Many of my own assumptions about the nature of art and literature (and thus the guiding assumptions behind many of the posts on this blog) are rooted in my reading of the philosopher John Dewey, most particularly his book Art as Experience. Here are the first two paragraphs of that book:
By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them. For one reason, these works are products that exist externally and physically. In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding. In addition, the very perfection of some of these products, the prestige they possess because of a long history of unquestioned admiration, creates conventions that get in the way of fresh insight. When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.
When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is build around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement. A primary task is thus imposed upon one who undertakes to write upon the philosophy of the fine arts. This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience. Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations. It is the business of those who are concerned with the theory of the earth, geographers and geologists, to make this fact evident in its various implications. The theorist who would deal philosophically with fine art has a like task to accomplish.
Note that Dewey acknowledges art as "refined and intensified forms of experience." It will be his task to "restore continuity" between art as a singular kind of human achievement and "the materials and aims of every other form of human effort." He will neither reduce art to the "materials and aims" of "everyday. . .doings"--as did the Marxist critics of that time (1934)--nor accept the metaphysical exaltation of art to "a separate realm" where the designation "classic" removes all responsibility from works of art (and from their critical champions) to provoke "fresh insight." Art has to live in the present or it doesn't live.
And when Dewey cautions that art must always be attributed to "conditions of origin," he doesn't mean that art merely reflects those origins or that our understanding of its meaning has to be tied to what it meant when those conditions prevailed. As he writes a few paragraphs later, we simply want to remember that art is a human creation, that buildings such as the Parthenon came from "needs that were a demand for the building and that were carried to fulfillment in it"; this is not "an examination such as might be carried on by a sociologist in search for material relevant to his purpose." Dewey ultimately had very little use for history or anthropology as ways of "disciplining" our understanding of human possibility, and this extends to his "theory" of art as well--we should think of the Athenians as like "people in our own homes, and on our own streets." The Athenians are projected into the present as people we would recognize, their art as relevant to us as to them.
In fact, Greek art (and, ultimately, our own art) can survive only by continuing to project itself into the future, as a manifestation of aesthetic accomplishment and possibility:
By common consent, the Parthenon is a great work of art. Yet it has esthetic standing only as the work becomes an experience for a human being.
Too much criticism and interpretation of art, especially traditional art, actually inhibits its ability to become "an experience for a human being." The works themselves become encrusted with tendentious commentary meant to advance one external ideology or another, protect one or another cultural bias, rather than allow viewers/readers/listeners to judge for themselves. A proper Deweyan critic would either seek to help the audience for art have a more satisfying experience of it (in the ways Dewey will discuss later in the book) or otherwise just get out of the way.
Later in Chapter 1 Dewey writes:
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 phase of disruption and conflict, it bears within itself the germs of a consummation akin to the esthetic.
According to Dewey, our response to the "order" produced by art is rooted in our response to living in a world that is inherently disorderly but that is occasionally punctuated with an "integration with environment and recovery of union." It is this same "integration" that is produced by works of art--they reaffirm our hope that order can be achieved and produce a "harmonious feeling," in this case a feeling that human labor and imagination can momentarily impose order on chaos.
. . .Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension. He rather cultivates them, not for their own sake, but because of their potentialities, bringing to living consciousness an experience that is unified and total. . . .
Dewey is suggesting that artists (good artists, that is) are distinctive in their ability not merely to acknowledge "resistance and tension" (the world's tendency to thwart "harmonious feelings") but to dwell in them, to accept disorder as a necessary accompaniment to the experience of order. The scientist wishes to conceptualize disorder as a problem to be solved, after which "he passes on to another problem using an attained solution only as a stepping stone"; the artist wishes to capture the "rhythm" involved in the movement from disorder to "attained solution" (the work of art), to exemplify in the work what life feels like to the "living creature." Order is not as satisfying if it can't be contrasted with its always-impending dissolution, and the artist inherently calls attention to the fragility of order, aesthetic and otherwise.
Thus art is not just the ultimate product, the finished sculpture, the musical score, the published book, although these are the immediate gateways by which we enter art's domain (and the achieved work to which we return.) Great art also invites reflection on the process by which the product has been realized, order wrested from "flux." This emphasis on process is inherent in the very possibility of human creativity, since
There are two sorts of possible worlds in which esthetic experience would not occur. In a world of mere flux, change would not be cumulative; it would not move toward a close. Stability and rest would have no being. Equally it is true, however, that a world that is finished, ended, would have no trails of suspense and crisis, and would offer no opportunity for resolution. Where everything is already complete, there is no fulfillment. . . .
(See Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning" for a concrete, poetic embodiment of this Deweyan idea. Much of Stevens's work could be taken as an extended reflection on the Deweyan notion of "order" more broadly.)
The emphasis on process is also crucial to Dewey's theory of art as he will develop it in Art as Experience. The "experience" of art includes an awareness of the process by which the work must have taken shape:
Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art. The artist selected, simplified, clarified, abridged and condensed according to his interest. The beholder must go through these operations according to his point of view and interest. (Ch. 3, p. 54)
Dewey concludes Chapter 1 with this account of "experience"
Experience in the degree to which it is experience is heightened vitality. Instead of signifying being shut up within one's own private feelings and sensations, it signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events. Instead of signifying surrender to caprice and disorder, it affords our sole demonstration of a stability that is not stagnation but is rhythmic and developing. . . .
Experience as Dewey defines it is the irreducible characteristic of life itself, and the most "vital" experience we can have, he will come to claim, is the experience of art.
Chapter II of Art as Experience includes this discussion of the distinction made between "fine art and useful or technological art":
. . .An angler may eat his catch without thereby losing the esthetic satisfaction he experienced in casting and playing. It is this degree of completeness of living in the experience of making and perceiving that makes the difference between what is fine or esthetic in art and what is not. Whether the thing made is put to use, as are bowls, rugs, garments, weapons, is, intrinsically speaking, a matter of indifference. That many, perhaps most, of the articles and utensils made at present for use are not genuinely esthetic happens, unfortunately, to be true. But it is true for reasons that are foreign to the relation of the "beautiful" and "useful" as such. Wherever conditions are such as to prevent the act of production from being an experience in which the whole creature is alive and in which he possesses his living through enjoyment, the product will lack something of being esthetic. No matter how useful is is for special and limited ends, it will not be useful in the ultimate degree--that of contributing directly and liberally to an expanding and enriched life. . . .
