Books

Reconsidering John Dewey’s Art as Experience

John Dewey (from the New York Public LIbrary Digital Gallery)
John Dewey (from the New York Public LIbrary Digital Gallery)

It’s hard to tell how many young Americans know the name John Dewey today. Those who attended New York City’s New School might know of him as a co-founder and one of the minds behind the progressive agenda that formed the intellectual and social foundation of the school’s early years. Others might recognize the name because of his most well-known work, as an early theorist and proponent of progressive education for students of all ages. And some might be aware of him as a thinker who, in some ways, was discussing post-modern ideas about a hundred years before post-modernism. For those to whom his name is very familiar, he is said to be one of the most, if not the most, influential American philosophers. But here I want to talk about one of his lesser-known works, Art as Experience, which brings together some of his larger political and philosophic ideas in a discussion of aesthetics and culture, and their role in a robust society.

ArtAsExperienceCover

A teacher from early in his career, and a political philosopher throughout his life, Dewey was an incredibly prolific writer — the full collection of his writing takes up 37 volumes. Perhaps the most important thing to understand about Dewey and his ideas is that he was born into a time period of major upheaval, conflict, and change in the US. Born in Vermont (a deeply abolitionist state) two years prior to the Civil War, Dewey’s childhood was marked by the enormous number of deaths his state experienced during that conflict. He attended university during the period of Reconstruction following the war, and began his teaching career in small towns in Pennsylvania and Vermont around the time that Western expansion was leading to the American Indian Wars. Feeling he wasn’t cut out to be a grade school teacher, he later returned to university.

Just as the engines of the industrial boom were cranking up to the furious pace that funded the Gilded Age robber barons and helped drive new waves of immigration to the US, Dewey was moving into faculty positions at the University of Michigan and then Chicago. But as the 20th century dawned, Dewey moved to Columbia University, where he stayed until 1930. It was from New York City that he watched both World Wars change the country even more, along with the fight for women’s suffrage and the red scares that kept arising throughout the first half of the 20th century in the US. In fact, in 1917 Columbia University began firing professors who refused to comply with a resolution from the Board of Trustees demanding “unqualified loyalty to the Government of the United States” from all students and faculty. Other professors resigned, at least one of whom ended up at the New School, co-founded by Dewey as a free institution of higher learning that would be open to members of any class and not require political “loyalty.” Dewey died in 1952, two years into US Senator Joseph McCarthy’s fear-mongering trials.

All of which is to say that the events taking place during Dewey’s lifetime were characterized by massive upheavals around racial, gender-based, and economic oppression; the expansion of laissez-faire economics; overly prescriptive or near non-existent education that was failing large portions of the population; political turnmoil and ongoing wars. All of which he seemed to respond to by strengthening his belief in a democratic ideal. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Dewey believed that “individuality can only be properly expressed if the individual participates in democratic practices, since social inquiry is a constitutive part of the individual good.” Which is to say, part of how we are successful as individuals comes from interacting, working with, and even disagreeing with others. He also saw things like education and journalism, as well as art, as essential to a strong populous and democracy. From Thomas Alexander’s 1987 book John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature:

“Democracy for Dewey is not a name for a special political institution so much as one for such a creative-critical culture. Political freedom is more the result of a free culture than the other way.”

The book Art as Experience is not the first time he focused on “experience” as something core in his thinking. He developed his ideas of experience most explicitly in his educational writing. Dewey is concerned with helping every student to have the “full and ready use of all his capacities.” To his mind, in order to accomplish that, you first have to understand how that child was shaped by experience up to that point (what conditions the child grew up under, what events were taking place around them, etc), and then you have to allow the student to interact with the subjects they are learning — to create new experiences and reflect on their past experiences as a way of gaining new and greater understandings. At base, what he’s after is experiential learning rather than learning through memorization or lecturing.

This all may seem obvious in the 21st century, but it was a big deal in Dewey’s era to stop teachers from dismissing poor children, who had very different experiences from more affluent students, as stupid and instead acknowledge that they have a different view of the world and a different set of skills when they enter the classroom for the first time. It also went against the notion that learning by rote was one of the best methods for teaching. Of course, in today’s education environment, where children across the US are assessed using the same standardized tests and representation of poor students (see this study also) and students of color in elite schools throughout the country continues to be a major issue, maybe revisiting Dewey and other’s ideas would be useful.

One of the many schools named for Dewey in the early 1900s, this in Taylor County Texas, pictured in 1922 (source.
One of the many schools named for Dewey in the early 1900s, this in Taylor County Texas, pictured in 1922 (source).

Education issues aside, what Dewey is getting at is simple enough — we are shaped by experience and so experience is also then the best tool for helping people gain new understanding. What Art as Experience brings forward is that art is actually a unique form of experience that carries significant potential to be a part of shaping individuals and societies: “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.”

