Dewey, Art As Experience (4)

I trust this is going to be my last post on Dewey, although Nick and I read the first and last chapters of Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art for our most recent conversation—and I will write a post on Goodman that, in part, considers his affinities and differences with Dewey.

Auden famously said “poetry makes nothing happen.”  One way to read that statement is to return to the aesthetic’s “fictionality,” its taking up residence in a realm that is not real, but (rather) hypothetical or speculative.  No one is killed in King Lear—which is why theories of the aesthetic inevitably end up pondering the mysteries of representation.  Without a doubt, acts of inflicting death are represented in King Lear—and those acts of representation are patently different than real killings.  A real killing does not represent killing; it is (simply) killing.  Thus the killing done in King Lear, if it has consequences, does not have the consequence of some person dying.  We must look elsewhere for its consequences.

Pragmatism, of course, is all about consequences.  The famous “pragmatic maxim” tells us that the meaning of something rests in its anticipated consequences—and that human action (at least; no particular reason not to include animal action here) is guided by the forwardly projected imagination of those consequences in relation to the agent’s interaction with the environment.

Thus, the discontinuity between the aesthetic and ordinary experience appears heightened if we focus on consequences.  Art, if it makes things happen, does not, quite obviously, produce material consequences that align with those that follow action in the “real world.”

Dewey, of course, wants to describe the aesthetic as part and parcel of ordinary experience.  The aesthetic, for him, is any experience (whether writing/viewing King Lear or taking a stroll in the woods) that reaches “fulfillment.”  What specifically art works and the practice of art (taking “art” here in its most common ordinary language usage) do for Dewey is make us self-conscious about the pathways to fulfillment.  In art, we witness “a substance so formed that it can enter into the experience of others and enable them to have more intense and more fully rounded out experiences of their own.  This is what it is to have form.  It marks a way of envisaging, of feeling, and of presenting experienced matter so that it most readily and most effectively becomes the material for the construction of adequate experience on the part of those less gifted than the original creator.  Hence there can be no distinction drawn, save in reflection, between form and substance.  The work itself is matter formed into esthetic substance” (109).

The consequence of art, then, is the way it teaches us to live—more intensely, more meaningfully.  Its impact, we might say, is on the audience, on the social, not on nature, the material.  Art’s material consequences are small-scale.  The sculptor does transform the stone; the poet and the composer do manipulate material sounds.  But there are no large-scale material changes; temperatures do not rise, trees are neither grown nor felled in large quantities, colonies are not founded or overthrown.  The artist himself may acquire fame or wealth as a result of his work, but those (it seems to me) are social, not natural, consequences.

Dewey’s position unfolds in three steps. 1. Art, by showing us those intense experiences, leads us to desire them.  It fosters a sensibility attuned to the possibility and desirabililty of such experiences.  2.  Once having awakened that desire in us, art shows us possible paths to its fulfillment.  3.  Add one and two together and art’s major consequence is in enhancing the quality of our lives.  (The fostering of that sensibility might be placed in relation to a modern world that leads us to expect too little, that lets the daily grind of “getting and spending” overwhelm our knowing about and desiring consummatory experiences.)

As I have already argued in previous posts,  I think this position entails associating art with a certain kind of self-consciousness about what one is doing and a certain kind of “work” done upon “experienced matter” (109).  That work requires, it seems to me, a stepping back from the flow of experience into an artificially framed space that also enjoys a limited immunity from temporality as it is ordinarily endured.

The way that art is well placed to demonstrate the pathway(s) to fulfillment is captured in Dewey’s most extended description of fulfillment in his book. This description is useful to me because he relies so heavily on the concept of “meaning” to make his case.  Thus, it offers clues for my own ongoing project of trying to understand the special relationship to meaning of the arts and humanities.

Here’s Dewey’ description; it depends heavily on the Hegelian insight that the encounter with obstacles external to the self is what generates self-consciousness.