Given the frequent association of the "pragmatic" with the "practical," one would assume that Dewey's appreciation of the "esthetic" would extend to the arts usually categorized as useful or "applied." (Perhaps this distinction could further be posed as the difference between "serious" and "popular" art, although the latter has by now become almost entirely subsumed within the broader category of "mass entertainment.") And indeed, while Dewey wants to preserve a role for "fine art," at least as a pragmatic term of convenience, he also wants to give the useful arts their aesthetic due. Thus the distinctions we make between the two are, as he puts it, "extrinsic to the work of art itself." Although works of fine art are more deliberately constructed to provide an intensifed aesthetic experience, works of practical art are equally capable of being experienced as "beautiful."
Sometimes the distinction between fine and popular art is expressed in terms of "intention." The "serious" artist or writer intends that his work be contemplated abstractly or dispassionately as an aesthetic experience, while the popular artist merely sets out to produce work that will fulfill a more mundane and utilitarian function--to entertain or literally to be useful in a material sense ("bowls, rugs," etc.). But this is not a viable analysis, since intentions are always mixed and frequently unknowable, and since "intention" gives all the credit (and all the responsibilty) to the artist. For Dewey it is "living in the experience of making and perceiving" (emphasis mine) that makes art art, and the perceiver has his/her responsibilty for transforming the act of encountering a work of art into one that might contribute "directly and liberally to an expanding and enriched life." It is the experience of the work, not the work per se, that expands and enriches.
The "conditions" that might prevent us from enjoying aesthetic experience are those that cut off either the artist or the perceiver from the "beauty" of creating and focus his/her attention instead on the purely utilitarian. The paragraph I've quoted above concludes with the observation that "The story of the severance and final sharp opposition of the useful and the fine is the history of that industrial development through which so much of production has become a form of postponed living and so much of consumption a superimposed enjoyment of the fruits of the labor of others." Clearly Dewey believed that political and economic conditions im modern societies encouraged an "alienation" from the aesthetic qualities of an "act of production," and to that extent Dewey's insistence that distinctions between fine and useful art are invidious is a politically-implicated gesture. But Dewey does not want to patronize the artisan by simply celebrating applied or popular art. He wants to free the artisan and the popular audience of their servitude to a system that denies them the opportunity to fully appreciate the aesthetic qualities of either the fine or the useful arts.
"That many, perhaps most, of the articles and utensils made at present for use are not genuinely esthetic happens, unfortunately, to be true." Surely this as much the case now as it was in Dewey's time (and a very long time it was; Dewey died in 1952 at the age of 92). The post-industrial age has been no more accommodating of genuine aesthetic experience than the Industrial Age itself. If anything, mass consumption of media-packaged commodities has only trivialized both the fine arts and the applied arts as Dewey would have known them. We've become more sophisticated in our choice of entertaiment "options," and we certainly have more of them, but the average American is as dead to real "experience" in Dewey's conception of it as any pre-WWII factory worker. Perhaps more so, since we could cultivate our capacity for aesthetic experience in both the popular and the fine arts if we wanted to, but largely choose not to do so. Utility and technology are in the saddle and ride mankind.
Pragmatism is often accused of denying the existence of "truth" (small t--it does, in fact, deny the existence of Truth), but in Art as Experience Dewey offers an account of truth through the following analysis of Keats's famous lines--"'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'"--from Ode on a Grecian Urn:
Much of the dispute [about the meaning of these lines] is carried on in igonorance of the particular tradition in which Keats wrote and which gave the term "truth" it meaning. In this tradition, "truth" never signifies correctness of intellectual statements about things, or truth as its meaning is now influenced by science. It denotes the wisdom by which men live, especially "the lore of good and evil." And in Keats' mind it is particularly connected with the question of justifying good and trusting to it in spite of the evil and destruction that abound. "Philosophy" is the attempt to anwer this question rationally. Keats' belief that even philosophers cannot deal with the question without depending on imaginative intuitions receives an independent and positive statement in his identification of "beauty" with "truth"--the particular truth that solves for man the baffling problem of destruction and death--which weighed so heavily on Keats--in the very realm where life strives to assert supremacy. Man lives in a world of surmise, of mystery, of uncertainties. "Reasoning" must fail man--this is of course a doctrine long taught by those who have held to the necessity of a divine revelation. Keats did not accept this supplement and substitute for reason. The insight of imagination must suffice. "This is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know." The critical words are "on earth"--that is amid a scene in which "irritable reaching after fact and reason" confuses and distorts instead of bringing us to the light. It was in moments of most intense esthetic perception that Keats found his utmost solace and his deepest convictions. This is the fact recorded at the close of his Ode. Ultimately there are but two philosophies. One of them accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities--to imagination and art. This the philosophy of Shakespeare and Keats.
Aside from illustrating Dewey's skill as a literary critic--skills he did not practice nearly enough--this passage shows Dewey casting his lot with artistic "truth" as opposed to the conventionally philosphical version. "The very realm where life strives to assert supremacy" is of course the realm of art, and its acts of asserting "supremacy"--of affirming and extending the reach of experience itself--constitute the most meaningful "truth" we can discover.
As Dewey points out, "intense esthetic perception" was for Keats not just "utmost solace" but also his "deepest conviction." Experience of art, which is a very material phenomenon, not a substitute for "divine revelation" was/is entirely sufficient as a manifestation of "truth," and such truth is also truth about "life" insofar as both require we accept "uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge." But "intense" experience is more than just passive acceptance. For the artist, it involves turning this experience "upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities," to create the poem or the work of art that is the extension of experience. For the reader or the viewer "art as experience" involves what Dewey calls elsewhere in the book an "act of reconstruction" whereby the "perceiver" undertakes "an ordering of the elements of the whole that is in form, although not in details, the same as the process of organization the creator of the work consciously experienced."
Although Dewey believed there was an "esthetic" component to all "vital" experiences, he also held there was something unique to aesthetic experience per se:
. . .The most elaborate philosophic or scientific inquiry and the most ambitious industrial or political enterprise has, when its different ingredients constitue an integral experience, esthetic quality. For then its varied parts are linked to one another, and do not merely succeed one another. And the parts through their experienced linkage move toward a consummation and close, not merely to cessation in time. This consummation, moreover, does not wait in consciousness for the whole undertaking to be finished. It is anticipated throughout and is recurrently savored with special intensity.
Nevertheless, the experiences in question are dominantly intellectual or practical, rather than distinctively esthetic, because of the interest and purpose that initiate and control them. In an intellectual experience, the conclusion has value on its own account. It can be extracted as a formula or as a "truth" and can be used in its independent entirety as a factor and guide in other inquiries. In a work of art there is no such single self-sufficient deposit. The end, the terminus, is significant not by itself but as the integration of the parts. It has no other existence. A drama or novel is not the final sentence, even if the characters are disposed of as living happily ever after. . . . (Art as Experience, Perigree, p.55)
"Philosophic or scientific inquiry" does enable the kind of dynamic, fully aware and integrated experience that Dewey values and that does have, precisely because it is dynamic, an aesthetic character. The artist is no more "alive" at his work than the philosopher or the scientist (or the engineer or the scholar). But the work done by the artist does have a different character, at least in its subsequent use-value. When the philosopher and scientist have completed their work (to the extent it can be completed), the "conclusion" is literally at issue--for the work to be valuable, the "truth" that results must be "extracted" to be used in subsequent inquiry. The "parts through their experienced linkage" no longer matter, however much they were "recurrently savored" while the work was ongoing. Only the conclusion retains significance for other scientists and scholars.
