Category: Meaning and Life and the Humanities

The Aesthetic (Five)

If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed. Tolstoy, War and Peace (Epilogue, Chapter One).

I still have some more features of the aesthetic that I want to enumerate and discuss.  But this post will return to the feature considered in the last post to make some further observations on that feature’s consequences.

The burden of the last post was that art is understood to communicate something.  That understanding is not completely inevitable or obligatory.  The art work could offer a simply perceptual or sensual experience.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  But we humans are often inclined to take bodily experiences—eating, sex, walking—and imbue them with significance.  Such things are taken to “say something” either about the character of the person who performs the activity or about the nature of life itself.  Furthermore, actions, events, and experiences are not only endowed with “meaning,” but they are also (almost inevitably) subject to judgments of value.  Was this experience a good or bad one of its kind?  And was this experience worth having in light of the other possible experiences I might have been having instead?

Three immediate consequences:

  1. There is rarely any chance to have experiences that are purely corporeal. It is not just the aesthetic that partakes of the non-corporeal, but just about everything. Meaning is not bodily.  Just what meaning is remains a bit of a stumper, one this whole project hopes to unravel.  But meaning cannot be sensed by the five senses—and if it is embodied in the material of the art work or in the experience, it is still not identical to that material, but something that is inferred from it by acts of interpretation.  Still, we are going to have to come to terms with the nature of the incorporeal (even if we agree, with Dewey, that the corporeal and incorporeal are inextricably mixed).
  2. It is very difficult, close to impossible, to avoid ranking experiences. There can be different standards for ranking: does this poem work, i.e. is it a better poem qua poem than that one?; does this experience or art work provide more pleasure than that one?; does this art work or experience seem more meaningful than that one?; is this experience or art work morally superior to that one?  Judgments of better or worse are, I believe, generally comparative; absolute judgments are rare, if not impossible.  But judgments of better or worse are inescapable (it seems to me).  We should not pretend in our classrooms or in our reception of art works to neutrality.


  1. There are multiple paths toward the communication of meaning. In the academic world, those paths yield the different disciplines.  In ordinary experience, there is assertion as contrasted to anecdote, as well as how one describes one’s own intentions and how those intentions might be understood by those who observe one’s behavior. (Just two examples of different modes–hardly mean to be exhaustive). Those invested in the arts will (in many cases) a) be interested in the specific modes of communication that are deployed by artists and b) often argue vehemently that artistic modes are superior to other possible modes.


Let me say a little bit more about this second point—which gets me to the Tolstoy epigraph to this post.  Those committed to the arts are often defensive, thinking that art’s modes of perception and communication are undervalued in a world that seems to prefer “hard” (often coded as scientific) knowledge.  What the arts communicate is fuzzy, messy, open to conflicting interpretation, and non-definitive.  If the arts have cognitive value, it remains unclear how to harvest that cognitive offering since agreement about what exactly the art work says is hard to reach.

In response to such widely held objections to art’s communicative obscurities, artists are prone to insist that more scientific, more rational, more straight-forward knowledge (and meaning) claims miss essential features of life as we humans live and know it.  For example, a novelist might claim that the word “grief” hardly gives us enough or adequate information about how one human might respond to the death of another.  We need an elaborated story that tracks the grieving person over time to really gain some understanding of “grief.”  There is a welter of emotions, a variety of moods and thoughts, that comprise the experience of grief.

At its extremes, this apology (I am thinking of the classic “apologies” for poetry) for artistic modes approach mysticism—both in the insistence that indirect, a-rational modes of thought and expression are required to fully express vital facets of experience, and in a tendency to claim some of those facets (complex emotions for example, or certain states of “harmony” such as the ones that interest Dewey) are close to, if not entirely, “ineffable.”  The arts struggle to express that which defies expression.  That is why the arts must resort to indirection—and why art works are so often “difficult” to understand and interpret.  The artist ventures into the unknown and doesn’t always come back with a clear account of what her exploration has revealed.

Apologies for the arts as “another way of knowing” often entail considering the status of the emotions.  The arts, it is said, appeal to the audience on an emotional, as contrasted to a rational, level.  Aristotle’s pity and terror.  So then questions get raised about the status of “emotional knowledge,” with someone like Martha Nussbaum claiming that non-emotional, disinterested knowledge is inferior to the kind informed by the emotions.

