Category: education

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.

Cakes, Ale, and Mellon (2)

My post on the Mellon Foundation’s announcement that it would orient all its future funding decisions toward projects that advance social justice generated a conversation on Facebook.  You can read the give-and-take by going to my FaceBook page.

Here I want to make my position clear (which is hard because I have mixed feelings on the topic)—and elaborate on my rationale for those feelings.

Let me state my opinion at the outset—and then the rest of the post tries to explain that opinion.  Mellon has been the biggest foundation funder (by orders of magnitude) of work in the arts and humanities for many years now.  It was especially important because it funded institutions—museums, theaters, dance companies, learned societies, universities, small presses and the like—as well as individuals.  And (this is my big point) is was one of very few places where people in the arts and humanities did not have to justify their work by reasons external to the work itself.  You certainly had to convince Mellon that the work you were doing was of excellent quality and make a case that it was deemed significant and superb in the relevant field, but you didn’t have to claim external benefits.

Why is that important?  Because the arts and humanities cannot exist in a market society unsubsidized.  The major source of subsidy is the educational system, from kindergarten through to universities.  95% (to pick a plausible number out of thin air) of artists and humanists will make the majority of their income from teaching.  And that means the arts and humanities are continually burdened with making the case that they are pedagogically useful.  The insistence that that case be made—accompanied by an increasing skepticism about that case—is familiar to anyone who works in these fields. So Jessica Berman is absolutely right that we need to be adept at making that case since we will be called on—repeatedly—to make it.

But that need to make the case means the arts and humanities are continually and increasingly on the defensive, trapped within a game they cannot win but must play.  Thus the endless shouting into the wind about the benefits of a liberal arts education.  I am not saying those arguments are untrue.  I am simply saying they never convince the people who demand that we make those arguments even though they have closed their minds to them long ago.  It’s a pointless, frustrating, undermining game.  What a relief it was to not have to play it to secure support from Mellon.

Now let me tell you a true story.  I taught in the Humanities Department of the Eastman School of Music for eight year.  My students were all aspiring musicians.  Because I am deeply committed to the notion of an informed citizenry, my classes there were usually designed to give students an understanding of the state of these United States.  At the end of one semester, a promising young pianist came to tell me he was going to abandon music because the world was in too bad a shape for him to continue in good conscience.  I hope that you would in a similar circumstance be as horrified as I was.

That was not what I meant at all, I hastened to tell him.  I want you to be an informed democratic citizen, but I never intended to make you think you should give up trying to become a concert pianist.  You have an enormous talent and the world needs great pianists.  Your first responsibility to yourself and to the world is the nurturing of your talent.

Here comes the hard part.  I don’t think Beethoven and golf are significantly different as human endeavors.  Both are difficult, intricate, capable of being endlessly fascinating.  To become a master of either you need to be obsessed to the point of being a bit crazy, certainly to the point of neglecting much else that most of us think part and parcel of a well-rounded life.  Both deliver something to the practitioner (discipline, interest, satisfaction/frustration) and to those who enjoy watching/listening to adept practitioners (fandom, pleasure, the joy of watching something very difficult being done superbly well).  I don’t really see (despite the somersaults we go through—and it is always somersaults if Adorno is our guide) that claims about why Beethoven should be in the school curriculum but not golf hold water.  If it’s complexity and mental agility and an ability to pay close attention that we are after, golf could do the trick just as well.

This last point is driven home (admittedly to my despair) by the fact that sports are a much larger presence in our schools than the arts and humanities.  Certainly in terms of money spent, sports (at least from ninth grade on) garner much larger budgets.  And when (as is seldom the case, but not never) sports have to justify their presence in the curriculum, they offer reasons that echo the ones trotted out to justify the liberal arts.  Reasons about mental discipline, learning to work with others etc. (Side note: isn’t it wonderful that Stanford has dropped eleven sports instead of cutting the music department?  Let’s hope other universities follow their lead.)

What about social justice?  I hate to think of the somersaults that are going to be required to demonstrate that work on Beethoven will contribute to social justice.  (As I said in my first post, I predict the route taken will be to make Beethoven more available to audiences traditionally unexposed to him.)  Some authors (Dickens, Carolyn Forché) are going to be much easier to link to a social justice agenda than others (Nabokov, Jorie Graham).