No such "truth" emerges from the creation and experience of art. The experience itself is all. "The end, the terminus, is significant not by itself but as the integration of the parts. It has no other existence." The "end" of the experience--and with fiction, this means the "end" of the work as well--means returning to the beginning, and to the middle, and to the end again. It means "the integration of the parts" both to complete and enhance the experience and to continue the process of re-creating the work which is the reader's part of the job in producing an aesthetic experience. The reader who settles for "the end"--whether this involves accepting "happily ever after" or the solution of the crime as the "truth" of the work, its reason for being--has not had an aesthetic experience, is in practice denying the existence of the aesthetic where fiction is concerned. If a work of fiction is to be taken as art, the conclusion of the story "has no other existence" except as the remaining piece to be integrated into the whole.
"A drama or novel is not the final sentence. . ." Ultimately Dewey is questioning the dominance of "story" in fiction. To the extent that story encourages us to ignore the "experienced linkage" of narrative parts, to read headlong for that "cessation in time" when the story reaches its fulfillment and offers up its until then concealed "truth," precisely to that extent is story actually the enemy of art in fiction. This is not to say that story must be eliminated in the name of art--probably there is a point beyond which the abandonment of story in its most rudimentary sense (the sense that something is happening) would mean abandoning "fiction" as a meaningful part of the conjoined term "prose fiction." But it is to say that story should be understood as merely the vehicle the writer of fiction moves on to produce more encompassing aesthetic effects, to provoke the reader into an aesthetic experience that transcends the formulaic appeal of storytelling.
In Chapter IV, Dewey writes:
If one examines into the reason why certain works of art offend us, one is likely to find that the cause is that there is no personally felt emotion guiding the selecting and assembling of the materials presented. We derive the impression that the artist, say the author of a novel, is trying to regulate by conscious intent the nature of the emotion aroused. We are irritated by a feeling that he is manipulating materials to secure the effect decided upon in advance. The facets of the work, the variety so indispensable to it, are held together by some external force. The movement of the parts and the conclusion disclose no logical necessity. The author, not the subject matter, is the arbiter.
By "emotion" Dewey perhaps means something like "intuition" or "inspiration," the specifically artistic emotion that determines "the selecting and assembling of the materials." In experiencing a work of fiction that seems "regulated by conscious intent," the reader does not share or him/herself intuit the "emotion" that holds the work together, but in a sense only observes the author manipulating the "materials"--the story, the depicted characters, etc--to achieve an effect "decided upon in advance." In this kind of inauthentic, aesthetically impoverished fiction, the writer has latched on to fiction as a vehicle for "saying something," not as a form of verbal art in which the work must "say" for itself. Readers expecting literature to provide a compelling reading experience unlike that to be found in ordinary written discourse are rightly offended by this kind of fiction, which privileges the author's intent over the achieved "necessity" of the work itself.
As Dewey writes further:
In reading a novel, even one written by an expert craftsman, one may get a feeling early in the story that hero or heroine is doomed, doomed not by anything inherent in situations and character but by the intent of the author who makes the character a puppet to set forth his own cherished idea.
Suffice it to say that characters can become "puppets" in any kind of narrative, not just a tragic one, although Dewey implies that the tragic mode is especially susceptible to didactic purposes, resulting in a work in which "doom" is not "inherent in the movement of the subject matter portrayed" but instead creates "an arbitrary and imposed world." Tragedy becomes not the result of human frailty or conflicting goods but a consequence of the machinations of wicked people or oppressive institutions or political malfeasance. It is a particularly tempting narrative convention within which to cloak one's "cherished idea," although obviously such ideas could just as easily motivate (and perhaps be even less concealed in) satire, especially satire of a more overtly corrective kind. And both satire and "tragedy" as Dewey describes it here easily enough slip into moralism:
It is for similar reasons [those reasons why we "resent" being presented with characters-as-puppets] that we are repelled by the intrusion of a moral design in literature while we esthetically accept any amount of moral content if it is held together by a sincere emotion that controls the material.
The moralist is the writer who has a "moral design" on literature--who sees it as an forum for moral discourse more than as an aesthetic form--or who wishes to create a moral "design" in works of fiction or poetry in the guise of, or in substitution for, aesthetic design. We are "repelled" by the highjacking of literature for these moral purposes because it is not "sincere." It has no regard for the integrity of works of art as art, reducing both it and real moral discourse to a kind of cheap thrill.
Dewey's distinction between "moral design" and "moral content" is very important in the consideration of art and literature. Focusing on moral design essentially converts works of art, especially literature, into a method of conducting moral/political debate by other means. At its worst, it becomes tedious moralizing. To speak of the "moral content" of literature, however, is to recognize the inherent moral quandries and conundrums that fiction and poetry inevitably explore, simply because novels and stories and poems are written by human beings and are inescapably about human reality. Some readers might indeed want to abstract "moral content" from particular works to ponder more fully, as long as the work in question "is held together by a sincere emotion that controls the material." That is, as long as it is, first of all, art.
The problem of "form" in art, especially in works of literature, disappears fairly quickly if we simply accept Dewey's definition:
. . .form is not found exclusively in objects labeled works of art. Wherever perception has not been blunted and perverted, there is an inevitable tendency to arrange events and objects with reference to the demands of complete and unified experience. Form is a character of every experience that is an experience. Art in its specific sense enacts more deliberately and fully the conditions that effect this unity. Form may then be defined as the operation of forces that carry the experience of an event, object, scene, and situation to its own integral fulfillment. (Art as Experiemce, 137)
Thus it is quite impossible for "substance" to precede form. All experiences are given substance by their unfolding and consummation into form, as perception itself (when it hasn't been "perverted") naturally seeks form ("a complete and unified experience"). Art makes the human form-imposing impulse itself into a subject of contemplation. Thus in experiencing a work of art we are both witnessing an "event" brought "to its own integral fulfillment" and are invited to reflect on our own "inevitable tendency" to seek such fulfillment.
