Dewey, Art As Experience (2)

Dewey hates dualisms.  He is (shades of Hegel again) always trying to cross conceptual and existential divides.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that he hates modernist aestheticism, even as he (a fact Nick has made abundantly clear to me) embraces the modernist commitment to a non-representational art that is an experience in and of itself (not the representation of some experience external to it).  And he clearly (it seems to me) wants to make the kind of experience that would qualify as “aesthetic” continuous with ordinary experience.

Yet—he also is committed to the aesthetic experience accomplishing a “consummation” that many ordinary experiences do not achieve.  The aesthetic is connected to “fulfillment.”  That is why the aesthetic in Art As Experience offers a template for the kinds of experiences that everyone should strive to have—and attending to the aesthetic motivates a critique of the social, economic, and psychological conditions that make so much of ordinary experience unfulfilling.  The goal is to make more of our experiences “aesthetic”—that is, fulfilling and consummatory.  Our lives could be more intense and more coherent and more satisfying than they currently are.

This distinction between ordinary experience and aesthetic experiences produces a number of dualisms in Art As Experience.  There is the foundational distinction between “experience” and “an experience.”  Then, when we move onto the discussion of emotion, we get a distinction between an emotion that is “discharged” and one that is “expressed.”  Finally, in the chapters on “form,” there is the distinction between (mere) “shape” and “form.”

So this my objection number two to Dewey’s book.  He maintains a set of dualisms that stand in unresolved tension with his commitment to unity.  In thinking about the aesthetic in my next post, I will be inspired by Dewey to consider the discontinuity between art and ordinary experience—which goes against his fundamental desire to make them continuous.  But his dualisms give me a way of thinking about discontinuity.

Here’s a clear statement of the distinction between “discharge” and “expression,” a statement that (from my perspective) makes clear the “work” that must be done to render something aesthetic.  “The emotion that was finely wrought out by Tennyson in the composition of ‘In Memoriam’ was not identical with the emotion of grief that manifests itself in weeping and a downcast frame: the first is an act of expression, the second of discharge.  Yet the continuity of the two emotions, the fact that esthetic emotion is native emotion transformed through the objective material to which it has committed its development and consummation, is evident”(78-79).   [This position has the unfortunate implication that the grounding emotion has to be really felt by the artist.  But actors—and poets for that matter—may artistically express emotions that they don’t actually have.  Throughout, as I will discuss at some length in my next post, Dewey neglects the “fictional aspect” of the aesthetic—a neglect that is not surprising given his investment in the continuity between the aesthetic and ordinary experience.]

In each case of these dualisms, it seems clear that some kind of work is done upon the material that experience offers.  That work is necessary to move from “experience” to “an experience.”  What seems obvious to me is that the “aesthetic” in Art As Experience becomes another mode of “reconstruction”—which, of course, is Dewey’s characterization of the work philosophy does (or should be doing).

My point is that we need then to attend to how that work gets done.  A lot of Art As Experience does that descriptive task, but Dewey is hampered by his desire to keep the aesthetic and the ordinary continuous.  I think his aim is to render all experience aesthetic.  The ordinary transformed—or reconstructed.  On the one hand, “aesthetic education” teaches us how to perceive, how to take in what experience (or the experienced work of art) has to offer.  “There must be indirect and collateral channels of response prepared in advance in the case of one who really sees the picture or hears the music.  This motor preparation is a large part of aesthetic education in any particular line.  To know what to look for and how to see it is an affair of readiness on the part of motor equipment. . . . [I]t is necessary that there be ready defined channels of motor response, due in part to native constitution and in part to education through experience” (98).  “Education through experience” needs to be guided.  Dewey should say more about the role of the teacher here.  You don’t learn how to listen to a Beethoven sonata—or how to play it—without a teacher.  And I am willing to entertain the notion that the same holds true for ordinary experience.  We can learn how to pay attention to, how to understand, how to value various elements of experience that might pass by unnoticed without the nudges education provides.

