By and large, John Dewey's pragmatic philosophy did not really have much room for a preoccupation with history. Dewey most emphasized the possibility of "growth," the forward-looking realization of potential, whether in education, politics, or art. History might hold some illustrative value, but only as it is relevant to the present or the future, only as history contributes to the enhancement of the present and future.
One might surmise, therefore, that Dewey would not particularly esteem "tradition" in the arts. And indeed he does in Art as Experience reject tradition as an end-in-itself, dwelling instead on the "adventurous" nature of the best art, art that takes account of the "emergence of new materials of experience demanding expression" by creating "new forms and techniques." But Dewey understands that the "new" in art also relies on "a particular background of experience":
Of this background, traditions form a large part. It is not enough to have direct contacts and observations, indispensable as these are. Even the work of an original temperment may be relatively thin, as well as tending to the bizarre, when it is not informed with a wide and varied experience of the traditions of the art in which the artist operates. (265)
The work of an artist insufficiently grounded in the "forms and techniques" of the past might nevertheless be original, but that originality risks being meaningless (simply "bizarre") because the existing audience fails to recognize it as participating in the broader practices of "the art in which the artist operates," although the artist who does so participate might indeed wish to alter or modify those practices. The alterations keep the tradition itself alive even as the tradition makes the "new" possible. Indeed, much of the critical commentary on modernism and postmodernism has consisted of efforts to show that works immediately received as so singular as to seem completely alien are actually comprehensible within the formal, stylistic, or national traditions from which these works arise.
About literary traditions in particular Dewey suggests that "'Schools' of art are more marked in sculpture, architecture, and painting than in the liteary arts" but "there has been no great literary artist who did not feed upon the works of the masters of drama, poetry, and eloquent prose." Some writers merely imitate these masters, and for such a writer literary traditions "have not entered into his mind; into the structure of his own ways of seeing and making." Past practices "remain upon the surface as tricks of technique or as extraneous suggestions and conventions as to the proper thing to do" (265). One might object to Dewey's narrowing of the source of tradition to the "masters"; it isn't just the influence of the greatest writers that encourages the new contributions of current writers but, or so I would maintain, of literary history as a whole. "Tradition" does not rest in the indisputably "great" writers but in the continuity of fiction or poetry or drama even as manifested in lesser writers. As Dewey himself often insisted, it is best to think about human activities and institutions in terms of process rather than fixed result, so literary tradition is most usefully considered as an ongoing process of mutually reinforced conservation and change.
Artistic transformation occurs, then, when the artist with his/her "experience demanding expression" confronts tradition in an act of what Dewey calls "intuition," a
meeting of the old and new in which the readjustment involved in every form of consciousness is effected suddenly by means of a quick and unexpected harmony which in its bright abruptness is like a flash of revelation; although in fact it is prepared for by long and slow incubation.
Like most accounts of artistic creation, Dewey's suffers from a perhaps unavoidable vagueness, although "intuition" may be as accurate a term for naming the act of discovery that culminates in the work of art as any other. What Dewey adds to nebulous descriptions like "a quick and unexpected harmony" or "flash of revelation" is that the "bright abruptness" of intuition comes only after "long and slow incubation." Artistic intuition occurs against a background of previous creation. It is prompted by that creation.
The reader or audience also has a responsibility to tradition: "The perceiver, as much as the creator, needs a rich and developed background which, whether it be painting in the field of poetry, or music, cannot be achieved except by consistent nurture of interest." Since Dewey's position is that the value of art resides in the experience of it, then that experience would be thin indeed without this "developed background" of tradition. The adventurous work of art could be equally meaningless if the "perceiver" can't recognize the broader practices made visible by tradition, even if the work does encompass them.
To say that both artist and audience need an acquaintance with tradition is not to claim that either must devote lifetimes to the study of literature and literary history (although to do so couldn't hurt). They need "a wide and varied experience of the traditions of the art," but this means that it is the experience of those traditions that count, regarding which quality counts for more than quantity. "Wide and varied" does not mean encyclopedic. At some point, in fact, a pursuit of tradition for its own sake is as likely to impede our ability to experience art deeply as enable it, as the customary practices come to seem "normal" and departures from them unwelcome. In this way, a fixation on "great art," or a certain kind of great art, makes it less likely the tradition it otherwise nourishes will continue to thrive.