For me, this is one of the most important tasks undertaken by works of art, especially works of literature. I would even say that it is a process, fundamental to the way that art works, that also has "real world" implications, a carryover from literature to life, the sort of thing I otherwise often decry on this blog when discussing attempts to make literature "relevant" to life. By encouraging us to occupy the second-order level of reflection on the manifestation of form, literary art reveals our predisposition to form, at the same it satisfies it in a particularly concentrated way. (In Dewey's formulation, it "clarifies" experience by allowing us to more fully realize what it's like for a "event, object, scene and situation" to be brought to "integral fulfillment.") Literature in particular also forces a recognition of the "formal" elements of language, the way language when arranged into complex written compositions becomes ever less transparent in its capacity to "mean," ever more mediated by the form of its arrangement.
By alerting us to the ubiquity and mutability of form, art also alerts us to our attempts to impose form on life, where it is often much less benign in its its effect, much more likely to close off experience than to enhance it. (This is my own further amplification of the implications of Dewey's thought, not something he himself says in so many words.)
At the same time, Dewey does not want us to understand artistic form as something conventional or predetermined. Indeed:
A rigid predetermination of an end-product whether by artist or beholder leads to the turning out of a mechanical or academic product. . . A statement that an artist does not care how his work eventuates would not be literally true. But it is true that he cares about the end-result as a completion of what goes before and not because of its conformity or lack of conformity with a ready-made antecedent scheme. He is willing to leave the outcome to the adequacy of the means from which it issues and which it sums up. (138)
The consummatory phase of experience--which is intervening as well as final--always presents something new. Admiration always includes an element of wonder. As a Renascence writer said: "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion". . . . (139)
In my opinion, the resistance to form in some quarters of American fiction--Kerouac, say, or Bukowski--comes from a failure to consider this aspect of aesthetic form. Form does not refer to the mindless recapitulation of strategies deemed appropriate (by whatever shadowy cabal responsible for enforcing the rules) for composing what we agree to call a "novel," a "short story," or a "poem," but to what emerges from the "adequacy of means" adopted by the artist, the "consummatory phase" that always--at least in the most admirable works of literary art--results in "something new," a something new many readers will find "strange." Form ought not be dismissed because it is upheld by the literary worlds's elitist powers-that-be but should be embraced because it so often confounds them.
The aesthetic philosophy expressed in Art as Experience is, on the whole, quite sympathetic to experiment and innovation in the arts, in fact in large part is absolutely dependent on it. Without experiment (without what in some ways could be called "progress" in the arts), art would ossify into dead monuments we are to extoll for their putative greatness but that would not provoke the kind of experiential engagement Dewey thinks is art's ultimate validation.
Furthermore, experimentation is itself responsible for the succession of artistic accomplishments we think of as "art history" (or literary history) in the first place:
. . .The dependence of significant technique upon the need for expressing certain distinctive modes of experience is testified to by the three stages that usually attend the appearance of a new technique. At first there is experimentation on the side of artists, with considerable exaggeration of the factor to which the new technique is adapted. This was true of the use of line to define recognition of the value of the round, as with Mantegna; it is true of the typical impressionists in respect to light-effects. On the side of the public there is general condemnation of the intent and subject-matter of these adventures in art. In the next stage, the fruits of the new procedure are absorbed; they are naturalized and effect certain modifications of the old tradition. This period establishes the new aims and hence the new technique as having "classic" validity, and is accompanied with a prestige that holds over into subsequent periods. Thirdly, there is a period when special features of the technique of the masters of the balanced period are adopted for imitation and made ends in themselves. . .In this third stage (which dogs creative work after the latter has general recognition), technique is borrowed without relation to the urgent experience that at first evoked it. The academic and eclectic result. (142)
Dewey also recognizes that artists who merely attempt to imitate the great accomplishments of the past, who don't go beyond the techniques previous artists discovered, are bound to fail:
. . .Greek sculpture will never be equalled in its own terms. . .That which Venetian painters achieved will stand unrivaled. The modern reproduction of the architecture of the Gothic cathedral always lacks the quality of the original. What happens in the movement of art is emergence of new materials of experience demanding expression, and therefore involving in their expression new forms and techniques. . . (143)
Recognizing the rather clinical connotations of the term "experimental" when applied to the arts, Dewey suggests an alternative:
If, instead of saying "experimental," one were to say "adventurous," one would probably win general assent--so great is the power of words. Because the artist is a lover of unalloyed experience, he shuns objects that are already saturated, and he is therefore always on the growing edge of things. By the nature of the case, he is as unsatisfied with what is established as is a geographic explorer or a scientific inquirer. The "classic" when it was produced bore the marks of adventure. This fact is ignored by classicists in their protest against romantics who undertake the development of new values, often without possessing means for their creation. That which is now classic is so because of completion of adventure, not because of its absence. The one who perceives and enjoys esthetically always has the sense of adventure in reading any classic that Keats had in reading Chapman's "Homer."
Dewey's notion that "new procedures" create "certain modifications of the old tradition" strongly reminds me of T.S. Eliot's argument in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that
The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.
Both Dewey and Eliot are suggesting that without experiment in art and literature, the "supervention of novelty," the great works of the past merely ossify into a "tradition" that no longer inspires artists and writers to, in effect, outdo the "existing monuments," to bring those monuments into active communication with the present. (Harold Bloom's notion of the "anxiety of influence" probably fits in here as well, however much Bloom would prefer not to be associated with Eliot.) "Certain modifications of the old tradition" are needed to keep the "old tradition" from becoming merely old, as well as to invigorate "the new" through contact with the genuine achievements of the past. Thus both Dewey and Eliot view experiment as a way of maintaining the vitality of the tradition, but also see tradition as subject to the revision prompted by "the really new."
Eliot is usually taken as a conservative defender of tradition, of the notion of "an ideal order," but it seems to me unlikely that the younger Eliot, at any rate, would have much use for current notions of the "canon." Any canon of "great works" would have to be subject to the kind of modification both he and Dewey identify, which ultimately means the very idea of "greatness" in literature would have to be open to such modification. Certainly Eliot's own poetry would never have qualified as "great" if the criteria to be used in judging it remained those appropriate to Pope or Wordsworth or Tennyson. Modern literature as a whole, of which Eliot is the avatar and Dewey the advocate (at least in theory), would not have been possible if poets and writers (many of them now seen as "conservative" in their political and cultural views) had not seen literary tradition both as something to be honored and as something to be defeated.
This not to say that T.S. Eliot was a pragmatist, but that the only way to view both literary history and "the new aims" of present writers in a way that respects both the old and the new is a pragmatic way. The past remains vital to the extent it continues to resonate in the present. The present produces reputable work when such work can be seen as a creative extension of the past.
