Throughout history, the capacity of art to affect both societies and individuals has been profound. As a concept that is undeniably complex and powerful, art has influenced mental states ranging from bliss to revulsion, as well as being both embraced and disavowed from societies. Various philosophic approaches have sought to determine essentialized definitions and understand anti-essentialist positions that attempt to know what art is, and how it functions in particular and universal modes. The American philosopher, John Dewey, formulated an aesthetic philosophy that called for a repositioning of art in the experience of the individual and the ideological constructions of society. According to this view, the moral implications of art are not fully appreciated in modernity, and consequently the human aesthetic experience has become significantly removed from the natural world. Thus, the aesthetic experience of art has the power to revitalize the relationships humans have with each other as well as their relationship to the societies in which they construct and inhabit.
In his aesthetic philosophy, Dewey felt that the motivations to produce and appreciate art were foundational to the experience of being human. In this respect, art is not separate from human experience, but rather is something that can only be understood as an experience. Hence, the meaning of an artistic work cannot be derived from the singular objective status of the artwork. Instead, meaning is the result of a symbiotic relationship between the creator and appreciator of an artwork, and it is this aesthetic experience that defines art. In this way, the experience of art is similar to biological functions in that it works to link, or alternatively, associate humans to their environments. The aesthetic experience acts as a means to balance and harmoniously mediate the human presence within the natural world.
To understand Dewey’s conception of the importance of human experience, it is necessary to interpret experiences in ways that would not commonly be associated with art. At a primal level, humans have a constant relationship with their environment that is interactive. A human is, as Dewey designates, a “live creature” that exists within an environment in a manner that can be described as, “in the raw.” In this sense, the human is a reactive creature that is a constituent part of its surroundings, that correspondingly, ebbs and flows in a rhythmic, non-static fashion. For instance, an individual might be walking down a busy city street or find themselves on a solitary backpacking trip in the wilderness, or participating as an athlete in a sporting event or watching one on television. Degrees of experiential interaction vary from ennui to the momentous and positive to negative, but nonetheless, any experience can be powerful in its affect on an individual. Yet, an awareness of the power of experience seems to be lacking in modernity. This ignorance of experience can facilitate ideological designs upon the individual that function to disengage critical thinking and reify systems of power that come to dominate societies. It also can contribute to a sense of apathy that not only enables cultural homogeneity, but deprives an individual of a profound and meaningful existence. It is perhaps this loss of personal meaning through disjointed but repetitive experiences that emphasizes a lack of aesthetic appreciation that, in turn, invites external moral influence.
In the Deweyian perspective, such disjointed experiences are said to be “anesthetic.” These are experiences that have no connective thread that binds them into a cohesive whole that results in a definitive meaning. They are instances without any clear-cut inception or end. Dewey writes:
Things happen, but they are neither definitely included nor decisively excluded; we drift. We yield according to external pressure, or evade and compromise. There are beginnings and cessations, but no genuine initiations and concludings. One thing replaces another, but does not absorb it and carry it on. There is experience, but so slack and discursive that it is not an experience.
These anesthetic experiences serve as an agent to mollify and shape entire societies into obedient and morally dutiful populations. In this manner, honor is bestowed on the individual that subserviently functions within an established order that the power of authority aligns with moral decency. Whether or not this endorsed, and thus majority, morality resonates with the individual’s singular moral sense of right and wrong is extraneous here, but rather the primary onus rests with the implications of an individual’s non-awareness of their experience in the world, as well as the desensitizing effects of the anesthetic experience. The concern herein is the morality of the anesthetic experience to affect individual notions of morality that consequently construct a plurality of sensibilities in a society. The power of ignorance in a well-functioning society is beneficial to hegemony, and as Dewey indicates; “One great defect in what passes as morality is its anesthetic quality. Instead of exemplifying wholehearted action, it takes the form of grudging piecemeal concessions to the demands of duty.” Thus, there is a crucial importance in an person’s ability to be aware of these aesthetic sensibilities that inform and aid in the development of individual morality.
Awareness to all experience is fundamental to the appreciation of art in an aesthetic experience. This awareness involves the capacity to decipher the anesthetic experience from what Dewey characterizes as, “an experience.” In this approach, an experience is one in which a single quality permeates connected episodes. This quality serves to relate each episode, that in effect, consolidates parts into a whole. “An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of variation of its constituent parts.” This unifying quality also entails a decisive commencement and conclusion that makes an experience a fulfilling and complete experience in itself. Thus, in having an experience, one is fully engaged in a meaningful way that associates an individual’s aesthetic sensibilities to their environment. An experience is an acknowledgement of the artistic qualities that come to inform customarily non-artistic experiences throughout an individual’s existence. The aesthetic quality renders, not just the conclusion, but the entire experience as profound. To exemplify this aesthetic potential in an everyday scenario, Dewey writes; “The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged.” Hence, the aesthetically informed individual is a person that is not as susceptible to the disconnected anesthetic experiences that make for oblivious submission at the hands of an external agent. In being aware of the power of an experience in the Deweyian sense, an individual is able to know the fulfillment of virtuous activities that engender a meaningful life in the Aristotelian eudaimonia sense. Therefore, the aesthetically cognizant individual is not separated from their environment. They are connected to their experiences in their surroundings in the same way the artist and art appreciator are sensitive to the aesthetic experiences of art.
In differentiating between the anesthetic and the condition of an experience, Dewey reveals the ways in which art as embodied in the aesthetic experience affects people and the common good of a society. In this manner, art is something that is either connected or disconnected from culture. The modern-day museum displays artifacts from an ancient culture as “art”, when in fact the culture that produced the work had no conception of art. In its current understanding, art is a fairly recent invention, and moreover, it was invented, or rather emerged, as a consequence of ideological power. In this sense, the cultural hegemon has the power to establish knowledge and historicize past cultures in a postcolonial, imperialistic fashion. Dewey’s contention is that, “Most museums are, among other things, memorials of the rise of nationalism and imperialism... The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life.” In perceiving art as a commodity that is produced by a trained artist, modern culture has separated the art of aesthetic experience from everyday life. Art is isolated as a whole and in forms like, “fine”, “low-brow”, or “vulgar” that function to define art in relation to entities that are non-aesthetic or anesthetic. Thus, art is no longer a part of life in the ways in which, for example, it is being exhibited in a museum. The displayed artifacts of ancient cultures are concrete manifestations of art as a normal part of an everyday cultural experience. That is to say, aesthetic experience was a unifying force in the past, whereas now, aesthetic experience only exists in the domain of artists and art appreciators, and not in the fragmentary and compartmentalized experience of contemporary life.
Ultimately, the best criterion for assessing the strength of Dewey’s argument is 21st century Western culture – principally, American society. Writing his aesthetic philosophy in the 1930s, Dewey’s insights into art as experience, and its corresponding link to humans and their environment are remarkably prescient. In the ensuing time, the separation of humans from the aesthetic experiences that engender a meaningful existence has only become more severe. That Dewey’s philosophy seems so radical is evidence of this severity. Improved sensitivity toward awareness has not developed. Technological advancement has allowed for more abundant communication and increased accessibility to artistic works, yet the isolating effects of the anesthetic experience are increasingly profound. Modern humans are paradoxically busy and bored at the same time. While the aesthetic experience still has the power to revitalize human relationships and the common good, this awareness has, as of yet, not matured.