In James and Dewey, the emotional investment that underwrites “inquiry” is taken for granted and as inevitable.  With James, this immediately becomes very complicated since he sees emotion as grounded in a purely corporeal reaction to a situation, with the naming of the emotion the coming to consciousness of that bodily response.  (Unlike Nussbaum, who would see the emotion as the combined body/mind assessment of a situation.)  James, similarly, thinks most knowledge claims and rational justifications are secondary—layered on top of the primary temperament or sensibility that actually governs our assessments (with the term “assessment” covering everything from our naming of the situation, our attitudes toward it,  and our judgments about values and  possible courses of action).  Thus, James appears (as we might expect from a psychologist) to give “reason” a very small role to play in the determination of human beliefs, values, and even interpretations of the environment.

Dewey, with his commitment to “intelligence,” is more of a “rationalist” than James.  But, as we have already seen, in Art As Experience (at least), he seems to agree that emotional appeals are more rhetorically powerful and effective than reasoned arguments.  He seems close to accepting the James (and later Rorty) claim that “sensibility” (or “temperament”) more fully determines one’s way of being in the world than the kinds of arguments that philosophers deploy in hopes of persuading their readers to one set of beliefs or another.

I think the artistic sensibility tends towards the mystic, toward the assertion that “there are more things under heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy”—and that sensibility is committed to the arts as a mode of access to and a way to communicate about those “things.”

A final, quite different, point.  Technically, the arts are difficult—and require a fairly single-minded obsession.  The pianist and the ardent golfer alike can think, live, and breathe playing.  Marx was, it seems, very wrong (at least about a certain subset of humans) when he imagined the denizens of his communist utopia fishing one day and philosophizing the next.  Instead, many people hunker down into one pursuit which they find endlessly fascinating as they struggle to master all its intricacies–and neglect most other possible ways of spending their time.

This fact presents a problem to what I have called the almost inevitable tendency to make judgments of better and worse.  How do we avoid labeling some people’s obsessive pursuits as trivial?  Here is the world going to hell—and someone devotes his life to breeding and training show dogs.  Yet how do we distinguish that activity from the person who devotes his life to becoming a virtuoso on the piano?  And doesn’t pluralism entail not just a tolerance for the varied activities in which people find meaning (that term again!), but also a recognition that life would be diminished if we didn’t have pianists and entomologists and obsessive chefs and adepts at various games?

I could never in a million years devote my life to identifying 10,000 different varieties of beetles, but I hardly feel inclined to condemn the person who does.  I am even willing to acknowledge that that person is as entitled to a university position and its support for her research as much as I am.  And yet: I have more trouble making that concession when it comes to the person teaching golf on my campus—and to university athletics altogether.  This reluctance to extend university support bleeds into a reluctance to think a life devoted to golf a life well lived.  Harmless I suppose (although the environmental harms done by golf courses are not insignificant), but really worth this one life you are given?

Such questions are inevitably raised by the arts because it is hard to explain how the arts are necessary.  Perfectly admirable lives can be led by those totally indifferent to the arts, while a devotion to the arts can preclude one contributing to what appear more pressing social needs and concerns.  On the other hand, how far do we want to take a kind of Peter Singer type puritanism that would condemn every activity that doesn’t redound directly to benefit of our fellow humans?  “O argue not the need” pleads Lear.  Life would be awfully grim if we only attended to necessities.  Yet how to we justify these luxuries when some people are denied those necessities, leading lives even more grim than those lives which can only focus on the daily struggle to get what’s needed?

Well-worn worries here, but ones (I am arguing) that will inevitably arise once the question of “meaning” is on the table.  And since the arts seem to be entangled (in many instances) with questions of meaning (including what makes one way of life more “meaningful” than another), “the art of our necessities” (Elizabeth Bishop) and the arts of transcending the compulsions of necessity will arise in most considerations of aesthetics.  And such considerations are definitely ethical (how to live a life), pretty directly moral (what do I owe others, both human and non-human), and possibly political (what political consequences do my ethical and moral commitments entail).

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.

The Aesthetic (Three)

If there is an “artistic temperament,” how might we characterize it?  The next few posts will offer a variety of answers to that question.  As I have already said, Dewey touches on almost all of the possible answers in Art as Experience.  I don’t think those various answers hang together in any necessary way; an “aesthete” might have one or more of these hallmarks of an aesthetic sensibility, but not others.  And some of the hallmarks might even be mutually exclusive.  We’ll have to see.

The epicure is a traditional “type” of aesthete.  An aesthetic sensibility cannot avoid discrimination. The aesthete discriminates between good and bad instances of any phenomenon.

Interestingly, the Greek word “aesthetic” only means “to perceive.”  Then the Germans, in the mid-18th century, added the notion of perception via the senses of the beautiful.  In other words, we are back to the problem of “perception.”  Can we perceive without judgment?  For Kant, no.  We must judge what this thing is as we perceive it.  We must name it, identify it.

