Dewey (once again downplaying “knowledge” in favor of a more emotion-laden relationship to the thing beyond the self that is to be known).  “Friendship and intimate affections are not the result of information about another person even though knowledge may further that formation.  But it does so only as it becomes an integral part of sympathy through the imagination.  It is when the desires and aims, the interests and modes of response of another become an expansion of our own being that we understand him.  We learn to see with his eyes, hear with his ears, and their results give true instruction, for they are built into our own structure” (336).  This kind of relationship to others’ “modes of response” (a good synonym for sensibility, I think) is “instruction in the arts of living (336)” Dewey writes.  This instruction is “something other than conveying information about them [the arts of living].  It is a matter of communication and participation in values of life by means of imagination, and works of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living” (336).

To put it crudely, imagination allows us to walk a mile in another way of life’s shoes.

The flaws in the sympathy theory are obvious.  There are whole realms of art—classical music for instance—it seems to neglect altogether.  Does a Mozart symphony introduce us to “an art of living”?  To a “mode of response” maybe, insofar as it shapes or alters our abilities to hear, but a way of life?  And the notion that the arts foster compassion runs us into too many counter-examples to hold much water.  Are aesthetes really consistently better people than those indifferent to the arts?  And are those aesthetes more likely to be bleeding heart liberals than hard-hearted Scrooges?

Finally, and more substantially, the sympathy assertion requires a robust account of imagination and how it works.   We are in the realm of “faculty psychology” at this point: the psychology that divides up mental functions by positing something that thinks (cognition), something that wills (desires), something that feels (emotion), something that judges (phronesis), and something that images (imagination).  The adequacy of faculty psychology to actual mental functioning is pretty doubtful; it is a kind of high-level “folk psychology” that doesn’t fit with current developments in neurology or cognitive science.  But questions of adequacy aside, the “imagination” as a mental capacity/act is very hard to pin down, since it gets appealed to every time artists want (as I talked about in the last post) to posit “ways of knowing,” and forms of apprehension, not covered by traditional canons of rationality, evidence, and knowledge formation.   Certainly Dewey does not come close to offering a full scale account of imagination in Art As Experience.

And yet.  At issue (recall) is if the arts shape sensibility—and, if so, how?  The sympathy assertion has going for it the fact that it addresses sensibility (openness to and sympathy for other ways of being in the world) and offers an account of how that sensibility is fostered by (at least some) art.


  1. An alternative version of how the arts shape a certain kind of sensibility is offered by Dewey just a few pages later, once again with imagination doing the heavy lifting. The arts alert us, “not directly, but through disclosure, through imaginative vision addressed to imaginative experience . . . possibilities that contrast with actual conditions” (346). “Only imaginative vision elicits the possibilitis that are interwoven within the texture of the actual” (345). [I don’t see how this version of what the arts do can be anything but contradict the main argument of the book, which seeks to embed the aesthetic in “actual conditions.” But let’s leave that aside to pursue the account of the arts suggested here.]


Because the arts provide a place where unrealized possibilities can be imagined, Dewey even goes so far as to say that tomorrow’s realities can be found shadowed forth in the arts of today.  “Change in the climate of the imagination is the precursor of the changes that affect more than the details of life” (346).  Thus, Dewey ends his book with an engagement with Shelley’s apology for poetry.  The poets are the unacknowledged legislators not only because they imagine what has not yet been accomplished, but also because they avoid having “their vision of possibilities . . . converted into a proclamation of facts that already exist and hardened into semi-political institutions” (348).  “Art has been the means of keeping alive that sense of purposes that outrun evidence and of meanings that transcend indurated habits” (348).

What gives art this power is precisely its separation from facts on the ground.  We can imagine what does not exist—and meditate on “purposes” and “meanings” apart from their entanglement in the institutions of socio-political life and the habits of the daily grind.  Art exists in the realm of the hypothetical, not the actual.  We can try things on for size (in imagination) in that realm.  This appeal to the advantages of art’s “fictional” nature has been fairly common in accounts of the aesthetic—and often is linked to an ability to consider alternatives to prevailing customs and social arrangements.  The artist is a dreamer.

Dewey gives this idea a pragmatist twist.  The artists is someone trying to play out—in thought—the consequences of particular possible courses of action.  As such, that artist looks like the scientific experimenter who figures so prominently in all of Dewey’s work.  Yet Dewey, for the most part, doesn’t take this path in his book on aesthetics.  Why?  I think it is because he dislikes pretty heartily thought experiments.  They smack too much of the spectator theory of knowledge.  For him, experiments are very much about working materially and concretely with things.  The experiment is a motivated and controlled, but real, interaction with the stuff of the world.  Experiments are not conducted by armchair cogitating.

For myself, I think there is much to be said about the arts occupying a hypothetical space.  Accounts of the arts that neglect their fictional nature miss something important.  The arts do seem to allow for a certain kind of reflection, a certain kind of stepping away from immediate demands.  But I share Dewey’s uneasiness with extracting the arts too far from the daily chore of getting on with a life.  That said: I do think it part of an aesthetic sensibility to be especially alert to alternatives to current modes of being.  Attuned (because of stepping aside into a hypothetical space?) to other possible ways to live, the aesthetic sensibility pushes against the taken-for-granted.

Whether this belief that things could be different is more a left than right wing outlook is a different question.  I am tempted to say that when the vision of a different life is located in a lost past we should recover, then we have a conservative or right-wing sensibility.  When that alternative is located in a future we should strive for, then we have a left-wing sensibility.  In both cases, the present is unsatisfactory and to be transformed into something else. The arts do seem to provide a particularly suitable place for displaying that possible transformation.


