Dewey, Art As Experience (3)

I am now ready to offer an account of the aesthetic that is inspired by Dewey but departs fairly drastically from him as well.  The key point of contention is the continuity between artistic endeavors and ordinary experiences.  My account will make much of the peculiar powers and capacities art acquires precisely because it is discontinuous with everyday life.

Where Dewey helps me is his description of the work that the artist does upon the materials offered to her by the everyday.  Here are some of Dewey’s helpful statements on that score.  My “conception . . . of esthetic experience,” Dewey writes, “is, indeed, that the work of art has a unique quality, but that it is that of clarifying and concentrating meanings contained in scattered and weakened ways in the material of other experiences” (84).  “[M]aterial is not subordinated to some particular and antecedent meaning . . ., but it is reconstructed and reorganized to express the artist’s imaginative vision. . . . Drawing is drawing out; it is extraction of what the subject matter has to say in particular to the painter in his integrated experience” (92, Dewey’s emphasis).  “Art . . . carries further, through selection and concentration, the reference to an object, to organization and order, beyond mere sense” (126).  “Through art, meanings of objects that are otherwise dumb, inchoate, restricted, and resisted, are clarified and concentrated, and not by thought working laboriously upon them, nor by escape into a world of mere sense, but by creation of a new experience” (132-33).  “Emotional energy continues to work but now does real work; it accomplished something.  It evokes, assembles, accepts and rejects memories, images, observations, and works them into a whole toned throughout by the same immediate emotional feeling.  Thereby is presented an object that is unified and distinguished throughout” (156).

The artist achieves intensity (a focusing of attention and of energies) through a “work” of concentration, compression, unification, selection, and reduction.  I can accept that we all might perform a similar work in our everyday lives—since we attend to only part of what lies in front of us and we strive to understand it and be responsive to its features by deploying strategies of concentration, unification etc.

Thus it is not the features of artistic work that I want to highlight.  Rather it is the conditions under which that work is done.  I have five I want to consider.


  1. Framing. Drawing boundaries around any activity can increase its intensity.  In part, this is an effect of concentration/selection, of only admitting within the frame things that are pertinent.  The banishment of the non-relevant focuses matters.

But there is also the effect of deliberately and self-consciously stepping into the bounded arena.  We are here in this space now to do this and only this.  Framing creates a kind of unity of purpose that is hard to achieve in daily life.  Games, classrooms, the operating room, and the bounded canvas of traditional paintings are only some examples of the power of spaces designated to one purpose—and one purpose alone.  Everything else is to be checked at the door.

Such spaces are artificial; they must be constructed.  The natural world does not come to us in bounded chunks or with sacrosanct spaces.  Dewey’s aesthetics neglects both the rationales for and the processes through which framing occurs.  Framing, I am suggesting, is a powerful and deliberate device erected against the “disordered heterogeneity” (157) that characterizes much of ordinary experience.

It is worth saying here that modern art has been very self-conscious about framing and its effects—and has often tried to deconstruct frames.  From Duchamp’s Fountain (calling out attention to the institutions of art and the semi-sacred space of the museum) to Jo Baer’s paintings, artists have highlighted the artificiality of the frame, sometimes in the name of being more real, more attentive to a non-exclusionary heterogeneity, at other times in order to simply increase self-consciousness about framing effects.


  1. Reflection/Self-Consciousness. Precisely because the artist works upon material provided by the world (whether that material be the emotions and thoughts arising out of experience or just the material stuff—paint, words, rock, sounds—the world affords), there is a stepping back from the flow of experience to this deliberate fashioning of something out of it.

Maybe what I am saying here is that there is a difference between “working” and “living”—and that Dewey (perhaps pragmatism as a philosophy) is blind to that difference.  Does the interaction model imply that we are always working, that we are always fashioning what the situation provides in relation to needs and purposes?  Isn’t walking through a landscape taking in its sights and sounds different from working up those sights and sounds into a painting or an essay?  Is Thoreau’s living in his cabin distinct from Thoreau’s writing about that experience, striving to derive and communicate that experience’s meanings?

In other words, are we self-conscious in every moment?  Or, alternatively, is it possible to do work without being self-conscious?  Work is the quintessential case of Deweyean “intelligence”—the movement toward a desired end in relation to the means afforded by the materials at hand, the resources available to the worker.

My question here has two parts.  A) Are we always working?  One way of understanding the Darwinian interaction model would answer that question Yes.  I am not so sure.

B) Doesn’t work require a kind of self-consciousness, a kind of deliberate action, that also requires certain enabling conditions—conditions that ordinary experience often does not provide? For starters, work might require a dedicated, framed space: a room of one’s own (or, at least, a workplace). The pandemic, of course, is challenging that spatial division, but doing one’s job on-line in the kitchen or the bedroom (the complete collapse of a distinction between domestic space and work space) is an experiment whose results are still undecided.  More globally, I am suggesting that there is the sense of crossing a border from one way of being in the world to another way of being when one sits down to work.  The artist as well as the engineer self-consciously takes up her tools.  We don’t live every moment so self-consciously focused or so oriented to getting a specific thing done.

I suspect that Dewey thinks self-conscious focus and achievement are the most fulfilling form of human life.  There is a deeply buried work ethic in Dewey, with his emphasis on “consummation,” on bringing things to “fulfillment.”  Yes, he wants to celebrate process over product, but the process is always ends-driven, and engaged intelligence is his version of both Socrates’ “the examined life” and Mill’s pleasures of a higher animal.


  1. A crucial—and to me truly decisive—discontinuity between art and ordinary experience is the relation to time. In our everyday experience, time cannot be stopped.  There is not, pace Prufrock, time for visions and revisions.