Must we judge whether it is beautiful or not, good or not?  That is, can we just perceive and identify absent of any judgment of beauty or morality?  Kant seems to think the answer is Yes.  I identify a glass of water as water when thirsty and drink it down.  I don’t make a judgment about its beauty or lack thereof.  I do, it seems, make a judgment of goodness.  The water is “good for” satisfying thirst; that judgment precipitates my action of drinking it down. But Kant doesn’t think that instrumental notion of goodness is moral. Kant is following Aristotle fairly closely at this point, especially in his understanding of “good” as tied to “good for.”

We only enter the realm of morality for Kant when we move past what a thing is “good for” to a consideration of what is “good” for its own sake.

To get from the empirical judgment of what this thing or situation is and from the instrumental judgment of what this thing or situation is good for, Kant thinks we either must determine intrinsic goodness (that which is good for its own sake) which leads us down the path toward the categorical imperative or we must abstract away from all “interest” in order to make an aesthetic judgment about beauty.  The aesthetic judgment is connected to pleasure—and that pleasure derives from the realization (in the judgment of beauty) that the world is made for us and we are made for the world.  A harmony exists between the human powers of judgment and the things the world presents to us for judgment.  Perception (to return to the root meaning of aesthetic) is pleasurable—and that pleasure is experienced in the marriage of perceiving subject and perceived object.  The pleasure yields the judgment of beauty.

The puzzle for Kant scholars has been: does that mean that everything is beautiful?  Kant does offer the sublime as a different perceptual experience—one in which perception is thwarted, doesn’t work, because the object is so large or so powerful that it overwhelms our perceptual capacities.  But he doesn’t discuss the ugly or degrees of beauty.  Perception is still doing its work when we encounter an ugly thing, so presumably we would still feel the same pleasure in our capacity to perceive that we feel when seeing the beautiful thing.  Where does the difference between the beautiful and the ugly lie in Kant’s account?  There is no clear or obvious answer to that question in the Critique of Judgment.

Dewey offer his own version of the way that art aligns us with the conditions of existence in this world.  He is, as we have already seen, not oriented toward “beauty” but to the establishment of an “equilibrium” that is attuned to flux, uncertainty, and the changes wrought by time.  But we can move toward an “acceptance” of these conditions.  Shakespeare and Keats, he tells us, “accept life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turn that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities–to imagination and art” (34).  Instead of kicking against the pricks, we find a way to live in this world that celebrates its capacity for consummatory experiences–ones we can produce consciously in art if sensitive to that world’s possibilities.

But surely the fact of that discrimination—and trying to locate the grounds for making it—is the essential issue.  At least it is the central one for as long as the epicurean notion of the aesthetic reigns.  I want to pursue two tangles here.

First: subject/object.  Traditionally, we get either subjective explanations—“beauty is in the eye of the beholder”—or objective ones—beauty is a product of certain identifiable qualities in the object (proportion, symmetry, unity, regularity etc.).  Kant’s book is trying very hard to overcome that subject/object split in its marriage model and in its insistence on the “universal validity” of aesthetic judgments.

In today’s theoretical landscape, there are two major ways to handle the subject/object split.  The first denies any kind of individualistic relativism by moving judgment to a more intersubjective or collective locale.  Kant’s focus on the sensus communis foreshadows this approach.  We get cultural or collective relativism in the place of individual subjectivism.  The claim (shades of Wittgenstein’s private language argument, but also various theories of “socialization”) is that we think within the categories that our society, our “form of life” (Wittgenstein), provides for us.  Judgments outside that form are very rare; the prison house of culture is almost completely immune to escape—with that “almost” serving as a thin reed of hope.  (In fact, we will see the aesthetic return in another guise in a future post, a guise in which it is the source of that hope.)

The second way to overcome the subject/object divide is the interactionist approach found in Dewey and now being revived by figures like Bruno Latour.  In this model, the features of both subject and object that are activated in an interaction are not present prior to the interaction.  Chemical reactions offer one instance, but marriage also provides a good example.  I am this person in this relationship to another person.  In some sense, those qualities existed in me prior to the relationship, but they cannot become manifest, cannot be realized, except in the relationship.  Similarly, the flower is not beautiful without the human perceiver who deems it so, just as that perceiver cannot have the experience of “beauty” except through the encounter with the flower.  It takes two to tango.

I am actually more interested now in the second tangle introduced by the epicurean notion of the aesthetic.  This is the problem of taste.  On the one hand, what could be more mundane, more ever-present, than taste?  Everyone prefers some things to other things.  These preferences can be across categories. I prefer novels to biographies.  But the preferences work within categories as well.  I like this novel, but not that one.