Even with the more obviously politically relevant authors, I think the rationale is often a subterfuge.  I think of all the work in the past thirty years about Melville’s relationship to slavery.  Solid work—but driven, I think, primarily by an interest in Melville not by an interest in slavery.  Melville was not an important figure in abolitionist circles; if you are really interested in the history of slavery in the US, of attitudes toward it, and its practices, Melville is way down the list of places you would go.  He only acquired any significance long after slavery was abolished, and our investment in him now is disciplinary (having to do with the canon) and aesthetic (in the sense that we think him a superb novelist).  Yes, we want to know about his reactions to slavery—but not because they tell us all that much about slavery and abolition efforts, but because they tell us about Melville who we think is significant enough as an artist that knowing more about him is worthwhile.  What drives the scholarship is not the advancement of social justice, but the advancement of our knowledge of Melville.

I know I am going to be misunderstood on this point.  So let me state it in different words.  Literary studies bestows authority on certain figures; it has a canon.  Efforts to break open that canon—and to examine the processes that go into its formation—are (I think) directly political.  But such efforts have been modestly successful.  The undergraduate curriculum, even for majors, remains mostly canonical.  And scholarship, while certainly more historicist over the past forty years, still tends to be anchored by one or two “major” figures even as it explores less honored (or taught) writers.  It is the authority attached to those major figures that still matters greatly—with its assumption that 1) learning more about those writers is a self-justifying scholarly motive in the discipline, and 2) that what those major figures thought and did is significant because of who they are. (The kind of circular reasoning about significance that drove Barbara Herrnstein Smith crazy in her attack on aesthetics, Contingencies of Value.)

To state for about the millionth time in my lifetime, my basic take on this relationship between art/scholarship and politics.  I just don’t buy that writing about social class in Dickens is political, and certainly don’t see it as an advancement of social justice.  Political work engages in changing institutions, in working on facts on the ground.  Scholarly work can change political opinions, just as Dickens’ novels can, but we have a very attenuated sense of the political if we think that our job is done when we teach Bleak House and write an essay about its views of social responsibility.  If, in fact, our reason for being in the classroom and doing our scholarship is political, then we are acting in bad faith.  If you really take politics as your primary motive in life, then making art or writing literary criticism is not what you should be doing.

I don’t think we advance social justice one iota if we confuse direct political action with the indirect attention to political questions that can occur in our classrooms and in our scholarship.  So my fear is that Mellon’s insistence that we tie our work to social justice will just abet this confusion of the direct with the indirect.  It is hard enough to be honest about our motives for what we devote our time and energy to.  And it is equally hard to be realistic about what our work can and cannot accomplish.  I think Mellon’s new orientation will encourage comforting lies we already too often are tempted to tell ourselves.

To be blunt: I hate the gestural politics on display at the Whitney and in the halls of the MLA.  It’s cheap in the sense that it costs its practitioner nothing and seems mostly directed at garnering the approval of his peers.  There are, of course, notable exceptions—Banksy, James Baldwin, and Edward Said come to mind immediately—so I need to be careful not to claim that it is impossible for art and scholarship to be political.  But it is damn difficult.

If our work as artists and teachers is not political, what is it?  I have backed myself into a corner here, pushing me toward an answer I would have scorned most of my (misdirected? misunderstood?) career. (In short, I was as committed, maybe even more so, to literary studies’ efforts to be political–and thus avoided saying, to myself or others, what I was actually practicing everyday as a teacher.) Cultivation of a sensibility of open-ness and appreciation.

Another story to indicate what I mean.  Some years back I discovered that all the students in a class I was teaching had never seen “Casablanca.”  My deepest commitments were brought home to me.  I didn’t deeply care if they never read Pope’s “Epistle to Man,” but to never see “Casablanca” would be to go to the grave without having passed through life.  My goal as a teacher was to open eyes to the richness of the word and the life it was possible to live in that world. To move my students toward the “quickened consciousness” Pater extolled. That goal did mean I wanted them to see how cruel, how unequal, how unjust the contemporary world is, but bringing that point home was part of the larger project of their seeing “life” and “the world” in all its many-sided splendor and squalor.  And it is in the arts that that splendor and squalor are most fully on display.