In Chapter IX of Art as Experience, "The Common Substance of the Arts," Dewey discusses the artist's special awareness of his/her medium, a focus on "means" utterly unlike our ordinary utilitarian notion of "means" as "preparatory or preliminary," simply a way to get from here to there we would gladly skip if we could "get the result without having to employ the means." According to Dewey, "sensitivity to a medium as medium is the very heart of all artistic creation and esthetic perception." For the artist, a medium--paint-and-canvas, sound, words--is an employment of "means that are incorporated in the outcome." They don't disappear into the results. They are the results.
Dewey illustrates his point by noting the methods of "inferior" artists:
Something which Delacroix said of painters of his day applies to inferior artists generally. He said they used coloration rather than color. The statement signified that they applied color to their represented objects instead of making them out of color. This procedure signifies that colors as means and objects and scenes depicted were kept apart. They did not use color as medium with complete devotion. Their minds and experiences were divided. Means and ends did not coalesce. The greatest esthetic revolution in the history of painting took place when color was used structurally; then pictures ceased to be colored drawings. The true artist sees and feels in terms of his medium and the one who has learned to perceive esthetically emulates the operation. Others carry into their seeing of pictures and hearing of music preconceptions drawn from sources that obstruct and confuse perception. (200)
As with painting, so with fiction: The inferior writer fastens words onto his/her "represented objects" rather than making them out of words. In both cases, the artist fails not only to show "sensitivity to a medium as medium" but essentially denies the value of the medium as anything other than the laborious means one would readily avoid if the "represented object"--presumably locked up in the artist's head--could be accessed in a more immediate way. The medium and its "objects and scenes" are kept so far apart that the former collapses into its barest utility.
It is typical of Dewey that in this passage he stresses both the procedure of the artist and the aesthetic perception of the viewer. Throughout Art as Experience, he insists that an aesthetic act is not complete until the viewer/reader/listener is able to "emulate the operation" undertaken by the artist. When the painter and the poet succeed in incorporating "medium" in the outcome, that is, in creating a work of art, the work in turn provides the viewer and the reader with a potentially rich aesthetic experience that becomes all the richer when they are able to perceive the way the medium itself is being "used structurally" to create an aesthetic whole that precedes any "idea" the work putatively conveys.
Unfortunately, the "other" kind of audience that "carry into their seeing of pictures and hearing of music preconceptions drawn from sources that obstruct and confuse perception" is all too prominent, even including some critics. If anything, the preconceptions that obstruct and confuse are more seriously debilitating in literary criticism and discussion, which often introduce not just preconceptions about appropriate form but also about the non-literary ends to which artistic means are presumed to point. A preoccupation with ideas, with "themes" or social commentary or political efficacy or the author's biographical circumstances, deflects attention away from the work's primary reason for being, its exploitation of "medium," and reduces the experience of literary art to an ordinary form of communication.
Since "the movements of the individual body enter into all reshapings of material," all art, according to Dewey, could be described as performances, or at least as encompassing " the rhythm of vital natural expression, something as it were of dancing and pantomime" ("The Varied Substance of the Arts,"). But the "shaping arts" (Dewey also calls these the "technological arts) transform and extend the possibilities of performance:
. . .print has acted--or reacted--to profoundly modify the substance of literature; modifying, by way of a single illustration, the very words that form the medium of literature. The change is indicated on the unfavorable side by the growing tendency to use "literary" as a term of disparagement. Spoken language was never "literary" till print and reading came into general use. But, on the other side, even if it be admitted that no single work of literature excels, say, the "Iliad". . .yet print has made for an enormous extension not merely in bulk but in qualitative variety and subtlety, aside from compelling an organization that did not previously exist.
Still, the "vital natural expression" we think we find more directly in performing arts--which is itself, of course, not exactly spontaneous--can still be attributed to poetry or painting or architecture--or at least to the semblance of "performance" embodied in the poem's lines, the painting's brushstrokes, or the building's contours. The reader or viewer "appreciates" the performance not as a passive spectator but by actively attending to the "shaping" that is the performance. Here lies, I think, the crucial difference between an aesthetic experience as conceived pragmatically by Dewey and an aesthetic "object" as implied by the practice of, say, the New Critics. The reader of a poem or novel in Dewey's formulation seeks to trace the "subtlety" of the work as manifest in the writer's aesthetic choices. The reader tries to re-create the writer's performance as much as possible. For the formalist, the object itself, the text, is the sufficient focus of interest, the "shape" rather than the shaping. The distinction here might seem itself rather subtle, but Dewey's insights help us avoid fetishizing the art "object" and push us harder to think through the implications of an aesthetic strategy in the context of strategies not pursued. They help us see "aesthetics" as an always renewable process rather than as the fixed qualities of a particular work.
One could say that reading involves becoming aware of that "organization that did not previously exist" when language was/is a specifically oral performance. As the most highly organized constructions of language, poetry and fiction especially solicit our attention to the way their "words" are organized. They allow words to become a "medium." I tend to think that those who do "use 'literary' as a term of disparagement" ("merely literary") ultimately don't want to accept language as a "medium" in Dewey's account of the term. As a medium, the language of fiction and poetry precisely mediates between "natural expression" and the reader's response to what is expressed. The act of "saying something" becomes unavoidably dispersed in the entangling energies that literary "organization" brings forward. Many readers seem to find this frustrating.
One naturally wonders whether Dewey would find the cyberspatial revolution to be a sufficient change in our encounter with language that it would again "profoundly modify the substance of literature." I believe he probably wouldn't. The internet, whether through blogs or online versions of literary magazines, is not inherently incapable of the "extension" and the "variety and subtlety" introduced by print, and if that extension now seems somewhat circumscribed online, it doesn't always have to be so. When everyone is online, cyberspace will be just as capable of displaying language as an aesthetic medium as print has been. Some of its features--instaneity, linking--might even work to "extend" the medium even farther.
There has been much debate about whether the aesthetic qualities of a work of art--in some formulations, its "beauty"--can be considered intrinsic to the work or whether these are qualities imputed to the work according to our own individual, subjective experience of it.
Dewey in Chapter XI of Art as Experience offers his own resolution of this dilemma. He quotes the literary critic I. A. Richards, who contended that "We are accustomed to say that the picture is beautiful instead of saying that it causes an experience in us which is valuable in certain ways." What we should say, asserts Richards, is that "they (certain objects) cause effects in us of one kind or another," rather than "projecting the effect and making it a part of the cause." Dewey responds:
What is overlooked is that it is not the painting as a picture (that is, the object in esthetic experience) that causes certain effects "in us." The painting as a picture is itself a total effect brought about by the interaction of external and organic causes. The external factor is vibrations of light from pigments on canvas variously reflected and refracted. It is ultimately that which physical science discovers--atoms, electrons, protons. The picture is the integral outcome of their interaction with what the mind through the organism contributes. Its "beauty," which, I agree with Mr. Richards, is simply a short form for certain valued qualities, belongs to the picture just as much as do the rest of its properties.