But we can’t leave it at that.  Some people’s judgments of taste are considered more reliable, more valuable, than others.  These people are experts of some sort, respected connoisseurs.  (The French word simply means “with knowledge” and my dictionary defines the word as “a person who is especially competent to pass critical judgment in an art.”)  Aesthetic education attempts, in part, to enable students to acquire the relevant knowledge that would improve their judgments.  At the very least, I think, we try to give students a vocabulary by which to discern and discuss the features of an art work.  We are training their attention (the very ability to see certain features in the work) and we are giving them a way to articulate the reasons why they would consider the work done well or not so well.

Even this modest program can make us queasy.  It goes against an egalitarian ethos that would see everyone as entitled to their own judgments of taste.  Interference with those self-formed judgments, with the often unstated but still strongly felt implication that some judgments are better than others, raises disquieting questions.

In aesthetic matters, the consequences of bad judgments, formed out a lack of knowledge or careful attention, are hardly dire.  But what about one’s political judgments?  If our students cast their votes in ignorance of certain facts, or actively misled by “fake news,” are we authorized to interfere?  The egalitarian ethos is tied to a commitment to autonomy about basic issues.  People get to decide for themselves who to vote for, what religion to follow, whom to marry, and what kind of career to pursue.  We might deplore their choices, but feel it an outrageous violation of individual freedom/dignity to intervene beyond a verbal offering of advice or dissent.

This means aesthetic education, insofar as it hopes to reform or refine or revise the aesthetic judgments of its recipients, can only “woo the consent” (Hannah Arendt’s phrase) of its pupils.  I had a college professor who insisted that “to impress was to tyrannize.”  He systematically tried to undermine appearing as a role model, as a figure who attained that kind of “authority” I talked about a few posts back.  He didn’t want disciples or fans or imitators.

But, in fact, I don’t think any teacher can avoid this dilemma.  We are—for better and for worse—shaping the taste of our students.  (Of course, some of them just ignore us completely, walking out of our classrooms completely unmoved in any direction.)  Discriminating judgments, as I have already said, are inevitable, part and parcel of everyday life.  Reflecting upon the grounds for such judgments is part and parcel of any education that introduces students to art works.  (Of course, reflecting on the grounds of judgment actually takes place in all classrooms.  The historian and the scientist are also introducing students to canons of evidence and reasoning on which judgments about knowledge claims are made.)

Furthermore, there is an unavoidable infinite regress here. The teacher stages the judgment that this judgment of Moby Dick is more credible than that judgment about the novel.  And then the teacher’s judgment is subject to similar scrutiny—and it goes that way all the way down.  All judgments are open to question, to evaluation.  All we have are the reasons that someone can offer in support of their judgment when it is challenged—along with the sensibilities that greatly influence which reasons seem convincing to us and which not.

Training someone’s judgment, then, includes heightening their awareness of (focusing their attention on) the particular qualities of the object (or situation) to be judged (making them connoisseurs in its etymological sense) and making them conversant with the kinds of reasons, the different terms, utilized in the justification of judgments.

But, to get back to the epicure, is aesthetic education also about forming a sensibility?  Are we creating not only a sensitivity to something’s qualities, but also an emotional investment in things being done well?  When I tell students (to make a point) that I broke up with my high school girlfriend when she gave me J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey to read, it is only half-true.  But it is half true.  The trouble is that we take aesthetic judgments as a revelation of character.  And in some instances those aesthetic judgments are also read morally.  Bad taste becomes not only an indication of a person’s lack of discernment, but also of their suspect values.  Wouldn’t a woman on a first date be well within her rights if given pause by her date’s enthusiastic love of violent films?  It is very difficult to disentangle aesthetic judgments from other kinds of judgments, including moral ones—which is one reason why the jump from aesthetics to politics can look easy and obvious in some cases.

So, can we create a firewall between aesthetic and moral/political judgments?  And should we even want to do so?  I (as should be obvious by now) think collapsing the distinction is a bad idea if only because it leads to cloudy thinking.  I also think (because of my adherence to the egalitarian ethos) that any interference with others’ judgments should be forthright.  That means I don’t like smuggling in a political agenda in a class that is advertised as addressing the arts.  That doesn’t mean ignoring any artist’s own political or moral convictions, or denying that the line between art and politics, and between aesthetic and moral/political judgments, is never absolute or impermeable.  But maintaining a distinction is, I believe, a good thing.  Learning how to appreciate Milton’s craft can—and should—be separated from deploring his view of women.