The artist gets to step outside of time and work on the materials that ordinary life provides.  Yes, there are deadlines—and there are the assorted pressures that a life in time presents—but the artist can work on his novel or his painting for eight years, striving to get things right.  The framing inherent to the aesthetic is not just spatial, but also temporal.  The luxury of reflection, of intense self-consciousness, requires not just a room of one’s own but expansive amounts of time.  Both, needless to say, are luxuries not available to a majority of the world’s inhabitants.  The relation to the materials provided by experience is radically different if one must react in real time or if one has the ability to step back, mull things over, revise one’s first (and second and third) responsive move, and manipulate various inputs to achieve an integrated whole.  Art’s ability to achieve unity and coherence—not to mention the eloquence of its expressions of emotion and insight—is directly related to this slowing down of time.

Art is not entirely non-temporal.  Art forms like the novel and music are explicitly temporal—but they demonstrate (and glory) in a kind of dominion over time that cannot be achieved in “real life.”  To miss the discontinuity between the arts’ relation to time and the way we all must live temporally in our ordinary lives is to miss a distinctive reason art is so powerful.

  1. Games and work benefit from the intensification effects of framing. But it is not obvious that they have the same relation to time as the arts.  Yes, a musical or dramatic performance, like a baseball game, is a “one-off”—and thus subject to irreversible results (well-played or marred by errors).  But the creative artist gets “do-overs” in the way that performers or the players of a game do not.  Revisions and mulligans come with the territory of creating an art work.

Furthermore, not only does the artist step out of “real time,” but the artist also works in the realm of “fiction.”  On the one hand, it is not surprising that Dewey, who really had barely an aesthetic bone in his body, missed the fictional nature of the arts.  But on another hand, it is shocking that he did so—because of his life-long advocacy for “experimentation.”  In a certain way, the space of the arts is not very different from the space of the laboratory.  In both cases, the practitioner gets to assemble various materials, see how they interact with one another, and not have to worry about the results of that interaction having immediate real world consequences.  (I will worry about the indirect, non-immediate, consequences in my next post.)

Thus, Shakespeare’s King Lear can consider the consequences of dividing up a kingdom without a real civil war occurring.  We can call his play a cautionary tale, a plea to his fellow countrymen to maintain unity, through his vivid depiction of the awful alternative.  But no one gets killed—even though he fictionally represents people getting killed.  So we can add to the powers that art possesses by virtue of its special relations to space and time, its ability to step aside from “real life” into a controlled space we call “fiction” to conduct thought experiments about various alternative ways of living (or perceiving or thinking or reacting emotionally) in ordinary existence.

In short, most art works—even the ones that call themselves “realistic”—exist in a hypothetical universe, not in the universe you and I must live in.  Again, modern art has sometimes chafed against this constraint, sometimes embraced it (“speculative fiction”), and sometimes played with it in various ingenious ways (Philip Roth’s The Counter-Life for just one of many examples).  Still I am arguing that this discontinuity—a distinction between the hypothetical and the real—is endemic to the arts, for better and for worse.

  1. I will consider the issue of how art impacts ordinary life in my next post. For today, I will conclude with a summary statement that will come as no surprise for readers of my earlier posts on Dewey.  What I am repeating here is that the everyday does not come to us (in my opinion, but not in Dewey’s) endowed with form.  The aesthetic’s work is to derive form, to create form, out of the material life provides.  Dewey calls the art work “formed matter” (114), which seems right to me.

Here is his fullest discussion of form.

“In a word, form is not found exclusively in objects labeled works of art.  Wherever perception has not been blunted and perverted, there is an inevitable tendency (my emphasis) to arrange events and objects with reference to the demands of complete and unified experience.  Form is a character of every experience that is an (Dewey’s emphasis) experience.  Art in its specific sense enacts more deliberately and fully the conditions that effect this unity.  Form may then be defined as the operation of forces that carry the experience of an event, object, scene, and situation to its own integral fulfillment. (Dewey’s italics; my underlining).  The connection of form with substance is thus inherent, not imposed from without.  It marks the matter of an experience that is carried to consummation. . . . The problem of discovering the nature of form is thus identical with that of discovering the means by which are effected the carrying forward of an experience to its fulfillment” (137).

Perhaps there is “an inevitable tendency” to attempt to organize the materials presented by the daily round.  In that sense, the aesthetic impulse and our responses to everyday experience would be continuous.  In both cases, we seek fulfillment or consummation through the achievement of form.  I do think this is too mono-causal an account of the multiple ways that humans respond to experience—or, to be more fundamental still, simply experience.  I don’t think our ways of being in the world are “perverted” if we fail to strive to “form” the heterogeneous stuff the world throws at us on any given day.  Furthermore—and I have beaten this horse many times already—I don’t believe that situations and events and scenes have an “integral fulfillment” lurking within them.

What this post adds to these worries/objections is this:  Even if there is a fundamental continuity between the aesthetic effort to achieve form and similar efforts we make in our everyday lives, it is a mistake to miss that the aesthetic possesses resources for that effort that the everyday lacks.  Living forward in real time is a distinct disadvantage when it comes to doing the work of selection, concentration, clarification, intensification, and unification that the aesthetic performs in order to whip the matter of experience into shape.  The aesthetic’s ability (its constitutive ability?) to step aside from the flow of experience grants it capacities that everyday life simply does not possess.

It is worth adding that the aesthetic’s various resources are not unique to art.  In various ways, other forms of human activity (from games to specialized pursuits) avail themselves of the capacities activated by creating separate spaces, by selecting out only relevant features of a situation, by developing techniques of working upon and shaping available materials, and by focusing attention in various ways.  Some of these other enterprises even possess strategies for stepping outside of time’s relentless forward flow.



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