Your Life is Your Work of Art
On John Dewey’s Art as Experience
by Lindsay Lerman
I first read Dewey’s Art as Experience six years ago, with a group of philosophy friends. For years, they had been collectively selecting a text from the history of philosophy (always one that no one in the group knew well), and reading it individually before living together communally for a week, under one roof, and teaching the text to each other, formally and informally, in seminar rooms, around the dinner table, over drinks at the bar. The Dewey year was the year I could finally join—I was not overseas, I didn’t have a new baby on my hands, I wasn’t traveling, I didn’t have a full-time job that might punish me for taking a week off. And I was quietly writing a book—the book that became I’m From Nowhere. I was alternating between two states, probably familiar to most people who create anything: 1) this might be something—I might actually have something here, and 2) who am I to try to make anything? Dewey had something to teach me.
In short: “art” and “life” can be separated, but he doesn’t recommend it. If such a separation can be easily managed, you’ve got a thin understanding of both art and life, and it won’t do you any favors. Through Dewey, I understood that it was time for me to drop the neurotic concerns about whether or not I was creating something good or interesting. I had a better question to ask myself (to never stop asking myself): does your art do well the only thing it really can do—does it do justice to the conditions of life itself? Is it wrestling with those conditions? Is it an expression of inseparability from those conditions?
Subject and Object/Self and World
I’ll start with the most pressing claim Dewey makes in the book: that the divisions between the “intellectual and sensory aspects” of human nature are not intrinsic: “There are no intrinsic psychological divisions between the intellectual and the sensory aspects; the emotional and ideational; the imaginative and the practical phases of human nature” (258). You might read this and intuit a connection to Bataille’s notions of continuity and discontinuity. Or maybe Husserl’s notion of Lebenswelt. Or much recent (and crucial) work in epistemology of race and gender. The point is that although we’ve been helped tremendously by these separations—they’ve made much of our science and medicine possible, for example—we’ve paid a price for it. An invisible price, maybe. Multiple invisible prices, maybe.
Dewey claims that “professional thinkers” are particularly haunted by these unnatural divisions. And what happens in what Dewey calls “esthetic experience” is that we are shown the unnatural quality of the divisions. The professional thinker feels the limits of their thinking. When I felt these limits, as I had for most of my life (although I could not usually articulate them), I began secretly writing novels.
The professional thinker […] is the one who is most haunted by the difference between self and the world. He approaches discussion of art with a reinforced bias, and one, which, most unfortunately, is just the one most fatal to esthetic understanding. For the uniquely distinguishing feature of esthetic experience is exactly the fact that no such distinction of self and objects exists in it, since it is esthetic in the degree in which organism and environment cooperate to institute an experience in which the two are so fully integrated that each disappears (ibid 259; emphasis mine).
So here is the description, and next comes the prescription. The divisions we experience and take to be something like “natural”—between self and object, between organism and environment, between intellect and the rest of the sensory apparatus —are not “natural” or unavoidable. In fact they are man-made, Dewey claims, and they are fatal to esthetic experience and understanding. The prescription: we ought to invite and become skilled at esthetic experience. And this requires dissolution of our status as clear subjects in charge of our environments.
Dewey understates the immensity of such a challenge, though he does recognize that we are shaped by “prejudice, preconceptions, and desire” (259) to see the world as entirely constituted by the unnatural divisions with which he takes issue. The deeper I got into the world of professional philosophy, the more I found people who preached the necessity of dissolution—for political reasons, for professional reasons, for possibly predatory sexual reasons—but who seemed unable or unwilling to live it. I will not say that I succeeded where they failed—I can’t know that. But I will say that I have taken seriously what I saw, felt, and understood in esthetic experience. And that I let it change me. I simply didn’t know (and still don’t know) how to carry on as though I were separate from everything, and as if everything in me were separable, when esthetic experience had shown me otherwise. I began to understand why I had continued to write novels, poems, stories.
All of this is part of a larger and more complex ontological claim Dewey makes, that although there’s no originary difference between self and world, as soon as we are capable of experience, difference is introduced—through experience, through interaction—and some amount of damage is done.1 “Experience is a matter of the interaction of organism with its environment, an environment that is human as well as physical” (256). This is not a simple equation:
Because every experience is constituted by interaction between “subject” and “object,” between a self and its world, it is not itself either merely physical nor merely mental, no matter how much one factor or the other predominates […] In an experience, things and events belonging to the world, physical and social, are transformed through the human context they enter, while the live creature is changed and developed through its intercourse with things previously external to it (256-7).