So that brings us back, once more, to the epicure.  When the epicure judges the quality of a bottle of wine, he abstracts away from the exploitation of the workers who picked the grapes and the tax evasion tactics of the corporation that sold him that bottle.   We can turn our choice of what wine to drink into a moral/political choice that hinges on the ways it was produced.  But it does our thinking no good if we deny there are other grounds for choice—and those grounds include the aesthetic ones of its quality as wine.  In short, I am saying that there are certain grounds for judgment that are “aesthetic” and certain other grounds that are not.  Clear thinking is aided by maintaining this distinction.  And it is a good start to think of aesthetic properties as those directly connected to perception.  I can taste the wine’s quality; I can’t taste the exploitation of the farm workers.  (Unfortunately, things don’t remain that simple.  How do I perceive King Lear’s pessimism or Frank O’Hara’s campiness?  I will have to take up such complications in a future post.)

For now, I just want to hold on to the idea that some features of an object or situation are aesthetic while others are not.  Water boils at 100 degrees Centigrade.  Is that an “aesthetic” quality of water?  Water gathered into a large body like a lake will reflect the color of the sky.  Is that “aesthetic”?  Common sense says Yes to the latter, and No to the former.  Both facts fit Latour’s interactive model; these potentials in water are only manifested in certain conditions where the water stands in relation to other entities.  Many attempts to explain the common sense reaction point to the utility of knowing under what conditions water boils as contrasted to the “uselessness” of the blue of the lake.  A more circular account simply says the blue lake is “beautiful” whereas the boiling water is ho-hum.

It is certainly an indication of how we judge character through one’s aesthetic judgments and of the communal consensus about such judgments, that we would find it “odd” if someone enthused over the beauty of the water boiling in the pot, just as we would deem insensitive someone who proclaimed utter indifference to the lake’s shining blue.

It goes the other way, however.  Perhaps it is just that egalitarian ethos.  We do seem to tolerate the connoisseur in most cases, although the suspicion that he is a snob and thinks himself superior to the plebes and their deplorable taste lingers.  Epicure is at this point pretty much always a term of abuse.  This is where we find Dewey.  He is willing to grant to the artist a special sensitivity.  “An artist, in comparison with his fellows, is one who is not only especially gifted in powers of execution, but also in unusual sensitivity to the qualities of things” (49).  Compare this statement to Wordsworth’s (in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads) ungainly attempt to square the circle of egalitarianism with a conviction that the poet is special.  “What is a Poet?” Wordsworth asks and answers his own question:  “He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind” (p. 567 in the 2nd edition of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.)  Nice to know that Wordsworth thought so highly of himself.

Dewey, it won’t surprise us, is more aware of the non-egalitarian implications of this notion of the special sensitivity of the artist.  For one thing, it contradicts his notion that aesthetic experience is general, that everyone has that kind of experience when things align in that “equilibrium” that all of us are constantly trying to achieve.  He doesn’t follow that line of argument in this instance.

Instead, the pages immediately following (see pp. 50 to 52) his statement about the artist’s special sensitivity echo Kant’s dictum that “taste disciplines genius” (Section 50 of the Critique of Judgment).  Dewey offers two constraints on the artist’s vision.  One, it must be “controlled”—i.e. conscious and intelligent, oriented toward the guiding purpose and toward the achievement of unified form.  Second, (very similar to Kant), “even the composition conceived in the head and, therefore, physically private, is public in its significant content, since it is conceived with reference to execution in a product that is perceptible and hence belongs to the common world” (51).  Taste functions to discipline genius in Kant so that the products of genius are “universally communicable.”  Dewey (as we will see in a future post) is equally committed to communicability—and here that view leads to the assertion that the artist’s vision must be rendered in a product that “belongs to the common world.”  The artist’s special sensitivity cannot be something that separates her from her fellows, but serve as a meeting point with them.

The epicure is condemned precisely for his lack of concern for or connection with his fellows.  It is all about exquisite sensation—and no moral or practical considerations should be allowed to jeopardize pleasure.  Pater and Wilde can be read as advocates for this religion of beauty—and for the kind of aristocratic disdain of those whose palates are not fine enough to join them in worship at that altar. Nothing, of course, could be further from Dewey’s democratic sensibility.

To sum up this rather wandering post:

  1. The recurrent figure of the epicure reminds us that one persistent way to identify “the aesthetic” is to highlight perceived qualities that are beautiful, useless, pleasure-yielding etc. Judgments of taste will consider the extent to which an object or situation delivers those perceived qualities.  Aesthetic education will provide its students with a heightened ability to perceive and enjoy those qualities.
  2. There is, in both Dewey and Kant, a sense that the aesthetic reconciles us to existence, proves that we are fit for this world, and it is fit for us.  I want to pursue this notion of “acceptance” or “affirmation” in future posts.
  3. The epicure (and “aestheticism” more generally) is a figure of suspicion insofar as he seems to downplay all moral and non-selfish (communal) claims in favor of exquisite sensations. At the same time, disdain and condemnation runs in all directions, since everyone deplores everyone else’s bad taste—and very often reads that bad taste as a character or moral failing.
  4. Aesthetic education cannot avoid being in the business of re-forming its students’ taste and in the business of claiming (even if implicitly) that some works and some judgments are better than others. How to address this establishment of better/worse; what kinds of authority or reasons or sensitivities or models will do the work of making students adopt a presented hierarchy of judgments; and how to square all this with a commitment to democratic egalitarianism and the right of everyone to judge for themselves are a true conundrum.  (This gets us back to the Michael Clune essay on Judgment, which tries to solve the problem by fiat—or so it seems to me.)
  5. Since there does seem to be growth in tastes (i.e. we learn to appreciate certain things through a process of exposure to them, increased knowledge about them, and focused attention on their features), aesthetic education has a clear goal and some observable success in reaching that goal if we stick to a purely epicurean outlook. Aesthetic education can heighten sensitivity to and pleasure in the aesthetic properties of various objects and situations.  We could even say that aesthetic education fosters an “aesthetic sensibility” insofar as it instills the habit of attending to such aesthetic features of objects and situations.
  6. The relation of that aesthetic sensibility to moral and/or political commitments remains open to question—and will form the subject of subsequent posts. On the face of it, since the epicurean sensibility has so often been tied to an aristocratic indifference to, even disdain for, the tastes and needs of the plebes, the attempt to move from an aesthetic sensibility to a leftist politics does not look all that promising.
  7. That said, the attempt to isolate aesthetic judgments from judgments of value seems to me untenable. I can perhaps say that something is to be valued only for the aesthetic pleasure it yields.  But that is still claiming that the thing has value—and should be valued.  Once that claim has been entered, I don’t see how I can avoid having to weigh that value against the claims of other values.  I can say the exquisite wine makes me indifferent to the farm worker’s plight, but I can’t say that I am not making a judgment that deems one value more important to me than the other.

The Aesthetic (Two)

I can’t see my way toward describing “aesthetic sensibility” without making an inventory of the features that comprise “the aesthetic.”  So my posts on this topic are going to meander back and forth across those two topics.

Dewey’s Art and Experience cover a lot of ground.  That’s a polite way of saying it’s a mess.  A kinder verdict would say the book embodies Dewey’s characteristic pluralism, offering a wide range of ways to understand art: its functions, its impact, the reasons all human societies produce it.  For my purposes, that the book offers so many different versions of what art is and what it does is useful—because I want to canvas all the different ways we can think about art.

For Dewey, however, it is not clear how the book’s pluralism can co-exist with his firm declaration, at the outset, that the aesthetic is anything “that intensifies the sense of immediate living” (6; I am using the Perigee Books paperback edition dating from 1980).  “[T]he work of art develops and accentuates what is characteristically valuable in things of everyday enjoyment.  The art product will then be seen to issue from the latter, when the full meaning of ordinary experience is expressed” (11).  Art “works idealize qualities fond in common experience” (11).  “A conception of fine art that sets out form its connection with discovered qualities of ordinary experience will be able to indicate the factors and forces that favor the normal development of common human activities into matters of artistic value” (11).

Intensity, meaning, qualities, and value.  Those key terms indicate what Dewey is aiming for.  In Dewey’s essentially Darwinian account, “life goes on in an environment; not merely in it but because of it, through interaction with it. . . . [I]n order to live, it [the organism] must adjust itself, by accommodation and defense but also by conquest.  At every moment, the living creature . . . must draw upon something in its surroundings to satisfy its need.  The career and destiny of a living being are bound up with its interchanges with its environment, not externally but in the most intimate way” (13).

Dewey’s idea is that, much of the time, we are buffeted by this interchange, submerged in what William James called “the buzzing, blooming confusion” of passing time, just trying to keep our heads above water.  But sometimes, Dewey says, an “equilibrium” (14) or “harmony” (14) is achieved.  That achievement yields what Dewey calls “consummation” (15); it renders an experience that is felt to be fulfilled.  That consummatory experience has a shape, a form, for us.  It can be named, reflected upon, and identified as desirable and satisfying.  It instantiates an ideal interactive relationship with the whole ensemble of beings and conditions that we sum up in the term “environment.”  That ideal relationship is what Dewey claims is “the aesthetic.”

I want now to offer a long quote that leads up to that final claim that “the aesthetic” is best understood as indicating experiences that embody this satisfactory relationship to the environment.  I do so because I want to focus in on several crucial moves within Dewey’s argument. (I have underlined a number of key terms.)

