Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Expressing Dwelling: Dewey and Hegel on Art as Cultural Self-Articulation

Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Expressing Dwelling: Dewey and Hegel on Art as Cultural Self-Articulation

Article excerpt

Chapters 3 through 5 of John Dewey's Art as Experience offer a profound reflection on the nature of art as a distinctly human reality. Art, on Dewey's understanding, is a human activity (of both making and perceiving) that plays a fundamental role in the very shaping of what it means to be a person. Dewey's reflections in these chapters focus on art in relationship to personal experience, though he points (in Chapter 14) to analogous ways in which art can play a similar shaping role at a cultural level. This artistic shaping of human experience at a cultural level is specially the subject of G.W.F. Hegel's Aesthetics, his lectures on the philosophy of fine art from 1823-1829. In fact, there is a remarkable similarity in the philosophical understanding of the nature of art in each of these two works. I will turn first to Dewey's analysis of the nature of experience in Democracy and Education and then especially to his account of the "channelling" of emotion through artistic experience from Chapter 4 of Art of Experience to provide a basic interpretive framework for understanding artistic practice. I will then outline Hegel's basic understanding of the role of art in the history of human cultural development in order to set the terms for understanding the distinctive issues that define artistic practice in contemporary culture. I will conclude by turning to Dewey's discussion of modern industrial society in Individualism Old and New in order to reflect on the relevance of art in the contemporary world for addressing contemporary political and social problems associated with capitalist globalization.

1 Dewey on Art as Experience

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with a discussion of the inherent human drive towards a knowing engagement with the world: "all humans by nature strive towards knowing." In explaining more fully this notion, Aristotle discusses "experience."

Now from memory experience is produced in men; for the several memories of the same thing produce finally the capacity for a single experience. And experience seems pretty much like science and art.... With a view to action experience seems in no respect inferior to art, and men of experience succeed even better than those who have theory without experience.1

Aristotle here speaks of "experience" [empeiria] in the same sense in which we say of someone, "she's really experienced with those things." To be experienced is to have a developed familiarity with some domain of reality, a living grasp of the sense of things that is reflected in knowing how to deal with emergent situations to bring about the results one wants. Living with horses all one's life, for example, one becomes "experienced" with horses. This "knowledge" of horses is not the self-reflective entertaining of theoretical doctrines acquired through teaching, but is a rich, embodied power of practical engagement developed through interaction with the horses themselves; as Faulkner writes of just such "experience," "within the wrists and elbows lay slumbering the mastery of horses."2

It is this basic phenomenon of "experience" that Aristotle identifies that Dewey explores in subtle and rigorous detail throughout Democracy and Education (1916). Dewey initially defines experience in general:

The nature of experience can be understood only by noting that it includes an active and a passive element peculiarly combined. On the active hand, experience is trying - a meaning which is made explicit in the connected term experiment. On the passive, it is undergoing. When we experience something we act upon it, we do something with it; then we suffer or undergo the consequences.... The connection of these two phases of experience measures the fruitfulness or value of the experience.... When an activity is continued into the undergoing of consequences, when the change made by action is reflected back into a change made in us, the mere flux is loaded with significance. We learn something. …

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