“Whenever the organic impulse exceeds the limit of the body, it finds itself in a strange world and commits in some measure the fortune of the self to external circumstances.  It cannot pick just what it wants and automatically leave the indifferent and adverse out of account. . . . In the process of converting these obstacles and neutral conditions into favoring agencies, the live creature becomes aware of the intent implicit in its impulsions.  The self, whether it succeed or not, does not merely restore itself to its former state.  Blind surge has been changed into a purpose; instinctive tendencies are transformed into contrived undertakings.  The attitudes of the self are informed with meaning. . . . The only way it can become aware of its nature and its goal is by obstacles surmounted and means employed. . . . Impulsion from need starts an experience that does not know where it is going; resistance and check bring about the conversion of direct forward action into re-flection; what is turned back upon is the relation of hindering conditions to what the self possesses as working capital in virtue of prior experience.  As energies thus involved reinforce the original impulsion, this operates more circumspectly with insight into end and method.  Such is the outline of every experience clothed with meaning. . . . [W]hat is evoked is not just quantitative, or just more energy, but is qualitative, a transformation of energy into thoughtful action, through assimilation of meanings from the background of past experiences. The junction of the new and old is not a mere past experience, but is a re-creation in which the present impulsion gets form and solidity while the old, the ‘stored’ material, is literally revived, given new life and soul through having to meet a new situation” 59-60).

The aesthetic is not referenced at all in this description of the movement toward “thoughtful action” that “assimilates meanings” and “gives new life” to those meanings as it forges a “qualitative” relation between the self and its impulses, and between the self and the situations it encounters.  We get here Dewey’s commitment to the full continuity between what ordinary language calls the “aesthetic” and his insistence that any experience is potentially fulfilling.  The aesthetic, for him, is a quality of experience, not a separate class of objects or activities.  But, as the passage from page 109 that I quoted earlier shows, the aesthetic is a demonstration project that does show us the experiences can have that quality.  My argument has been—because sheltered from certain material consequences and from certain temporal pressures while able to employ the heightened effects generated by framing—the aesthetic does that demonstrative work under conditions not as continuous with ordinary experience as Dewey assumes.

I want to end with a thought taken from Nick—one that resonates with the long description of “thoughtful action” just quoted.  Dewey, like Goodman, is not at all interested in aesthetic judgment if that means making statements about whether an art work is good or bad—or beautiful or not.  On pages 129-30, Dewey explains (pretty convincingly) why “beauty” is not a very helpful concept or term in trying to describe the aesthetic or art works.  It is too non-specific, what Bernard Williams would call a “thin” as contrasted to a “thick” descriptor.  A judgment that a work of art is “good” or “beautiful” doesn’t get us very far; it might serve as an opener for a conversation, but unless we get down to brass tacks in that ensuing conversation, we haven’t gotten said anything particularly enlightening.  While Kant’s thoughts about the components of judgment are useful, his focus on judgments of beauty is not helpful.  It deprives his account of a concrete engagement with the material to be judged.

When Dewey feels constrained to appeal to beauty, he redefines it (by way of rhetorical questions) to align with his criteria for successful art.  “Is ‘beauty’ another name for form descending from without, as a transcendent essence, upon material, or is it a name for the esthetic quality that appears whenever material is formed in a way that renders it adequately expressive?  Is form, in its esthetic sense, something that uniquely marks off as esthetic from the beginning a certain realm of objects, or is it the abstract name for what emerges whenever an experience attains complete development?” (107, Dewey’s emphasis).

The passive construction here—“an experience attains complete development”—is unfortunate.  Form “emerges” in the interaction of agent and materials—as does “purpose” itself.  “Thoughtful action” is a product of interaction that feels its way forward, discovering its purposes and its abilities as it goes along, guided (at least in the cases Dewey wants to celebrate) by a desire for “adequate expression” and “complete development.”  Nick’s point is that judgment is located exactly in the process of feeling one’s way forward.  At every juncture, decisions must be made about the next step—and those decisions (as in my discussion of Gerhard Richter’s description of his process some posts back) are more like feelings or intuitions (Dewey’s “affective” or “qualitative” thought) than formulaic or logical applications of a rule or a deduction.

There is no pre-existing plan, no recipe to follow, no method. (Shades of my criticism of Joseph North’s fetishization of method and rigor.) I must admit that I waver inconsistently between embracing what seems to me this romantic, faintly irrational understanding of judgment and being irritated by its mysterious ineffability.  I want to nail it down better; to say, like Richter, that this just “feels right” seems to beg the question.  How do you know it feels right?  What is that feeling based on?  Give me your reasons.  I am fully willing to admit that good judgment is developed through practice and cannot be taught through a rulebook or method.  One has to develop a “feel for” the practice.  But I still long for more complete and specific articulation of the grounds for those feelings.

That said, I do think it absolutely right that the consequential stakes when it comes to judgment (the reason why trying to figure out judgment is important) are tied up with these decisions about how to “go on” (to use Wittgenstein’s phrase) and not with the relatively trivial issue of whether we judge this work good or nor, beautiful or not.

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