“The world is full of things that are indifferent and even hostile to life; the very processes by which life is maintained tend to throw it out of gear with its surroundings.  Nevertheless, if life continues and if in its continuing it expands, there is an overcoming of factors of opposition and conflict; there is a transformation of them into differentiated aspects of a higher powered and more significant life.  The marvel of organic, of vital adaptation through expansion (instead of by contraction and passive accommodation) actually takes place.  Here in germ are balance and harmony attained through rhythmEquilibrium comes about not mechanically and inertly but out of, and because of, tension.

There is in nature, even below the level of life, something more than flux and change.  Form is arrived at whenever a stable, even though moving, equilibrium is reached.  Changes interlock and sustain one another.  Wherever there is this coherence there is endurance.  Order is not imposed from without but is made out of relations of harmonious interactions that energies bear to one another.  Because it is active (not anything static because foreign to what goes on) order itself develops.  It comes to include within its balanced movement a greater variety of changes.

Order cannot but be admirable in a world constantly threatened with disorder—in a world where living creatures can go on living only by taking advantage of whatever order exists about them, incorporating it into themselves.  In a world like ours, every living creature that attains sensibility welcomes order with a response of harmonious feeling whenever it finds a congruous order about it.

For only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living.  And when the participation comes after a stage of disruption and conflict, it bears within itself the germs of a consummation akin to the esthetic” (14-15).

Lots going on here.  There is the metaphysical claim that “nature” is “more than flux and change.”  It is not a completely Heraclitian universe.  Later, Dewey will assert that “the fact that civilization endures and continues—and sometimes advances—is evidence that human hopes find a basis and support in nature”(28).  “Harmony” and “equilibrium” are achievable, it seems, because life’s desire for “stability” finds an answering “order” in nature.  That order is “rhythmic” because it manifests itself even as time passes.  Thus, “form is arrived at whenever a stable, even though moving, equilibrium is reached” (14).  Form is dynamic; it must be responsive to change even as it achieves some kind of stability.

The aesthetic, then, is linked to those times when we manage to find form.  Using language current today (but which Dewey does not use), form “emerges” in the interaction with environment, but only in those interactions where some kind of satisfactory relationship is established.  And form can only be sustained through an ongoing attentiveness to change.  Like a surfer, form only avoids being wiped out by constantly adjusting to the changes of the moving wave.

Dewey–as is clear through the text’s references to Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge—is recognizably Romantic in this yoking of art to the establishment of a satisfactory relationship to nature.  He also (at least in this text) shares the Romantic faith that human life and nature are not inimical, but is some way or other made for each other.  (Recall that “beauty” in Kant’s aesthetic is basically the apprehension that mind and world are made for each other.)

Dewey insists “order is not imposed.”  But, although he doesn’t say this explicitly, order is not discovered either.  We are in the realm of “half perceive, half create” (from Wordworth’s “Tintern Abbey”), where all we need is the William James-like assertion that the world is “open.”  The world enables the creation of order, the having of consummatory experiences.  It neither makes form, consummatory experiences, impossible or necessary.  It simply makes them possible—and the esthetic is identified as those happy instances when interaction produces harmony and equilibrium.  There are potentials (“affordances” in today’s jargon) in nature that, when activated, yield consummatory experiences.  Of course, lung cancer is a natural affordance, activated by smoking, and the resultant death could certainly be called “consummatory” and qualify as “an experience” in Dewey’s terms.  So not all possible achievements of “form” need be thought positive.

In any case, Dewey clearly believes “life” becomes more significant, more meaningful, when ordinary experiences take form, acquire a “coherence” that also permits them to be recognized as (named?) an experience.  Nick calls this “ordered intensity”—and one source here may be Pater.  The esthetic points us to moments (experiences or interactions) when our sense of who we are, what we are doing, and the world (the environment) in which we are embedded is heightened.  We are most alive at such moments—and there is definitely a strain of vitalism running through Dewey’s account.  “Moments and places . . . are charged with accumulations of long-gathering energies” (24).  Dewey warns against the “dead spots” in which “the process of living in any day or hour is reduced to labelling situations, events, and objects as ‘so-and-so’ in mere succession” (24).

Instead, we need to be conscious of those energies gathered in the present—and art is the name we give to that conscious attention.  “[A]ll deliberation, all conscious intent, grows out of things once performed organically through the interplay of natural energies.  Were it not so, art would be built on quaking sands, nay, on unstable air.  The distinguishing contribution of man is consciousness of the relations found in nature.  Through consciousness, he converts the relations of cause and effect found in nature into relations of means and consequences. . . . The existence of art is the concrete proof of what has just been stated abstractly.  It is proof that man uses the materials and energies of nature with intent to expand his own life. . . Art is the living and concrete proof that man is capable of restoring consciously, and thus on the plane of meaning, the union of sense, need, impulse and action characteristic of the live creature” (24-25).