The power of these claims—this prescription—lies in the fact that Dewey is encouraging us to work very carefully against the habits we’ve accumulated that are too often mistaken for “our nature.” The way we continue to evoke the great chain of being, as though life were nothing more than mere hierarchy, instead of complex and continual interaction, intermingling—co-constitutive through and through. The way we get territorial and judgmental with expression. The way we endlessly separate and categorize and assess. But, Dewey claims, it’s precisely because we are capable of esthetic experience that we should work to cultivate moments when the very capacities that make us dividers (of world and self, etc.) become suspended. The fact that we can break our link with the world suggests the eternal possibility of recreating it.
The danger of these claims, I’ll note, is that they do rest on some notion of “natural”—in the sense of what is original or prior to our habitual insistence on separation between self and world, and we’ve seen how easy it is to weaponize that one small word in order to shame and confuse and wound others. I don’t believe this is the focus of Dewey’s argument, however. Nor do I believe it’s serious enough to call the rest of the argument into question.
I have lingering questions, however, about whether Dewey is romanticizing what happens when the difference between self and world dissolves. The moments when I think I’ve gotten there, or approached there, I haven’t been able to say, and I still can’t say, with much certainty how or if the experience means anything, can do anything, ought to do anything. I think—though I can’t say for certain—that my next book, What Are You, is an attempt to wrestle with this.
What I wonder most of all is whether Dewey wants to put to use something that may not be usable, or that may be usable in only a very specific sense. I have no answer for this question.
“Anaemic Conception of Art,” or, It’s Kant’s Fault
Dewey takes aim at most of Western philosophy: “When elements united in experience are separated, the resulting esthetic theory is bound to be one-sided” (262). Dewey’s concern is that “contemplation” has much too important a place in esthetics and that “esthetic contemplation” is dangerously narrow.
At first sight, “contemplation” appears to be about as inept a term as could be selected to denote the excited and passionate absorption that often accompanies experience of a drama, a poem, or a painting. Attentive observation is certainly one essential factor in all genuine perception including the esthetic. But how does it happen that this factor is reduced to the bare act of contemplation? (262-3; emphasis mine).
The answer is Kant. Kant’s masterful distinction-creation (and establishing his distinctions as actual, natural divisions) separated the esthetic mode of experience from others, with “an alleged scientific basis” for all of it (263). Kantian contemplation is a product of intuitive (and not reflective) Judgment, and intuitive Judgment has no place with objects of Pure Reason. As Dewey tells us, “Thus the psychological road was opened leading to the ivory tower of ‘Beauty’ remote from all desire, action, and stir of emotion” (263). Kant gave us a domesticated, passive, disinterested, “scientific” relationship to the experience of art—Contemplation—that must be deeply separate from affect, from “all desire, action, and stir of emotion” (ibid).
Dewey grants Kant that the eighteenth century was a century of “reason” rather than “passion,” and that shifts in art and theory are “connected with large rhythms in human history” (262). But the damage is done. We have an anemic conception of art. We have no way of talking about what is felt when art is encountered. We may feel the “reverberations” of the art that moves and shakes and even slices us open, but we can say almost nothing about it. Our hands are tied by Contemplation. Try, just try, I can hear Dewey saying even today, to talk about the piece of music that made you spontaneously burst into tears among a group of thinkers, without resorting to theory, without calling on the authority of Contemplation or any of its hundred or so iterations. See how you’re received. (I’ve tried it, more times than I should. You can imagine how it went.)
But are we caught in the loop of taking Contemplation to task via a kind of Contemplation? Does Dewey need to acknowledge this in order for his criticism to be meaningful and illuminating? And what, exactly, is Dewey advising in place of the contemplation that philosophy has accepted as explanation of esthetic experience? Do we have a viable alternative?