Published for the first time in 1934, the book is actually comprised of and builds on a series of lectures that Dewey gave on aesthetics two years before, as well as essays and books he wrote earlier in his career which touched on the subject. Considered by many scholars, past and present, to be a very important work on the philosophy of art, I have to admit that while it is littered with gems and some really rich and progressive thinking, the book itself is a terrible slog. It was an act of will to read every word of the 360+ pages in the text. I wasn’t disappointed with the effort, but it meanders in so many different directions at times that it seems like there’s no possible way forward. It’s filled with purple prose and overly winding language, and has almost no footnotes or references for some of the more massive assertions he makes. To be fair, though, he was writing in a style consistent with the time, and in many ways he’s more plain-spoken than some contemporary philosophers and theorists of art.

Because it’s a little bit of a tough slog, but still has some great ideas, I figured I would offer a few highlights here from the book. Not a SparkNotes version, so much as some a handful of quotes that illuminate some of the core ideas for anyone who’s interested — nothing scholarly, just me saying some of what this guy writes about seems really interesting and relevant.

Idea 1 – The Arts Are Not (and Should Not Be) Removed From the Stuff of Everyday Life

Students at the Queensboro Commmunity Art Center, photographed by Berenice Abbott, May 4, 1939 (from the New York Public LIbrary Digital Gallery).
Students at the Queensboro Commmunity Art Center, photographed by Berenice Abbott, May 4, 1939 (from the New York Public LIbrary Digital Gallery).

On the very first page of the book, Dewey makes it clear that he sees a problem with canonizing art works of any form — of placing them aside as untouchable objects. For him, part of understanding art as an experience is also understanding that it comes from human experience, that it is born of the lives that artists live and the conditions and societies that surround them. He’s not saying that the subject of all art should be spit and piss, but rather that when you set art aside as something completely disconnected life then it loses its power to be an experience and instead becomes just a thing.

“When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human condition under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.” (1*)

Further, writing during the rise of the Robber Barons may have helped secure Dewey’s opinion that capitalism hasn’t done art many favors among the wider populous:

“The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and in the promotion of the idea that they are apart from common life.” (7)

And he’s not buying other arguments in favor of upholding a separation of art as some kind of ideal form either:

“Why is the attempt to connect the higher and ideal things of experience with the basic vital roots so often regarded as betrayal of their nature and denial of their value? … A complete answer to the question would involve the writing of a history of morals that would set forth the conditions that have brought about contempt for the body, fear of the senses, and the opposition of flesh to spirit.” (20)

For Dewey, separating art from life would be just as false and problematic as separating a person from their surroundings:

“Any psychology that isolates the human being from the environment also shuts him off, save for external contacts, from his fellows. But an individual’s desires take shape under the influence of the human environment.”  (281)

Idea 2 – Art Is a Powerful, Imperfect Form and the Experience of it Has the Potential to Be Transformative

Students at the Harlem Community Art Center, photographed by Berenice Abbott, April 26, 1939 (from the New York Public LIbrary Digital Gallery).
Students at the Harlem Community Art Center, photographed by Berenice Abbott, April 26, 1939 (from the New York Public LIbrary Digital Gallery).

While art is not disconnected from our everyday lives and experiences, Dewey does acknowledge that it is an “intensified” form of experience. But if you combine this second statement with the ones above, what becomes clear is that for Dewey art is not a thing, it’s something that happens, it’s the experience of the artist making the work and also of the audience receiving it. Here’s a quote that gives a sense of how he distinguishes art from a simple description or recording:

“A lifetime would be too short to reproduce in words a single emotion. In reality, however, poet and novelist have an immense advantage over even an expert psychologist in dealing with emotion. For the former build up a concrete situation and permit it to evoke emotional response. Instead of a description of an emotion in intellectual and symbolic terms, the artist ‘does the deed that breeds’ the emotion.” (70)

And just as he’s clear that art is not a mere recording, he’s primarily concerned with art that bears the traces of its humanity:

“Mere perfection in execution, judged in its own terms in isolation, can probably be attained better by a machine than by human art.” (49)

Importantly, in Dewey’s mind, art takes time — a thing that our friend capitalism isn’t a big fan of:

“Were expression but a kind of decalcomania, or a conjuring of a rabbit out of the place where it lies hid, artistic expression would be a comparatively simple matter. But between conception and bringing to birth there lies a long period of gestation. During this period the inner material of emotion and idea is as much transformed through acting and being acted upon by objective material as the latter undergoes modification when it becomes a medium of expression.” (78–9)

And because Dewey’s concept of experience is rooted in ideas around education and democracy and change, for him art carries an enormous potential for changing both artists and audiences. I particularly like that he’s clear that these transformation isn’t always rose-tinted or soft and fuzzy:

 “For ‘taking in’ in any vital experience is something more than placing something on the top of consciousness over what was previously known. It involves reconstruction which may be painful.” (42)

“Moreover, resistance and conflict have always been factors in generating art; and they are, as we have seen, a necessary part of artistic form (353).”