No surprise that Dewey, who in all his works advocates for “intelligence,” ties art so tightly to consciousness, to the formation of deliberate purposes.  “The rhythm of loss of integration with environment and recovery of union not only persists in man but becomes conscious with him; its conditions are material out of which he forms purposes” (15).  And intelligence entails not only the formation of purposes in response to environmental conditions, but also the shaping of appropriate means to achieve those purposes.  Art, in the largest sense, names this conception and then enactment of “means and consequences.”

I think this captures Dewey’s primary definition of “the aesthetic” as a quality of experiences and of “art” as the conscious effort to craft such consummatory experiences.  Subsequent posts will consider other ideas that get associated with those two terms.  But, for now, let me finish by considering some ramifications of Dewey’s view.

First, he has a relatively benign view of nature—and the conditions within which humans live.  It is not inimical to human desire. But it is also not inert, so cannot be simply passive material in human hands.  Furthermore, time disrupts everything, since it precludes the establishment of persisting satisfactory states of affairs.  Art, then, is the human response to these conditions.  It is the conscious effort to create the best relations possible to the prevailing conditions in which someone finds him- or herself.

Second, Dewey’s view means that he is against any and all forms of aestheticism.  Art is continuous with, in fact an almost ever-present feature of, all experience.  We are very often striving to make our experiences satisfactory and conscious.  Dewey accepts that at times we are just slogging along, mired in “mere succession,” one damn thing after another.  But whenever we are more actively working to shape our relation to the environment in more satisfying ways, we are engaged in artistic activity.

Third (I find this troubling, but Nick does not), this raises for me the question of the status of the art work.  Is that work a representation of a consummatory experience?  Or is the work itself a consummatory experience? (This question, of course, reprises the modernist project of making the work an event, as opposed to a representation—the focus on the question of what the work “does” as opposed to what it “says” or “means.”)  I think Dewey either waffles on this question—or never grasps why it could and should be asked.

Two further complications arise once we try to think about the relation of art works to the experiential definition of the aesthetic that Dewey is pushing. A) Dewey very much wants to reintegrate the aesthetic into the ordinary.  He offers a sharp critique of museums early in the book (pp. 8-10).  The art work, then, could be diagnosed as a symptom of the regrettable extraction of art from the everyday, an alienation Dewey decries in both the first and last chapters of his book—and that he argues is an indication of the pathologies of modern life and of capitalism.  In this view, art works are not the epitome of the aesthetic, but evidence of its degradation.  Yet, in other instances, Dewey clearly wants to honor the art work, not condemn it.  So the question is how do you recognize certain human works as “art” and avoid the isolation of those works into a separate realm/category that distances them from the ordinary.

B) If the art work is to be understood as “an experience” and not as the representation of “an experience,” then we need some account of that experience from the artist’s point of view and from the audience’s. They can’t both be having the same experience, since the artist is crafting the work and the audience is viewing (or reading or hearing) it. Dewey is fairly good on the artist’s experience; in fact, his interactive model works especially well in thinking about an artist’s relation to the materials of his art (stone, words, musical notes, paint and canvas) and how the work emerges through tangling with the resistances and affordances those materials present.  But he is (at least so far) almost completely silent about what the audience gets.

Fourth, which brings us to “aesthetic education.”  Generally speaking, I don’t think the term is being utilized by Nick to designate the technical training of a would-be painter or a would-be composer.  Rather, the focus is on what audiences can learn through guided exposure to art works.  What—in our literary studies and art history classrooms—are we aiming to accomplish?  The answer (it seems) to me that Dewey’s book suggests is we are trying to teach our students how to “read” situations sensitively and holistically (the “art” of judgment, of practical wisdom, of phronesis) and we are trying to teach them how to creatively respond to those situations.  What am I facing in the here and now?  What are the possible roads from here to a desirable future?

Fifth, I don’t know if there is any direct road from this view of what an aesthetic education aims for and a leftist politics.  I am inclined to think not.  I do think a “liberal” education tends toward that open-minded, holistic reading of situations that seems inimical to right-wing sensibilities of our day.  But there isn’t a necessary connection here that I can see.

Finally, in his last chapter especially, Dewey argues that modernity makes having an aesthetic experience more difficult.  I may want to go into his argument in a subsequent post.  But for now I just want to register the issue: are both the project of “aesthetic education” and the opportunities for having a consummatory aesthetic experience severely curtailed under contemporary conditions?  If so, why?  And, more importantly, are these two things—the aesthetic and an education that alerts us to it—cures for what ails us?  That may be where the political rubber can really hit the road.  What would be needed would be a convincing account of the deficiencies of contemporary life (an account that would actually convince people that their lives are deficient)—and a convincing account of how the aesthetic is the path toward a better life.