First published Fri Sep 29, 2006; substantive revision Mon Mar 4, 2013
Many writers complain that Dewey showed little interest in the avant-garde art of his time. It is true that neither Cubism, Dadaism nor Surrealism play a role in his writing. His theory seems to actually preclude Non-objective painting (Jacobson 1960), although he does speak positively of abstract art.
Turning to late 20th century artists, Dewey’s influence on Abstract Expressionism was especially strong (Buettner 1975, Berube 1998). For example, Robert Motherwell, who studied Art as Experience when he was a philosophy major at Stanford, considered it to be one of his bibles (Berube 1998). Donald Judd, the Minimalist sculptor, read and admired Dewey (Raskin 2010). Earth Art, with its emphases on getting art out of the museum, might even be seen as applied Dewey. There is also reason to believe that Allan Kaprow, one of the originators of Happenings and Performance Art, read Dewey and drew on his ideas (Kelly 2003). Although one author has argued that contemporary Body Art has moved away from the integrated consummated aesthetic experience Dewey commends (Jay 2002), another argues that Dewey anticipates this movement (Brodsky 2002).
Art products exist externally and physically, whereas, on his view, the work of art is really what the physical object does within experience.
Fine art fails to appeal to the masses when it is remote, and so they seek aesthetic pleasure in “the vulgar.” The cause of this is the common separation between spirit and matter, and the consequent downgrading of matter.
The segregation of art from everyday life came with the rise of nationalism and imperialism. For Dewey, experience should be understood in terms of the conditions of life. Man shares with animals certain basic vital needs, and derives the means for satisfying these needs from his animal nature. Life goes on not only in an environment but in interaction with that environment.
The artist, especially, cultivates resistance and tension to achieve a unified experience. By contrast, although the scientist, like the artist, is interested in problems, she always seeks to move on to the next problem. Yet both artist and scientist are concerned with the same materials, both think, and both have their aesthetic moments. The aesthetic moment for the scientist happens when her thought becomes embedded as meaning in the object. The artist’s thought is more immediately embodied in the object as she works and thinks in her medium.
Aesthetic experience involves a drama in which action, feeling, and meaning are one. The result is balance.
This presupposes a nature/spirit dualism which Dewey rejects. That people commonly resist connecting fine art and everyday life is explained by the current disorganization of our cultural lives.
Dewey thinks it important here to distinguish mere recognition from perception. Recognition uses matter as means. Perception, by contrast, entails the past being carried into the present to enrich its content.
Works of art are important examples of “an experience.” Here, separate elements are fused into a unity, although, rather than disappearing, their identity is enhanced. The unity of an experience, which is neither exclusively emotional, practical, nor intellectual, is determined by a single pervasive quality. . Dewey, there is no clear separation between the aesthetic and the intellectual.
Works of art use materials that come from a public world, and they awaken new perceptions of the meanings of that world, connecting the universal and the individual organically. The work of art is representative, not in the sense of literal reproduction, which would exclude the personal, but in that it tells people about the nature of their experience.
Chapter Six begins with a discussion of medium. Dewey asserts that there are many languages of art, each specific to the medium. He believes that meanings expressed in art cannot be translated into words. Moreover, language requires not only speakers but listeners. Thus, in art, the work is not complete until it is experienced by someone other than the artist. Artist, work and audience form a triad, for even when the artist works in isolation she is herself vicariously the audience.
although the material out of which the work is made comes from the public world the manner of its making is individual.
The work of art is only actually such when it lives in a person’s experience. As physical object, the work remains identical, but as work of art, it is recreated. It would be absurd to ask the artist what she meant by her work, for she would find different meanings in it at different times. What the artist means in a work, then, is whatever the perceiver can get out of it that is living. This does not mean that any interpretation is as good as any other, as will be seen when we discuss Dewey’s chapter on criticism.
In philosophy, “relation” generally refers to something intellectual that subsists in propositions. But, as Dewey observes in his seventh chapter, it refers in everyday discourse to something direct and active. It leads us to think of the clashings and unitings of things, of modes of interaction. For Dewey, the relation that characterizes a work of art is mutual adaptation of the parts to constitute the whole.
Within art, form is the working of forces that carry an experience of some thing to fulfillment. Thus, form needs to be appropriate to the subject matter.
Unlike mechanical production, in artistic production the consummatory phase recurs throughout the work. Thus the work is both instrumental and final. Art is instrumental not in serving narrow purposes but in giving us a refreshed attitude about ordinary experience and contributing to an enduring sense of serenity.
Dewey asserts that new materials demand new techniques, and the artist is a born experimenter. Through experimentation, the artist opens up new areas, or reveals new qualities in the familiar. What is now classic is the result of previous adventure, which is why we still find adventure in the classics.
It is often thought that there are two kinds of art, spatial and temporal, and that only the latter can have rhythm. But, Dewey argues, perception of rhythm in pictures and sculpture is as essential to their experience as that of music. Rhythm is a matter of bringing about a complete and consummatory experience.