  1. These first two ways of describing what the aesthetic does—or what it affords—rest on the level of content. The aesthetic presents another way of life and elicits our sympathy for it through enhancing our understanding of it.  Or the aesthetic presents possibilities that lead us to question the forms life in the present takes.


But there is another route to take, one that places the emphasis on the Form, not the content, characteristic of the aesthetic.  This approach is the dominant one in Dewey’s book, even though he slips in all these other ways of thinking about what the aesthetic is or does.  This is where Dewey aligns with the modernists—at least insofar as certain modernists wished to downplay the representational content of art in favor of an emphasis on form.

This is where (if I understand him correctly) Nick wants to plant his flag.  The “ordered intensity” art creates is an effect of form, not content (or message).  The arts are emotionally compelling, capture our attention, sharpen our focus, and provide satisfactory experiences through the intensities of form’s elegant constraints.  Think of water collected into a container and then heated.  Instead of dissipating (flowing away) as uncontained water does, contained water acquires a shape while heated water reaches the consummation of boiling (if enough heat is applied).

Dewey, then, like the modernists, wants to focus not on what the art work says, but on the experience it offers both the artist and her audience. In his own key, he is actually not that far from Adorno, who also wants to locate art’s importance—and its political effects—on its form (since form is what makes something, in Dewey’s terms, “an experience”).

How does this work?  For Adorno, artistic form offers a riposte to the “damaged life” offered by modern capitalist societies.  Dewey in the 1930s, influenced by the economic conditions of the Depression and by leftist responses to that catastrophe, offers an argument not that far removed from classic Marxist accounts of alienation.  (In his biography of Dewey, Robert Westbrook suggests that Sidney Hook was a key factor in Dewey’s adoption of various left-wing arguments.)  On pages 341—344 of Art As Experience, Dewey offers his version of the Marxist argument that a more equitable distribution of the products of economic activity will not suffice in curing the ills of capitalist productive and social relations.  “Production of objects enjoyed in direct experience by those who possess, to some extent, the capacity to produce useful commodities expressing individual values, has become a specialized matter apart from the general run of production.  This fact is probably the most important factor in the status of art in present civilization” (341).

Hardly the clearest statement in Dewey’s corpus, famous for its many obscurities.  My translation: we get here a mixture of Ruskin and Marx.  The artist has the privileged experience of “producing” objects “that express individual values.” (Nick and I will be exploring Dewey’s understanding of art’s connection to “expression” in our next meeting, so I will hold off on that topic.)  Most workers, by way of contrast, just follow orders. Their work cannot be satisfactory because, even if they are helping to produce well-formed objects, “there is esthetic form only when the object having this external form fits into a larger experience” (341).  The aesthetic, in other words, stands for the possibility of a satisfactory experience, for an undamaged life.

Access to that undamaged life requires workplace democracy and some workplace autonomy.  Dewey is always insistent that democracy is judged by the quality of the individual lives it makes possible—and his model of artistic creation and the enjoyment of artistic experiences is primarily individualistic.  (Importantly, he does insist continually that democracy is a mode of sociality, and that individuals can only find fulfillment in “association” [a favorite Dewey term] with others.)  We will only have access to the kinds of satisfactory and consummatory experiences that constitute “the aesthetic” for Dewey when we stand in the proper relation to the activities (of which work is a crucial one) that make up our daily existence.  That proper relationship requires a sensitivity to the possibilities of harmonious form (a sensitivity the aesthetic can impart) and an individual investment/ownership of our daily activities that strive to achieve that harmonious form.  Current social arrangements make that individual investment/ownership only available to a privileged few.

To sum up this post: the aesthetic may develop one’s sensibility through the messages it communicates.  It may promote sympathy/compassion and it may shape a habit of considering alternatives to what the present offers and an expanded sense of possible paths out of the present.  It may also be the case that even when the message to be offered is fairly straight-forward and easily conveyed by non-aesthetic means (sermons, moral treatises, political platforms, sociological studies, statistical demonstrations), that the aesthetic is more effective because pitched at an emotional level that resonates more than more “rational” or argumentative discourses.

In short, when we consider the sources of one’s sensibility, to what extent has it been shaped by aesthetic works as contrasted to non-aesthetic ones?

But Dewey’s primary focus (and I think Nick’s) is not in such a direct, message-driven, attempt to shape sensibilities.  Rather, the idea is that the aesthetic models a form of unalienated existence; it offers and instantiates the possibility of the “equilibrium” and “harmony” that would constitute an undamaged life.  Dewey thinks this desire and striving for a satisfactory, consummatory experience is built into human nature.  So it is not as if the aesthetic has to teach us to want it—and that there are sensibilities which forego (or even condemn) this endeavor.

But I do think a position that wants to use the aesthetic to re-form the experiences available under current “damaged” conditions will end up with some version of an alienation argument.  We have become “alienated” from the appreciating (even recognizing?) consummatory experiences, often embracing pale substitutes for it. Our aptitude and appetite for such experiences needs to be “awakened” in contemporary life—and the arts can do that awakening work.

However, that brings us back to the better/worse judgments discussed in the last post.  Only some of the arts can do this job because contemporary culture also offers a multitude of degraded aesthetic experiences.   The trick will be to make these judgments of satisfactory versus unsatisfactory aesthetic experiences without falling into the mandarin contempt of Adorno.  Snobbishness is not only a hallmark of the inegalitarian right. The damaged life argument doesn’t belong exclusively to either the left or the right since T. S. Eliot offers an obvious example of a conservative version.  But whether deployed from the left or the right, it always entails judging some forms of life damaged even if participants in that form do not themselves register it as unsatisfactory.

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