Idea 3 — Art Comes from Culture and Vice Versa, and it Helps Wake Us Up to What We’ve Been Glossing Over

Cover of sheet music for 1907 song titled "Brooklyn Eagle Bridge Crush march", composed by William E. Slafer (from the New York Public LIbrary Digital Gallery).
Cover of sheet music for 1907 song titled “Brooklyn Eagle Bridge Crush march”, composed by William E. Slafer (from the New York Public LIbrary Digital Gallery).

“There has been no great literary artist who did not feed upon the works of the masters of drama, poetry, and eloquent prose. In this dependence upon tradition there is nothing peculiar to art. The scientific inquirer, the philosopher, the technologist, also derive their substance from the stream of culture. This dependence is an essential factor in original vision and creative expression.” (276–7)

“In the end, works of art are the only media of complete and unhindered communication between man and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience.” (109)

“We are not sufficiently alive to feel the tang of sense nor yet to be moved by thought. We are oppressed by our surroundings or are callous to them. Acceptance of this sort of experience as normal is the chief cause of acceptance of the idea that art cancels separations that inhere in the structure of ordinary experience.” (271)

In the same way that art has the potential to show us what we may not have seen or paid attention to before, Dewey is eager for artists not to accept what they are told constitutes art:

“The Louvre is a book where we learn to read. But we should not be content to keep the formulae of our illustrious predecessors. Let us leave them so as to study beautiful nature and search to express it according to our personal temperament.” (325)

Idea 4 – Finally, and Perhaps Most Importantly for Dewey, Art is Political

Dewey-MatissePortrait
Reprinted portrait of John Dewey by Henri Matisse, 1931 (from the New York Public LIbrary Digital Gallery).

Dewey is a revolutionary at heart and the fact that the arts in the 20th century in America were cracking open every existing theory of the time about what art should and shouldn’t be seemed to excite him and make him optimistic for the future:

“Philosophic theory concerned itself only with those arts that had the stamp and seal of recognition by the class having social standing and authority. Popular arts must have flourished, but they obtained no literary attention. They were not worthy of mention in theoretical discussions. Probably they were not even thought of as arts.” (194–5)

“The novel has been the great instrument of effecting change in prose literature. It shifted the center of attention from the court to the bourgeoisie, then to the ‘poor’ and the laborer, and then to the common person irrespective of station.” (196)

“This brief sketch has only one purpose: to indicate that, in spite of formal theory and canons of criticism, there has taken place one of those revolutions that do not go backward. Impulsion beyond all limits that are externally set inheres in the very nature of the artist’s work. It belongs to the very character of the creative mind to reach out and seize any material that stirs it so that the value of that material may be pressed out and become the matter of a new experience. Refusal to acknowledge the boundaries set by convention is the source of frequent denunciations of objects of art as immoral. But one of the functions of art is precisely to sap the moralistic timidity that causes the mind to shy away from some materials and refuses to admit them into clear and purifying light of perceptive consciousness.”  (196–7)

Of course, grand as the above statement is, we all know that not everything called art does not push boundaries or challenge the hierarchies of class, or challenge much of anything. It’s tempting to ascribe that belief to all art, and among US and European culture (if not elsewhere) it seems extremely tempting to draw lines saying, well, this is the real stuff and all the rest is just crappy attempts at art. But I think a healthier way of putting the above is to say that art has the potential to be transformative, and it is transformative when someone, anyone, is transformed by it in any way.

“The moral function of art itself is to remove prejudice, do away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, perfect the power to perceive.” (338)

Imperfect But Satisfying

Dewey’s not perfect by any means — did I mention how hard this book was to get through and how rare he backs off sweeping assertions and generalizations without any clearly cited facts? But there is some interesting stuff in there. And in the face of a lot of theory around art that can feel disconnected and overly high-fallutin’ at times (even for someone like me who likes theory in reasonable doses), Dewey was good to read. He seemed to get it. And some of what he got still seems true today regardless of how much the arts landscape has shifted since this book was first printed.

And sometimes he’s a chiding school marm and it makes me laugh:

“Only persons who have been spoiled in early life like things always soft; persons of vigor who prefer to live and who are not contented with subsisting find the too easy repulsive.” (173)

And at other times he’s a big dork, which makes me smile:

“Art is thus a way of having the substantial cake of reason while also enjoying the sensuous pleasure of eating it.” (269)

I thought there was a lot of great stuff in this one, but don’t take my word for it!

*I was reading the Perigee edition of the book, so page numbers match up with that edition.

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