Dewey insists throughout that it can never be a matter of immediate experience.  “The other factor that is required in order that a work may be expressive to a percipient is meanings and values extracted from prior experiences and funded in such a way that they fuse with the qualities directly presented in the work of art” (98).  There is no immediate perception in Dewey, and no self-enclosed present moment.  How we understand (judge) what is in front of our nose is always “funded”—and presumably some of that funding is a product of education.  But another part of the funding is more individual, a product of one’s own distinctive experiences, purposes, desires, and temperament.  One’s interests (a word that works beautifully in this context) predispose one’s present moment interactions.  (Acknowledgement to Nick required here since he keeps reminding me of the temporality built into Dewey’s key notion of “experience.”  It is not just our “funded” response—this bringing the past to bear—but also our orientation toward desired consequences—thus bringing the future into the relation—that is present in the present moment.)

Chapter Five of Art As Experience concludes with a stirring statement of what aesthetic reconstruction can accomplish.  I am going to quote from it at length.

“[T]he process of living is continuous; it possesses continuity because it is an everlasting renewed process of acting upon environment and being acted upon by it, together with institution of relations between what is done and what is undergone.  Hence experience is necessarily cumulative and its subject matter gains expressiveness because of cumulative continuity.  . . . Yet apathy and torpor conceal this expressiveness by building a shell about objects.  Familiarity induces indifference, prejudice blinds us; conceit looks through the wrong end of a telescope and minimizes the significance possessed by objects in favor of the alleged importance of the self.  Art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things; it quickens us from the slackness of routine and enables us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world about us it in its varied qualities and forms.  It intercepts every shade of expressiveness found in object and orders them in a new experience of life” (104, my emphasis).

We get here the romantic, vitalist Dewey.  Art re-vivifies the world and the self.  It quickens.  Crucial for Dewey is that art works upon actual experience; it awakens us to this world; it is not offering us a refuge in some alternative universe (the house of art).  I certainly thrill to these kinds of claims for art, for the seductiveness of the intensity it offers, for its ability to render the ordinary luminous, and replace routine with intensity.  How it manages to do that revivifying work will be the subject of my next post.

But Dewey doesn’t stop there—with this account of how the arts quicken individual consciousness and experience.  He also proclaims that art is the best way to establish the most complete and the most satisfactory communication between people.

“Those who are moved [by a work of art] feel . . . that what the work expresses is as if it were something one had oneself been longing to express.  Meantime, the artist works to create an audience to which he does communicate.  In the end, works of art are the only media of complete and unhindered communication between mean and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience” (105).

Dewey’s meditations on democracy turn more and more to the theme of “communication” in the 1930s and 1940s.  Two examples, the first from “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us” (1939): “For every way of life that fails in its democracy limits the contacts, the exchanges, the communications, the interactions by which experience is steadied while it is also enlarged and enriched” (p. 245 in The Political Writings [Hackett, 1993]).  The second from “John Dewey Responds” (1949): “Many years ago I read something written by an astute politician.  He said that majority rule is not the heart of democracy, but the processes by which a given group having a specific kind of politics becomes a majority.  That saying has remained with me; in effect it embodies recognition that democracy is an educative process; that the act of voting is in a democratic regime a culmination of a continued process of open and public communication in which prejudices have the opportunity to erase each other;  that continued interchange of facts and ideas exposes what is unsound and discloses what may make for human well-being”(p. 248 in The Political Writings). [Read this statement in the context of 2020—and weep.]

The claim that art works offer the most “complete and unhindered communication” possible in this sublunary world seems to me overboard.  But I don’t want to deny that artists do (at least in some instances) pay particular care to communicating, while I accept (again, with some reservations) Dewey’s conviction that emotionally charged communication has a potential effectiveness (and impact) denied to more austere pronouncements.

I will end with anticipating a bit my next post.  That art works can revivify one’s relation to the world, express emotions more successfully, render the elements of experience more fulfilling, and communicate with others more completely depends on a certain kind of self-conscious work upon the materials offered by experience.  That work is connected to the creation of “form” out of those materials, as Dewey suggests in his closing words to Chapter VI.

“[Whatever] path the work of art pursues, it, just because it is a full and intense experience, keeps alive the power to experience the common world in its fullness.  It does so by reducing the raw materials of that experience to matter ordered through form” (133).  The world’s fullness needs to be reduced in order to achieve form.  The artist must select out of everything that experience provides for just those elements that she will concentrate upon.

One thought on “Dewey, Art As Experience (2)

  1. I stumbled across this post quite randomly while doing some research on Dewey’s book as it relates to narrative empathy. I must say I enjoyed reading your perspective. I found it both informative and well-written. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

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