This last point brings me back to cakes and ale.  William James was interested in what he called “moral holidays.”  He did not mean the term pejoratively.  He knew that everyone of us grants ourselves such holidays.  So how do we justify them?  Peter Singer is the utilitarian philosopher who makes the absolutely stringent case against such holidays.  There is no way, Singer argues, to justify spending $150 to see “Hamilton” when that same sum, given to Oxfam, can feed 40 people.  No cakes and ale without an obligatory side dish of guilt.

Singer’s challenge returns us to my Eastman student’s crisis of conscience about playing the piano.  We can do somersaults to justify our cakes an ale. Even when admitting they are no good for the world or even to ourselves (sugar and alcohol?), we will talk about psychological well-being, letting off steam, all work and no play, etc. etc.  Because, of course, we all do take moral holidays.

My utopia is a world where we are relieved of the felt necessity to justify the holidays.  They are just good in and of themselves.  (Of course, traditional aesthetics keeps returning to this issue of intrinsic value again and again.)  There is nothing wrong about pleasure, about things that fascinate us by their intricacy and difficulty (we can imagine the “holidays whisperer” crooning in our ear.)

Hannah Arendt, with her obsession with amor mundi (love of the world), approached these issues in a somewhat different way.  She talks about the “freedom from politics” as among the freedoms to be protected and cherished.  One hallmark of totalitarianism is that everything becomes political; nothing gets to escape signifying one’s political allegiances, and one is either applauded or persecuted for every single taste or action. We are in a bad way when wearing a mask during a pandemic becomes politicized.  Zones of the non-political are liberating in the way that “moral holidays” are.

Just think of how dreary a world without music, without novels, without holidays would be. That world would certainly be hard to love. That’s all the justification we need.  More importantly, it is all the justification we are going to get.  All the other rationales are threadbare, barely plausible.

Mellon used to be a place where you didn’t have to do lip service by trotting out those all too familiar rationalizations.  Apparently no more.

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.

The Aesthetic (Four)

The traditional worry about associating the aesthetic with epicurean sensibility/sensitivity has been the fear of sensuality.  The aesthete will just be someone who hedonistically indulges in pleasurable bodily sensations.  It seems a short step from Pater to Sade, from a healthy pagan sensuality to the perverse.  Hence we famously get John Stuart Mill trying to disentangle the pleasure/pain calculus of Benthamite utilitarianism from endorsing swinish bodily pleasures as humanity’s goal.  From Epicurus to Bentham, Mill tells us, utilitarians have always been attacked for being bestial sensualists—to which Mill offers this riposte.

When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition were true, the charge could not be gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation; for if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be good enough for the other.

The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification. . . . It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. . . . [I]t is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both [i.e. bodily as contrasted to mental pleasures] , do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. (Utilitarianism, Chapter Two)

I don’t want to linger on the tangles Mill gets himself into in trying to make this argument. (Especially worth noting is his claim that the higher faculties of humans means that they suffer more than beasts, a point that makes a straight-forward pleasure calculus problematic as well as encouraging a comparative indifference to the suffering of animals.)  What I want to highlight instead is the theme of this post, to wit: almost every account of the aesthetic insists that art has some kind of significance or provides some kind of experience that cannot be reduced to the corporeal.  Art entails more than just perception and bodily sensation.

What is this more? Let me dispense immediately with theories of the aesthetic that attempt to abstract away from the bodily altogether.  Kant seems to belong in this camp.  I always present this to students as the attempt to distinguish pornography from the nude.  Kantian disinterest and the elevation of form over matter/content is designed to protect the nude from awakening either desire or bodily lust.  A hard and fast line (a wall) is to be established between pornographic representation and the nude that figures so prominently in art from the Greeks to the present day.  If it is bodily it is not art; if it is spiritual it is art.  And the appeal to “form” over “matter” allows us to make—and preserve—this distinction between representations that are art and ones that are not.