Now we’re getting somewhere. Things are coming together. Push past contemplation, past what is taken to be a clear and neat separation between self and world, and our imaginations come into play. Here’s Dewey’s summary of imagination, presented whole because I can’t see how to break it up. Imagination:
[…] has been treated as a special and self-contained faculty, differing from others in possession of mysterious potencies. Yet if we judge its nature from the creation of works of art, it designates a quality that animates and pervades all processes of making and observation. It is a way of seeing and feeling things as they compose an integral whole. 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 (278).
Imagination isn’t just a faculty—it’s not something uniquely activated in poetry but lacking in politics, for example; it’s a way of being. A “large and generous blending of interests at the point where the mind comes in contact with the world.” It is adventurous, it is creative and active (as opposed to merely reactive), and it shows us that what we’ve been taught to understand as distant or unrelated to us (“the far and strange”) is in fact already here with us, already part of us. This is crucial, because Dewey claims that esthetic experience is necessarily imaginative, and all conscious experience has “some degree of imaginative quality” (283). We cannot have esthetic experience that is not also imaginative. And every moment of conscious experience is at least a little bit imaginative. The gravity and simplicity of this struck me forcefully when I first encountered it. And still. Because it’s almost as though we get very sick if we aren’t taking care of our imaginations, understanding them as ways of being, as guides (ethical guides?) for our existence. We are living in a moment when mental health is taken seriously, for good reason. And we are also living in a moment when unequal distribution of material resources is rightfully understood as harmful to mental health. But I wonder what most adults would say if asked what they think about imagination, or the role imagination plays in their lives and their well-being. When I teach philosophy at a community college, I’m struck by how many students urgently express a desire for greater imaginative capacity. The same goes for intellectual capacity. My students know very well that an imaginative orientation to the world does not need to be—and should not be—the exclusive property of the leisure class. Time is money, though, and money is time, and this does remain a problem for those of us who aren’t members of the ruling class.
What did this mean for my artwork—that is, for my life—when I first encountered it? It meant that once I began working in forms that were unrecognizable (new) to me, I was living in forms that were unrecognizable to me. My artwork is what I have to show for it, sure, but really, my life is what I have to show for it. Once I accepted the reality that imagination is a way of being, I accepted that imagination is a way of being. “Possibilities are embodied in works of art that are not elsewhere actualized; this embodiment is the best evidence that can be found of the true nature of imagination” (279). Each book, each poem, each story is a little bit of evidence—an additional embodiment of imagination, because it could be no other way.
The Challenge to Philosophy (and Everyone and Everything Else)
It troubles Dewey that imagination has been pushed aside or devalued in favor of contemplation, as it should trouble all of us. It’s a problem for philosophy, but please understand that “philosopher” might just be shorthand for “anyone unwilling to live into the interconnectedness of imagination.”
The problem here is so severe that Dewey is willing to claim that most philosophers “either have not had an esthetic experience or have allowed preconceptions to determine their interpretation of it” (300-301). Philosophy takes one strand of experience—contemplation—to be the whole. This is not the first time we’ve seen Dewey suggest that “theory” or “philosophy” or criticism or the discipline of esthetics is curled up in a tight little ball, shut down, covering its eyes and ears, seeing only what it wishes to see, in order to remain to comfortable, and to avoid the great and difficult strain of using imagination, of riding out the turbidity Dewey describes as part and parcel of having an “undetermined direction” (277).
The challenge for all of us, not just “professional thinkers” or “critics” or whatever, is to be receptive. To understand our imaginative capacities and make them grow. Or, to put it in plain, if New Age-adjacent terms: the challenge is to really let the fact of life’s interconnectivity unfurl within us and our lives. And our understanding of whatever we find, whatever we accomplish, whatever we know must be held lightly and attentively, like a living creature. None of this is easy. Here’s where I think Dewey gives us an incomplete picture. (It’s on us to do the work of completing it, as it should be.)
But the fact remains that we can’t be snug in our certainty and have esthetic experiences. It’s a question of receptivity—receptivity to the vast and dynamic indeterminacy of life. And certainty is not often receptive. ♦
Lindsay Lerman is the author of I’m From Nowhere (2019) and What Are You (forthcoming, May 2022). Her short stories, essays, and poems have been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Tyrant, Entropy, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. She is working on a screenplay, a philosophy manuscript, and a novel. She has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and translates philosophical texts from French to English.