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Dewey and Artistic Expression 29 November 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Culture.
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A reader emailed to ask me about the connection of Dewey’s Art as Experience and “expression theory” for her undergraduate aesthetic class. She is especially concerned with the connection of emotion (of the artist, I think) with Dewey’s emphasis on meaning. My own work with Dewey’s philosophy focuses on his social theory and his cognitive theory, and it’s been years since I read AaE, but I think what I offered her is a good place for her to start in thinking about Dewey’s approach to art. It also reminds me that I should go back and re-read the work.

As far as Dewey is concerned, there are some key assumptions you need to keep in mind when thinking about his approach to art and aesthetics. 

First, all acts in the world are pre-conditioned by the contents of the individual organism’s mind. That is, the individual has a lifetime of experience that condition his/her mind and make acts meaningful before they occur. This *includes* emotion. Dewey in the 1920s distinguishes between emotion as a mere reaction to stimulus, and an emotion that has been considered and rendered meaningful by the individual (the first precedes the second). The emotion you’re talking about with artists would be the 2nd kind, considered and meaningful already, before the “expressive act” of producing a work of art.

Second, the contents of the mind are preconditioned by the environment in which that mind circulates. In other words, the environment in the largest sense is inextricably part of the mind, because the mind would not exist without having a lifetime of transaction with the environment. Dewey uses the term “transaction” because he wants to emphasize the two-way, inextricable connection between human meaning and the environment. Just as the environment conditions the mind in this transaction relationship, so does the human individual (re)act to the environment, interpreting it, acting against it, shaping it, changing it to match its needs, desires, values, expectations (all of which have emotional components).

Third, the environment is more than just the physical, material world; it is also a social environment. That means that the mind is always also social and depending on social transaction for meaning. To say it another way, the mind (the individual) is preconditioned by society.

So Dewey doesn’t speak of “expression” as an act in itself or per se, but rather art as “production” that expresses a particular transaction within a particular time and place.  In most aesthetic theory of the past 300 years or so, the artist is paramount and there’s a privileging of the artist’s unique and individual vision. Dewey undercuts that somewhat by insisting on the transactive nature of the artist’s mind and his/her acts. Any individual act of art production has been necessarily preconditioned (just as all human actions are preconditioned).  

Do not confuse preconditioning with thinking that human actions are predetermined. Not at all. They are predetermined. That is, they are inextricably connected to all the experience that preceded any individual act. The human individual, however, takes all those experiences and THINKS about them. The art-productive act could be thought of as the action that follows the THOUGHT of the individual about his/her experience. In that regard, it may have a connection with “expression theory”. Dewey sees human agency in their ability to think creatively about their experiences and then act in the world to enact their values or “adjust” to their environment by changing their own behavior or perception. That is always creative, for Dewey.

Art production is, for Dewey, the thoughtful and purposeful organization of discrete elements to create the artistic whole. The artist’s genius or individuality is in their ability to draw upon their (preconditioned) meaning-making mind and use objects, elements, sounds, etc., to convey that meaning with a consumer of the art.

Secondly, Dewey offers a different way of evaluating art which is based upon knowing the environment that pre-conditioned its production and its consumption. For Dewey, you don’t actually consume art (or view or listen to it). Rather, you participate with it. When that art resonates (his word) with your own meaningful experience in your environment, such that it adds meaning to your experience, that art is successful. Dewey argues that we can, through training and education, come to participate with art from different periods of time and different cultures (i.e., from different environments) such that they may also resonate with us in our own experience and add to our own meanings, even though our environments (and our minds) are different. A work of art that fails to evoke a resonance, that fails to invite participation, is a failed or inferior piece of art. The quality of art can be judged by the degree to which it evokes resonance and creates an experience that increases meaning for the participator.

For Dewey, then, meaning is an emergent property of mind, the effect of the transaction between the organism (and the society) with its environment.  Although I haven’t addressed emotion as such much here, I hope you can see that for Dewey, emotion is always a constitutive part of this process.