Like Dewey, I have no interest in this way of understanding the aesthetic.  Dewey’s effort to embed the aesthetic in everyday experience means he is opposed to abstraction in all its forms.  He doesn’t want the art object, the aesthetic experience, or mental processes to be alienated into some separate realm apart from the ordinary–or from the corporeal.  He is firmly committed to overcoming any mind/body dualism. (What follows draws on Chapter three of Art As Experience, esp. pp. 52-55.)  Dewey’s interactive model of experience means that perception is both passive and active at the same time.  As he never tires of saying in all his works, experience is both a doing and an undergoing.  Perception (which is bodily and mental for Dewey) registers the impact of the situation, which is not chosen but which is imposed upon the perceiver. However, that perceiver is always already pushing back against the circumstances in which she finds herself, trying to shape those circumstances toward her purposes, toward fulfillment.  The “matter” of perception (the material offered by the situation) is being pushed toward “form” by the active engagement of the perceiver with the environment.

Revising Dewey a bit (see page 55), we get four elements of an experience, all of which occur just about simultaneously, and all of which do not exist separately or self-sufficiently.  We perceive a situation; it is registered bodily by our senses.  We have an emotional response to what we perceive; we consider it a threat, an opportunity, pleasing, disgusting, as something mostly indifferent, or something of tremendous interest/significance.  Dewey adds that this emotional response binds the different elements of the situation into a whole, since the emotion gives us an overall assessment of our relation to that situation.  (He underplays ambivalence or confusion in this last claim).  There is also an intellectual response/assessment of the situation.  This response deals with meaning (in the very distinctive pragmatist understanding of meaning as the potential consequences of the things and/or situation perceived and emotionally registered.)  Intelligence (that favorite Dewey term—and the highest value in his overall philosophy) entails acting in relation to those understood meanings/consequences in such a way that we can produce the “fulfilled” or “satisfactory” relationship to the environment for which a meliorist pragmatism aims.  Finally, there is the practical component of an experience—which is the actual interactions through which we try to put the meanings/vision imagined by intelligence into action.  The practical is the site of the actual interaction with the environment.

The association of intelligence with imagination—with the projection in thought of a future state of affairs through a vision of possible consequences—is crucial here since it links intelligence with art.  After all, if we consider all human action as aiming toward a satisfactory relationship with the environment, then there is no difference between science, art, and just daily life.  Dewey’s position appears to be (see page 26) that art is the all-encompassing term for the human way of interaction, with science a subset of art (a “handmaiden” that attends to natural events), and daily life the less conscious, more habitual, and thus often less satisfactory dealing with what life throws at us.  Art is the effort to find fulfillment raised to full consciousness.

Now back to the main problem this post wants to explore—and a devilishly difficult problem it is. To restate: almost all accounts of the aesthetic assume—or explicitly argue—that the aesthetic transcends the corporeal.  “Intelligence” is the site of that transcendence in Dewey.  The field of candidates as agents of transcendence is crowded.  And my “meaning” project obviously (or so it seems to me) is located precisely here.

Let me sharpen this point.  I do not suppose—and believe no one else would suppose—that an epicurean pleasure in antique automobiles has much of great significance to tell us.  We might certainly learn something about the character of my friend who devotes much time and mental (as well as bodily) energy to the appreciative gazing upon those cars, and we may also learn (from him or from the books written on the subject) much about how those cars worked, were designed, manufactured, preserved etc.

But we are very unlikely to think this aesthetic pursuit has much to say to us about how to live one’s life, or about how to judge different possible ways of being in the world.  In short, this pursuit has little to say about what is significant or what has meaning in relation to the primary ethical question: how am I to live my life? (I adopt here the Bernard Williams distinction between ethics and morality.  Ethics is about how to live one’s life in the best possible way given that there are many possible ways to live a life; morality is about the best possible ways to arrange relationships among humans–and between humans and all the non-human beings and things–in the world we humans find ourselves in.)

There are, of course, those who would divorce art from any pretension to offer “meaning,” any effort to address the ethical question of how to live.  For those who take this position, there is nothing more to be said of or claimed for fancying Moby Dick than there is for being a devotee of 1934 Rolls Royces.  Art is a hobby like any other, equally non-essential if relatively harmless, and we should just give up all these efforts to make it into something more.