The picture is an intentional object, created to convery those "certain valued qualities" that are fully realized in the viewer's encounter with them in the perceived object. It is not simply the "vibrations of light" that in Richards's scheme would account for our experience of beauty. It is an "object in esthetic experience," not just the provocation to such experience.
Dewey continues: "The reference to "in us" is as much an abstraction from the total experience, as on the other side it would be to resolve the picture into mere aggregations of molecules and atoms." The "total experience" includes both the viewer's subjective apprehension of the object and the "qualities" of the object itself. It is not merely a subjective response. Although even Richards doesn't suggest that aesthetic response is essentially subjective: "certain objects cause effects in us of one kind or another." This account actually strips the subject of its agency, casting its role in aesthetic experience as passive and mechanical. Indeed, aesthetic experience itself is described by Richards entirely in mechanical terms, as the incidental phenomenon produced by the laws of cause and effect. For Dewey it is an "integral outcome" of a mutually dynamic interaction, something subjectively felt but not simply a matter of "projecting the effect and making it part of the cause," in Richards's words.
It is thus possible through Dewey's conception of aesthetic experience to affirm that "appreciation" of a work of art arises in subjective experience but is also directed toward an object of which it can be said that such qualities as "form" and "style" and even "meaning" objectively exist, although no particular aesthetic experience is likely to fully encompass all of the relevant elements of each. Still, one could point to these qualities as a way of judging the soundness of a description or intepretation of the work. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but our eyes must register the assertion of beauty in the first place.
However, Dewey's notion of "experience" in Art and Experience cannot be equated with what some aestheticians, following Kant, refer to as "contemplation":
To define the emotional element of the process of perception merely as the pleasure taken in the action of contemplation, independent of what is excited by the matter contemplated, results. . .in a thoroughly anaemic conception of art. Carried to its logical conclusion, it would exclude from esthetic perception most of the subject-matter that is enjoyed in the case of architectural structures, the drama, and the novel, with all their attendent reverberations.
This last sentence would seem to suggest that Dewey believes there is something called "subject-matter" that exists apart from the formal qualities of art and that can properly be the point of the reader's "perception." However, it is the way in which "subject" contributes to aesthetic perception, subject as part of aesthetic perception, that is Dewey's focus, emphasizing a kind of perception that produces "reverberations," not conclusive "meaning."
Indeed, Dewey immediately adds that "Not absence of desire and thought [as would be the case with 'contemplation'] but their thorough incorporation into perceptual experience characterizes esthetic experience, in its distinction from experiences that are especially 'intellectual' and 'practical.'" Those who wish to "contemplate" a work of art want to avoid the projection of desire or the imposition of thought, but for Dewey a fully engaged aesthetic experience finds the subjective response of the "pericipient" satisfyingly integrated in all of its facets with both the matter and manner of the work: "The rhythm of expectancy and satisfaction is so internally complete that the reader is not aware of thought as a separate element, certainly not of it as a labor."
The percipient who settles for contemplation is unable to experience art in quite this active way, but neither is the one driven by the sheer desire for beauty, who is willing to sacrifice the particularity of the work for the abstractly sensual, nor the "investigator," who, in his/her preference for "data" or illustration can only be impatient with the "uniqueness of the object perceived." Both the sensualist and the investigator "want the object for the sake of something else," while anyone open to genuine aesthetic experience will find his/her thoughts and desires "fulfilled in the perception itself."
I myself have some sympathy for the sensualist, who properly seeks out art for its aesthetic value but has a undiscriminating conception of "beauty," but I don't at all comprehend why any "investigator" would show even a passing interest in art or literature--unless it is to deliberately devalue and dismiss the aesthetic as frivolous, not worth the "serious" critic's time. The investigator relegates the formal qualities of literature to the "merely literary," but then approaches works of imagination as if those formal qualities don't exist at all, don't have the effect of bending and conditioning meaning beyond any useful paraphrase. Why concern yourself in the first place with what a poem, story, or novel has to "say," the intellectual or practical "truth" it supposedly reveals, when such works are (at least at their best) so indirect and oblique in their ability to communicate anything?
In my view, Dewey's core notion that art is most valuable as an agent of heightened experience, that it is best appreciated as experience, undercuts all forms of critical investigation--moral criticism, political criticism, cultural criticism, etc.--at least to the extent that such approaches assume that "subject-matter" is easily detached from "perceptual experience." Subject matter exists, but it is the means by which the work of art comes into being, not its end.
By and large, 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. (The interesting parallels with T.S. Eliot noted earlier notwithstanding.) 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.
A more familiar, if not necessarily more precise, term for the faculty involved intuition is "imagination," the latter of which Dewey discusses immediately after introducing the former in Chapter XI of Art as Experience:
In what precedes, I have said nothing about imagination. "Imagination" shares with "beauty" the doubtful honor of being the chief theme in esthetic writings of enthusiastic ignorance. More perhaps than any other phase of the human contribution, it has been treated as a special and self-contained faculty, differing form others in possession of mysterious potencies.
While Dewey himself is not above invoking "mysterious" processes such as "flash of revelation" in describing intuition, he does hesitate to attribute magical properties to imagination.
It is the large and generous blending of interests at the point where the mind comes in contact with the world. When old and familiar things are made new in experience, there is imagination. When the new is created, the far and strange become the most natural inevitable things in the world. There is always some measure of adventure in the meeting of mind and universe, and this adventure is, in its measure, imagination.
The use of passive voice here--"old and familiar things are made new in experience," "the new is created"--is not simply clumsy writing (although Dewey's prose does sometimes have a clumsily hurried quality, as if he is choosing the words that most immediately come to mind), but expresses Dewey's restraint in considering the nature of imagination. He resists the idea that it is a "power" that acts on experience but instead sees it as a function of experience: "[A]n imaginative experience is what happens when varied materials of sense quality, emotion, and meaning come together in a union that marks a new birth in the world."
Unless regarded as this kind of "union," imagination becomes merely the "imaginary," which "gives familiar experience a strange guise by clothing it in unusual garb, as of a supernatural apparition." With the imaginary, "mind and material do not squarely meet and interpenetrate." The artist "toys with material rather than boldly grasping it." A truly imaginative artist does not distort or supersede experience for the sake of fancy. (Dewey cites Coleridge's distinction between imagination and fancy.) However much the "real" may be transformed by imagination (Dewey is not making a case for realism), it is not reduced to mere fantasy. Imagination makes the intangible tangible because "possibilities are embodied in works of art that are not elsewhere actualized." Art makes the real visible.
Dewey more specifically identifies the difference between the imaginative and the imaginary by making a further distinction between what he calls "inner" and "outer" vision.
