Aesthetic Sensibility

Nick and I are scheduled to have our second discussion of Dewey’s Art As Experience on Monday.  We will focus on chapters four and five, where Dewey has all kinds of interesting things to say about art as the expression of emotion.  But I thought it would make sense prior to that conversation to offer a kind of summary of where the previous posts on the aesthetic have landed me to this point.

The aesthetic sensibility, depending on how you understand it, can encompass:

1) Certain sensitivities to (and an inclination to pay attention to) perceptual encounters (hearing for music; seeing for the visual arts etc.)

2) Those sensitivities might stretch to include an attentiveness to or susceptibility to being moved by form (narrative structures; organizations of space in architecture or the plastic arts).

3) An expanded (or cultivated) capacity to sympathize with other ways of being in the world through acts of imagination that make those ways of being more “present” to the perceiver.

4) A propensity to consider multiple possible ways of understanding and responding to situations in which the self finds itself. (Could possibly tie this propensity to an account of “creativity”).

5) Tied (perhaps) to number 4 would be a tendency to consider meanings and values that step outside customary and prevailing views.  Tied (perhaps) to number 1 would be a tendency to dwell on certain perceptual experiences, valuing them for their own sake (the pleasure of the encounter), thus abstracting from a product-oriented relationship toward what a situation presents to the self.

6) An interest in the intensities generated by what Dewey calls “compression and concentration.”  That is, an appreciation of the ways in which formal organization of the materials of experience can heighten their impact.

I don’t see how any of these six possible features of aesthetic sensibility establishes any necessary connection to a leftist—or anti-capitalist—politics.  Yet I don’t want to endorse the kind of absolute divide between a “private” pursuit of intensities, of aesthetic experiences, and a “public “ pursuit of justice like that proposed by Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  The boundaries between the aesthetic and politics are more porous than that.

To be clear: I think that politics attends to desired arrangements for living in the world with others.  The fact that I share the world with others makes politics necessary.  (Hannah Arendt on plurality.)  Those who are passionate about politics care deeply about justice and/or about power.  Either they want social arrangements that they can affirm as just (there are, of course, competing versions of what justice entails), or they want social arrangements that serve and protect their interests against the (real or perceived) threat posed by others.  The exception to that either/or are those who desire power for its own sake—or for the status it confers (as contrasted to the safety or material goods it can secure).

However, it does seem that a focus on the quality of experiences pushes against the instrumental logic of capitalism (with its emphasis on production and efficiency).  The arts do seem to push in the direction of taking one’s time, of savoring available sensations, of focusing on process over product.  In addition, the pluralism of the arts—both the multiple different kinds of artistic practice/enjoyment and their imaginative play with different possibilities—does push against the way things are now, refusing to take the status quo as self-evident or necessary.  Finally, I think Nick’s position tends to a different way of understanding how the arts become political: namely, that the intense and fulfilling experiences that art offers stand as a rebuke to the dullness or positive suffering of the life on offer in contemporary societies.  The arts show that a higher quality of life is possible and desirable.

Three final points:

  1. I have not said anything yet about how the arts can create community. One problem of Rorty’s position is that it makes artistic practice and enjoyment so individualistic.  But the arts are in many cases collaborative (making a film, putting on a play, the studios of Titian or Barbara Hepworth).  And the arts are often enjoyed with others (going to a play or a concert)—and foster a sense of fellowship with those others.  Fandom is powerful social glue.  And maybe that works much more intensely at a football game, or is mobilized much more powerfully by nationalism, but sports and nationalism are at least cousins of the aesthetic in their mobilizing emotions to promote participation in collectivities in which the self is submerged.


  1. Everything said in this post as summary doesn’t help at all with my ongoing attempt to delineate the connection (which I think is intimate) between art and meaning. My hunch (but I am having severe problems cashing that hunch out) is that the arts (in many instances) push us toward asking the local question of what this phenomenon in front of me means and the global question of which things to value over others (i.e. what ways of being are most meaningful).  Do the arts forefront questions of value in a way that other activities do not?  I think they do, but am having a devil of a time coming up with an account that portrays how and why the arts are distinctive in that way.


  1. Aesthetic education stands in a fairly straight-forward relation to the observations in this post. The ability to experience the intensities offered by any given situation is enhanced by knowledge.  The person who knows the rules of baseball is going to “get more” out of watching a baseball game.  There are very few experiences that are not going to be enhanced by knowing something about the various participants in that interaction.  This is what Dewey calls “funded” experience; what we know—and bring from past experiences, memory, and knowledge—into the present contributes to how the present interaction unfolds. The experience will be different for different people with different degrees of knowledge.  Education provides students with that knowledge.  (Dewey, of course, thought the royal road to knowledge was experience itself–nowadays known as “active learning.”)

But there still remains the fact that education understood as I have just described it is about providing the student with knowledge.  What about that other goal: shaping the student’s sensibility.  Will enabling the student to be attentive to the nuanced qualities of a certain perceptual experience also awaken an appreciation of, a positive desire for, such experiences?  That’s why I find Sianne Ngai’s meditation on “interesting” so profound.  She shows how the description of something as “interesting” is a plaintive plea, a call sent forth in hopes of hooking one’s auditors.  Don’t just notice this thing, but acknowledge its worthiness as an object of attention, as a phenomenon worth dwelling on, spending time with.  Take an interest in it.  We have succeeded in shaping someone’s sensibility when we have inculcated that minimal psychic investment of their now finding something “interesting.”  They will not pass it by.  They will attend to it.

A political sensibility is formed when someone dwells on questions of justice—or questions of social order.  She finds those questions of import, of significance, worth attending to.  Those “matters of concern” (the great Bruno Latour term) are not, it seems to me, the same matters of concern that occupy the aesthetic sensibility.  The two sensibilities are compatible; they can co-exist without much strain; they may even mutually influence or reinforce one another in some cases; but they are far from identical, and the presence of one says nothing about the possible presence of the other.

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