But that is a minority position.  While we don’t find many car fanciers arguing for the centrality of their pursuit to living a good life, the majority of artists do believe—and often declare that belief passionately in public—that the aesthetic is the royal road to a meaningful or fulfilled or good life.  Examples are everywhere, but most telling for me are figures like Kandinsky and Rothko, who insist that their non-representational art is loaded with meaning, is completely removed from any Flaubert-like aspiration to create an art “about nothing.”

The insistence that art has vital things to say about how to live explains how the aesthetic gets connected 1) to a critique of the an-aesthetic way many lives are lived and 2) political programs that would make daily life more aesthetic. And I take it that any project of “aesthetic education” is connected to the ethical project and, at the very least, to the critique of an-aesthetic forms of life–even if that educational project is not signed on to some reformist or revolutionary political re-vision.

I will postpone further thoughts on the connection of the aesthetic to the ethical and/or political.  Right now, I want to push harder at what the hell we mean by “meaning” or “significance” in art.  I will start with Dewey.

The aesthetic is significant (or important) to Dewey because it alerts us to fulfilling, consummatory experiences.  Teasing out exactly how that works is difficult.  Here are some possible ways of explicating Dewey’s position.

One, we have fulfilling experiences all the time in ordinary existence.  But we do not always register them as such.  Art calls them to our attention, makes us realize their qualitative difference from less satisfactory experiences.

Two, fulfilling experiences don’t just happen.  They require an especially conscious effort of crafting them, a highly intelligent mode of interaction that imaginatively grasps the possibilities of the given situation, and is joined with a highly conscious and focused pursuit of one’s purpose.  Art alerts us to these conditions for achieving satisfaction—and/or is the name for that kind of concerted effort.

Three, the arts offer models of satisfactory experiences from which we can expand our vision of what is possible and learn ways to make such possibilities realities. (See pages 346-347.)

Fourth (and finally), the aesthetic offers us a vision of a fully integrated “experience,” one that combines in a harmonious equilibrium all the subjective elements (perception, emotion, intelligence, practice, and purpose/motive/desire) with a sensitive, careful interactive relationship to the non-self (whether than non-self is other people or non-human features of the environment or the existential fact of time.)  Many (most) of our interactions are partial; they neglect (fail to take into account) all the elements of a situation.  Art is the place of holism—and holism enhances the chance of fulfillment.

Note that none of these accounts of the aesthetic has anything to say about “meaning.”  Technically, Dewey reserves the term “meaning” for its pragmatic sense.  Following the pragmatic maxim, “meaning” only refers to the possible consequences of the interactions that are made available by a given situation.  Intelligence is the grasping of such meanings; satisfaction follows from the satisfactory achievement of the outcomes that intelligent imagination has predicted will follow from a certain course of action.

But Dewey in certain places departs from the technical use of the term “meaning.”  He seems to assume that satisfactory experiences are “more” meaningful.  We find them more significant.  Why should that be so?  It is easy to see why fulfillment of any desire is more pleasurable than its frustration.  But why should we think fulfillment more meaningful?  After all, many would argue that frustration tells us more about the nature of the world, teaches us more, than satisfaction does.  Dewey’s position depends on his benign (Romantic?) view of the human condition.  Art teaches us how to live because it teaches us that nature can be aligned with human desires and needs.   The meanings (consequences) human intelligence can discern can be activated to provide fulfillment.  An existentialist, absurdist reading of the human relation to nature would yield a different model of how to live (think of Camus’ rebel).  This is the way that “meaning” gets attached to the ethical question of how to live one’s life—and how art could be a site for the portrayal of such meanings.  What the world can “afford” to us makes a big difference in the strategies we might then adopt for living.

Once we abandon the goal of an art about nothing, the focus usually shifts to the ways in which art delivers its message.  In other words, what meanings the art work conveys depends on how that specific art work is interpreted.  (Or, in Dewey’s case, I think we are to understand that “aesthetic experiences” come in many different varieties; not all fulfillments or the means to them are the same. So there is still the work of attending to the particular details in different cases even though the general outline of “fulfillment” is provided by his theory of the aesthetic.)

