Category: aesthetics

Judgment, Aesthetic and Otherwise

My on-going engagement with Dewey has been the result of a series of conversations with Nick Gaskill.  Nick now responds to my recent Dewey posts, to wit:

I’ve just read through the last two Dewey posts, and I understand now why it’s important to differentiate the aesthetic and the everyday: namely because, as you put it at the end of #3 and again in #4, the aesthetic has resources that simply aren’t available in everyday experience. And so, if we take it a step further, any argument for rendering social relations “aesthetic” in the way Dewey wants (“the values that lead to the production and intelligent enjoyment of art have to be incorporated into the system of social relationships”–p.344) has to square up to the way that any translation of “aesthetic” values outside of those conditions will meet with difficulties. Is that right? The aesthetic has its own affordances, and this is why even though all experience can potentially have an aesthetic quality, there’s still a need to think about the arts as the paradigms. 

You’re helping me to get at another question I’ve had about Dewey, especially in light of the way that everyone from Rorty to Walter Benn Micahels to Colin Koopman wants to throw away “experience” as a bad term/concept. The question is about the difference between experience and practice. You know from my Rorty essay that I’ve been focusing a lot on how the science studies line thinks about practice. There’s a lot of overlap with “experience” but they aren’t synonymous: practice is a special case, practices have specific conditions. I’m wondering if it is useful to think of the aesthetic as a practice that is one way of cultivating or working up experience more generally. And I’m wondering if Dewey has a way to differentiate between experience in general and experience as it occurs within specific practices. Is that what inquiry is? 

I liked how you elaborated the point about “feeling one’s way” and judgment. And yet I couldn’t help think that the answer to your questions–“How do you know it feels right? What is that feeling based on?”–is qualitative thinking with its emphasis on the “unity” of situations. The reason Dewey thinks that this “intuitive” way of going on is not just a subjective feeling or hunch is that it is a way of thinking qualitatively, a way of thinking with and through the qualities of a situation, which has a shape or color that can guide one in the same way other constraints work in scientific or logical pursuits. I know you’re resistant to Dewey’s emphasis on qualitative unity, but it’s worth noting that part of the reason he offers it (or at least part of the way he develops it in AE) is to answer those very questions about how artists proceed. 


I am going to think about “practice” and offer my thoughts on that concept in a future post.

For now two quick points.

  1. Different “affordances” does seem the exactly right way to talk about the distinction between the aesthetic and everyday experience. We have to navigate the world in somewhat different ways than we navigate aesthetic experiences.  Furthermore, there are also differences between the experience of creating an artistic work (writing King Lear) and experiencing that work as its recipient or audience.  The language of “affordances” pushes us to be concrete about those differences.


  1. I am inclined, as I said, to see “judgment” as a black box. (Just as the “unconscious” often functions as a black box.)  Meaning that we trot out the notion of judgment to indicate the presence of something—an ability to assess a situation and develop/create a fruitful way of going forward—that we can see exists but which we have a very hard time explaining.  To say “she showed good judgment” is to acknowledge that achievement, but does not go very far toward explaining how it was done or how it was possible.  Kant usefully distinguishes “determinate” from “reflective” judgment—but can only fall back on the possession of “taste” when pushed to say what makes some people more adept at judgment than others.

But Nick’s comment pushed the account of judgment forward.  Judgment is now something like empathy, and something like the “concentration, compression, clarity” triad that Dewey links to “form.”  “Empathy” because judgment is based on a participatory, interactionist engagement with and feeling for the “qualities” of a situation.  Dewey, of course, is always against any notion that knowledge comes from standing at a distance from something and contemplating it.  Rather, knowledge is a product of immersion, of getting one’s hands dirty, of feeling one’s way forward, with a sensitivity to the feedback one receives from each step of the process.  But those steps are also guided by a sensitivity to the qualities of the non-self elements of the situation.  Judgment is a product of that two-way traffic between self and situation.  Dewey’s usual term for this process is “inquiry”—which Nick then asks us to consider as one example of a “practice.”

And judgment is like “form” in that it clarifies and concentrates by giving the situation a “unity.”  Which get us back to the question of the extent to which situations possess an “integral” or “intrinsic” (two words Dewey uses) unity or if that unity is mostly created by the human agent.


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.

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.



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.