There is a stage in which the inner vision seems much richer and finer than any outer manifestation. It has a vast and enticing aura of implications that are lacking in the object of external vision. It seems to grasp much more than the latter conveys. Then there comes a reaction; the matter of the inner vision seems wraith-like compared with the solidity and energy of the presented scene. The object is felt to say something succinctly and forcibly that the inner vision reports vaguely, in diffuse feeling rather than organically. The artist is driven to submit himself in humility to the discipline of the objective vision. But the inner vision is not cast out. It remains as the organ by which outer vision is controlled, and it takes on structure as the latter is absorbed within it.
The artist who insists on his "inner vision," who remains satisfied with that inner vision, is likely to only indulge in the imaginary. The artist who is willing to "submit himself in humility to the discipline of the objective vision" (who must accept the demands of the outer vision or there is no art) will, potentially at least, discover the fuller possibilities of the imagination. The imagination isn't confined to the reveries of the fantasist. It requires the "solidity and energy" of the "objective vision," of the art object itself, the making of which is the ultimate exercise of imagination.
The artist who devotes his/her attention to the "objective vision" finds "the object is felt to say something." Dewey is probably using the construction "say something" very loosely, to indicate that the work as shaped turns out to express the sharpest and most far-reaching vision, but it might mislead us into thinking that the vagueness of the inner vision becomes the more clearly enunciated "theme" through outer vision. Something closer to the opposite is true. The disciplined artist allows the work itself to find what it will say; its meaning will develop "organically," not as the figural rendering of the artist's "intention." The artist feels that the object has spoken. If inner vision "takes on structure as the [outer vision] is absorbed within it," the artist ends up "saying" what the work has said.
Dewey perhaps articulates his notion of "art as experience" most straightforwardly near the beginning of the chapter devoted to art's "challenge to philosophy" (ch. XII):
. . .esthetic experience is experience in its integrity. Had not the term "pure" been so often abused in philosophic literature, had it not been so often employed to suggest that there is something alloyed, impure, in the very nature of experience and to denote something beyond experience, we might say that esthetic experience is pure experience. For it is experience freed from the forces that impede and confuse its development as experience; freed, that is, from factors that subordinate an experience as it is directly had to something beyond itself. To esthetic experience, then, the philosopher must go to understand what experience is.
It should be said that art is "pure experience" if and when the reader/viewer/listener allows the experience its "integrity." This does not always happen, of course. Many predispositions can work to "impede and confuse" aesthetic perception, especially the aesthetic perception of works of literature, as readers subordinate the experience itself to various concerns that are finally extraneous to a concern for the work's aesthetic integriy, from the expectation that a novel should have an "exciting plot" or "characters I can care about" to the assumption that a literary work should be scrutinized for what it "has to say" or what it "reveals about our society." Since it is art's aesthetic integrity--its ability to unify disparate elements into a seamless whole--that for Dewey makes art valuable in the first place, these obstacles subvert the very purpose of literature as an artistic form.
Most literary criticism, especially academic criticism in its current iterations but also much general-interest book reviewing as well, can be characterized as anti-literary in this way. Critics and reviewers seldom assess a work of fiction (the situation of poetry is not so dire in this regard) for its creation of (or lack of) aesthetic unity. The reviewer settles for plot summary and a cursory evaluation, usually based on unstated or unexamined standards, while the academic critic interrogates the text for its value as a cultural symptom. Later in this chapter, Dewey writes that "Since a work of art is the subject-matter of experiences heightened and intensified, the purpose that determines what is esthetically essential is precisley the formation of an experience as an experience." Unless critics attend to the way in which a literary work stimulates "the formation of an experience as an experience," and subsequently evaluate the quality of the experience so induced, they are missing what is "esthetically essential"--and for Dewey, as for me, to miss what is aesthetically essential is to miss what is essential about all ar
Dewey believed that although philosophers have long been inspired to investigate the nature of art and aesthetic experience, they have in particular failed to appreciate what is "essential" about both. And this follows from a more general failure to appreciate what is essential about experience. Philosophers from Plato to Kant to Croce have gestured at "something beyond experience" itself as the truly real. Experience as the humble, ordinary act of perceiving the tangible details of the world in front of us cannot possibly connect us to absolute reality, which is transcendent and ideal. Art, therefore, is a means of capturing this larger reality. Dewey is among those philosophers who reorient philosophy to the consideration of perceptible reality and in his philosophy of art tries to orient us to the concrete reality of aesthetic experience.
Dewey's conception of the role of criticism is finally quite straightforward and follows naturally from his conception of art:
The function of criticism is the reeducation of perception of works of art; it is an auxiliary in the process, a difficult process, of learning to see and hear. The conception that its business is to appraise, to judge in the legal and moral sense, arrests the perception of those who are influenced by the criticism that assumes this task. The moral office of criticism is performed indirectly. The individual who has an enlarged and quickened experience is one who should make for himself his own appraisal. . .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. The critic's office is to further this work, performed by the object of art. (Art as Experience, Ch. 13 (325)
One might prefer to think of the critic's task as simply the education of perception, although Dewey no doubt uses "reeducation" deliberately. So much of modern life inhibits the process of "learning to see and hear," making it all the more difficult than it is already given the influence of "wont and custom." Too often critics themselves work as impediments to clear perception, in particular those who intercede a "judicial" (Dewey's word for the approach to criticism that replaces explanation and analysis with a simplistic rendering of critical decision) and moralistic discourse between the work of art and those who need most to see and hear so they may finally judge for themselves. Both critic and audience need to be reeducated away from these habits.
For Dewey, a more useful form of "judgment" consists in distinguishing "particulars and parts with respect to their weight and function in formation of an integral experience." The critic must develop "a unifying point of view" with which to consider the work of art. However,
That the critic must discover some unifying strand or pattern running through all details does not signify that he must himself produce an integral whole. Sometimes critics of the better type substitute a work of art of their own for that they are professedly dealing with. The result may be art but it is not criticism. The unity the critic traces must be in the work of art as its characteristic. This statement does not signify that there is just one unifying idea or form in a work of art. There are many, in proportion to the richness of the object in question. What is meant is that the critic shall seize upon some strain or strand that is actually there, and bring it forth with such clearness that the reader has a new clue and guide in his own experience. (314)
While a critic of the "better type"--the type that is lauded for his or her own critical writing to the extent that it comes to take precedence over the writing under review--might be tempted to "judge" a work by comparing it to the work the critics thinks should have been produced but wasn't, the critic who sticks to the "object" (in literature, the text) actually in front of him/her is the one who is finally engaged in the act of criticism. The literary critic is obliged to honestly examine the characteristics the text exhibits, although he/she is not obliged to account for every characteristic that might be felt. The "unity" the critic posits is not a global unity that exhausts the work's formal or thematic possibilities but could be simply a "strain or strand" that does give the text coherence when shown to connect it's particulars in a satisfying way. As Dewey says, there are many such strands, "in proportion to the richness of the object in question," and one critic's analysis of "unity" can be supplemented by additional kinds of unity demonstrated by other critics.