There are, of course, multiple theories of interpretation.  I want to bypass those to consider instead how we account for the art work’s having a meaning at all.  By what means does art convey its meanings?  The answers to this question are very often contrastive.  Unlike logic, reason, polemic, or assertion, art works by indirection.  It doesn’t state things outright (showing instead of telling); it works by inference and through emotional, more than intellectual, appeal.  The superiority of aesthetic modes of communication—or at least such modes being equally valid as more direct ones—motivates many discussions of this issue.

There are different schools of thought.  The Martha Nussbaum camp wants to insist on the aesthetic as cognitive.  Art provides knowledge about the world just as much as science does—and art’s knowledge might very well be superior because it blends the emotional and the reasonable instead of trying to purge emotion like positivism does.

Dewey inflects this all differently.  He holds on to science as our best means for learning the potentials of nature.  Then the knowledge that science offers contributes to the more comprehensive aesthetic project of fulfillment.  Art can convey the knowledge that satisfactory experiences are possible.  But more important to Dewey than the possible “cognitive” function of art is its enabling impact on its audiences.  The shaping of sensibility (character) that art can accomplish “is far more efficacious than the change effected by reasoning, because it enters directly into attitude” (334).  “Compared with [art’s] influence things directly taught by word and precept are pale and ineffectual. . . . The sum total of the effect of all reflective treatises on morals is insignificant in comparison with the influence of architecture, novel, drama, on life” (345).

Why does Dewey think the arts more effective in shaping our values and our ways of living?  It is precisely here that he falls back on the term “meaning”—and uses it in the non-technical, non-pragmatist way.  The “stabilizing” and “enduring forces” in a “civilization” (or “culture”; Dewey uses the terms interchangeably) are founded upon the “meaning given in imagination” it provides for its members (326).  “[T]he multitudes of passing incidents” that comprise life must be “organized into the meanings that form minds” (326).  We process experience through those meanings—which shape our interpretations of our situations and influence the values (attitudes, concerns) by which we understand and judge those situations.  Art serves to “consolidate” these available meanings, by giving them enduring “objective expression” (326).  “If social customs are more than uniform external modes of action (i.e. if they become internalized structures of feeling), it is because they are saturated with story and transmitted meaning” (326).

Here’s my attempt at the best way to understand Dewey at this point.  (I don’t know if I personally subscribe to this view.  I have to think about it more.  But I do think this is what Dewey believes.)  Science provides meanings in the technical pragmatist sense.  The scientist aims for the fullest account possible of the consequences that might flow from any particular state of affairs.  The experimental method provides the best way to tease out all those possible consequences.  Intelligence entails relying on the experimental method–and in cases where that method has provided reliable (even though “fallible”) knowledge, intelligence acts upon that knowledge.

There is, however, also another set of meanings—the meanings that human actors have given to their experiences, meanings that relate to how satisfactory, how fulfilling, how important or trivial, they find some experiences as compared to others.  These meanings are connected to desire and to the formation of purposes.  Science is never disconnected from purposes for Dewey; all inquiry is motivated in his view.  Still, conscious reflection on purposes is not pursued via the experimental method.  (Dewey does not appear interested—except in one short passage I will get to in a subsequent post—with the idea that art works are thought experiments.)  Rather, such reflection involves 1) an introspective awareness of one’s desires; 2) an engagement with (internalization of) the values provided by one’s culture; and 3) an image of possible fulfillment that is responsive to the situation at hand and enacted by a practical interaction with the elements of that situation.  “Meaning” is the term that sums up this combination of received values, individual purposes, and evaluation of/ interaction with the environment.  Meaning is what motivates. It moves the philosopher toward an account of what Kenneth Burke called “the grammar of motives.”  Art is a privileged place where meanings in that sense are stored, examined, articulated, displayed, interrogated, fooled around with in playful and not so playful ways.  And art seems to be a privileged place for one’s immersion into the realm of meanings—and one’s becoming initiated into various attitudes toward the values that meanings instantiate

Enough for today.  As I said, I don’t know if this account is what I mean by meaning. I do think I have offered a fair “reconstruction” of Dewey’s use of the term.  All I know for myself is that I think there is some kind of connection between art and the claim that “meaning” is important.