In addition, the truly valuable critic avoids what Dewey thinks are the two "fallacies" of criticism. "Reductive" criticism occurs "when some constituent of the work of art is isolated and then the whole is reduced to terms of this single isolated element," or when the work is reduced to its historical, political, or economic circumstances. Dewey finds psychoanalytic and sociological criticism especially reductive. With the former, "If the factors spoken of are real and not speculative, they are relevant to biography, but they are wholly impertinent as to the character of the work itself." As to the latter:
Historical and cultural information may throw light on the causes of [the work's] production. But when all is said and done, each one is just what it is artistically, and its esthetic merits and demerits are within the work. Knowledge of social conditions of production is, when it is really knowledge, of genuine value. But it is no substitute for understanding of the object in its own qualities and relations. (316)
Thus academic criticism of the historicist and cultural studies varieties may result in something that could be called knowledge (although not always), but it is not knowledge of literature.
The second fallacy, "confusion of categories," can be related to the first when the critic fails to acknowledge this autonomy of the aesthetic. It happens when "critics as well as theorists are given to the attempt to translate the distinctively esthetic over into terms of some other kind of experience." The most common manifestation of this fallacy is the assumption
that the artist begins with material that has already a recognized status, moral, philosophic, historical, or whatever, and then renders it more palatable by emotional seasoning and imaginative dressing. The work of art is treated as if it were a reediting of values already current in other fields of experience. (318)
Thus the religious poet is declared to be the spokesman for a set of religious values, the philosophical poet for a particular philosophy, etc. But
medium and effect are the important matters. . .I imagine the majestic art of Paradise Lost will be more, not less admitted, and the poem be more widely read, when rejection of its themes of Protestant theology has passed into indifference and forgetfulness. . .The mise-en-scene of Milton's portrayal of the dramatic action of great forces need not be esthetically troublesome, any more than is that of the Iliad to the modern reader. There is a profound distinction between the vehicle of a work of art, the intellectual carrier through which an artist receives his subject-matter and transmits it to his immediate audience, and both the form and matter of his work. (318)
Protestant theology is Milton's "intellectual carrier." Paradise Lost is what it is, aesthetically. The literary critic who confuses these things, who allows the "carrier" to supersede "the intrinsic signifance of the medium" (319) is not a literary critic.
The most problematic chapter of Art as Experience, in my opinion, is the last, Ch. 13, "Art and Civilization." It is an attempt to delineate the role of art and the aesthetic beyond the experience of the individual, its influence on culture and its contribution to "civilization" as that has manifested itself in human history. Central to the whole discussion is Dewey's contention that "every culture has its own collective individuality" that "leaves its own indelible imprint upon the art that is produced" (330).
On the one hand, this seems an innocuous enough reminder that artists emerge from a "culture" the assumptions and character of which are going to color the artist's work in one way or another. On the other hand, I don't really understand what is added to this acknowledgement by calling cultural influences a "collective individuality." It may be true that "the material of esthetic experience in being human. . .is social" (325), but it seems to me that aesthetic experience is social only in the most trivial sense of the term. The "material" of art and the experience of art is certainly human, but how could it be otherwise? The artist draws on his/her experience as a human being among other human beings and human institutions but it seems quite a leap to affirm this undeniable fact by claiming that aesthetic experience "is a manifestation, a record and celebration of the life of a civilization, a means of promoting its development." It is an awful burden to place on the solitary acts of aesthetic creation and perception to require they contribute to the health of both society and civilization.
"For while [art] is produced and enjoyed by individuals," Dewey writes, "those individuals are what they are in the content of their experiences because of the cultures in which they participate." While again I would not want to deny the truthfulness of this assertion, I can't see that it leads to any necessary insights about the relationship between art and culture. Artists can't avoid being, in part, products "of the cultures in which they participate," and to hold culture responsible for the artist's work, or to hold the artist responsible for culture, is a move that I can't myself make. It seems a strange one for Dewey to make, since he has spent the rest of his book making a case for the self-sufficiency of the individual's experience of art, however much he insists on aesthetic experience as continuous with human experience as a whole.
Ultimately I don't think Dewey does want to subordinate art to the social and cultural--indeed, much of the previous chapter of Art as Experience examines the flaws in critical approaches that do this. In a way, it's Dewey's high regard for art and the value of aesthetic experience that prompts him to associate them with "the quality of civilization." He knows that aesthetic experience consists of the intense, and private, encounter with the work of art, but he also thinks that the benefits of such an encounter ought to be as widely shared as possible, that finally the experience of art must have more than a private significance. It is hard not to sympathize with this aspiration.
Unfortunately, in order to elevate art to its rightful place, Dewey must dilute its effects. He thus surveys its role as a carrier of historical information, as supplement to religion, as cultural marker, as medium of universal communication, as a possible complement to science. He also discusses science's extension into technology through industrial practice, arguing that the split between "useful" and fine art has become so thorough as to be the real source of worker alienation, which won't be overcome "until the mass of men and women who do the useful work of the world have the opportunity to be free in conducting the processes of production and are richly endowed in capacity for enjoying the fruits of collective work." For Dewey "enjoying the fruits of collective work" means the appreciation of work for its aesthetic satisfactions, not sharing in the monetary profits, but while this may be Dewey's sincerely held alternative to the Marxist solution of the labor problem, locating an "aesthetic" experience in operating heavy machinery only makes it a more diffuse concept less useful in accounting for actual works of art.
Dewey concludes the final chapter, and the book, by attributing art's greatest good to its exercise of "imaginative vision," leaning heavily on Shelley in evoking the "unacknowledged" influence of art.
The union that is presented in perception [of art] persists in the remaking of impulsion and thought. The first intimations of wide and large redirections of desire and purpose are of necessity imaginative. Art is a mode of prediction not found in charts and statistics, and it insinuates possibilities of human relations not to be found in rule and precept, admonition and administration. (349)
This seems to me a rather tepid and overly familiar justification of art. I much prefer this, from the paragraph preceding the passage just quoted:
Because art is wholly innocent of ideas derived from praise and blame, it is looked upon with the eyes of suspicion by guardians of custom, or only the art that is itself so old and "classic" as to receive conventional praise is grudgingly admitted, provided, as with, say the case of Shakespeare, signs of regard for conventional morality can be ingeniously extracted from his work. Yet this indifference to praise and blame because of preoccupation with imaginative experience constitutes the heart of the moral potency of art. From it proceeds the liberating and uniting power of art.