Too much has perhaps been said about Dewey's theory of art as experience insofar as this focus has directed readers away from Dewey's central views on the nature of art itself. Just as Dewey observed that great works of art can hide fundamental facts of aesthetics, Dewey's great idea of "an experience" can hide facts about his even richer view of the nature of art. It might be helpful then to skip over those passages and think about what makes something artistic for Dewey. This material comes at the end of his chapter on "Having and Experience" in Art as Experience, but then is spread out throughout other aspects of the book as well. I am working now with the selection found in Stephen David Ross's Art and its Significance.
Before going on, I should note a significant mistake in the Ross edition. The selection from "Substance and Form" actually goes to page 213 bottom, and the selection from "The Common Substance of the Arts" begins with "The undefined pervasive quality" on the bottom of that page, not halfway down page 214 where the title appears in this selection. Actually "unit in itself and with ourselves" is continuous with "every work of art" on that page. So, in short, the heading "The Common Substance of the Arts" should be moved to the bottom of page 213.
To have a theory of art you need a definition of art, and there is a definition of art implicit in Dewey, a definition which sees art as expression. This expression has to do with a dynamic relationship between the artist and his or her audience. In this respect Dewey is carrying on in the tradition of Tolstoy.
Also striking here is that for Dewey art is an activity. "Art denotes a process of doing or making." It does something with physical material. He explicitly mentions "molding of clay, chipping of marble, casting of bronze" and so forth, through the various traditional fine arts. The result must be "visible, audible, or tangible." So the dynamic relationship goes beyond author and audience to materials. As much as Benedetto Croce thought that Dewey was simply following him, this is far from an idealist theory of art.
Dewey also stresses that art is a "skilled action," here in the tradition of John Stuart Mill, who described art as "perfection in execution." Not only materials but skill in the making process is important. This idea has not been popular in contemporary aesthetics, although it was picked up again by Dennis Dutton in his The Art Instinct. Although art is skilled action, this would only count as a necessary condition for fine art, and as we shall see, Dewey is concerned that overemphasis on this condition would lead to an overly limited definition of art.
This emphasis on doing/making is not to say that Dewey is unaware of the other side of art, that of the consumer - what is commonly called the "esthetic" side. Instead he stresses both the perceiving, appreciative side and the skillful side of art. The two are to be distinguished but not separated, this because the object is produced for the consumer and its value is found in its consumption.
Although skill is important, mere perfection of execution is not the goal. Dewey is similar to Tolstoy to this extent: he thinks that the good artist, far from simply being good at technique, "has an experience of his own that he was concerned to have those share who look at his products." Dewey measures this in terms of the greatness of the artist. Cezanne is a great painter even though not a great technician, Sargent a great technician but not a great painter.
But what really makes Cezanne great? Perhaps this is answered in the next paragraph. Dewey mentions there that in order to distinguish artistic craftsmanship from craftsmanship that is not artistic we need to consider it "loving" in the sense that the artist cares deeply about "the subject matter upon which skill is exercised." This does not mean that the artist must be exact in representation (something presumably that Sargent could accomplish). Rather, the artist must have "an experience of his own" that he/she wishes to share with others. This takes us back to Dewey's discussion of "an experience." Presumably Cezanne had "an experience" and Sargent did not. (This is not fair to Sargent, but this is not my concern here.) So the relationship needed for art is between artist/receiver and subject matter insofar as that is itself "an experience."
This leads to a kind of definition of "artistic" if not of art: "to be truly artistic, a work must also be esthetic - that is, framed for enjoyed receptive perception." That is, to be art it must be both a making and esthetic, and this is understood in terms of the relationship between the artist and his or her audience. The perception of the artist should be aesthetic also in the sense that it is not merely mechanical. Further, the work must be the result of "constant observation" which involves esthetic, not mechanical, or "cold and colorless" perception.
So, we are not to understand art simply as an experience, but rather as a kind of "an experience," one that is mutual between artist and audience: "Art, in its form, unites the very same relation of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, that makes an experience to be an experience." But in this case, the doing and undergoing are applied to the artist and the audience in their dynamic relation. What Dewey calls "esthetic art" eliminates whatever is not conducive to the mutual organization of the active and receptive aspects of art experience, the making and the consumption: "the doing or making is artistic when the perceived result is of such a nature that its qualities as perceived have controlled the question of production." The artist selects those traits that are conducive to such "interpenetration" of his action and the audience's reception. In short, the definition of art for Dewey is essentially dynamic in the interaction between artist and receiver.
This idea of art is elaborated on in the next chapter on "The Expressive Object." Whereas other theorists may just want to define art in terms of the result, Dewey is equally concerned with "action and its result." We should not view the object in isolation from the process which produced it. The process, as he often observes, comes from the interaction between a live creature (the artist in this case) and his or her environment, and as we shall see, that environment is very much the public realm. It is a mistake, Dewey believes, both to "ignore the individual contribution" of the artist and to isolate the process of expression from the "expressiveness possessed by the object." We should not see expression as a mere "discharging of personal emotion." So, to put it another way: a work of art presents material "passed through the alembic of personal experience" and yet the material comes from "the public world." Dewey insists that the "oppositions of individual and universal, of subjective and objective, of freedom and order...have no place in the work of art" for expression as personal and as objective are "organically connected." That is, the work of art is both individual and universal, both subjective and objective, both freedom and order.
So a work of art is representative not in the sense of being a literal reproduction, for it has a uniqueness "due to the personal medium through which scenes and events have passed," that is, the above-mentioned alembic. At the same time, the artist also "tells something to those who enjoy it about the nature of their own experience of the world" insofar as the artwork "presents the world in a new experience which they undergo." Art is about the public world, the world of everyday life. Moreover, it contributes to constitution of the world for others in a new way: it provides the possibility not only of "an experience" i.e. with a work of art, but also transformed experience of life outside of art.
Dewey observes that there are some who deny that works of art have meaning. They certainly do not have meaning in the way that signboards do, or in the way that scientific propositions do. The meaning of art is unique. At the same time we do not want to insist that the meaning is "so unique that it is without community or connection with the contents of other modes of experience than the esthetic." That would make art merely esoteric, which Dewey rejects. (The formalism of Clive Bell might be an aesthetic theory of that sort.) Rather, the unique quality of the work of art is "that of clarifying and concentrating meanings contained in scattered and weakened ways in the material of other experiences." Art clarifies and concentrates meaning by expressing meaning in materials.
That, in short, sums up Dewey's definition of art. The aesthetics of art is based on the aesthetics of life. Art, as opposed to science, expresses "the inner nature of things" by which he means that it does not lead to experience in the way that a scientific claim can be confirmed by an experiment, but rather "constitutes" experience as meaningful. The two examples Dewey focuses on to explain this are the way that Tintern Abbey "expressed itself to Wordsworth in and through his poem," and our experience of the meaning of a city which, he suggests, may "try to express itself in a celebration attended with pageantry" that would "render its history and spirit perceptible."
It is interesting that Dewey chooses here not just to focus on the expressive qualities of a poem but also on the way in which a pageant can operate as a kind of artwork that expresses a city. It is not just the self that is expressed in art (as we would find in Collingwood, for example) but also larger units, such as a city or a culture. He goes on that the visitor who "permits himself to participate" in this city celebration has "an expressive object" which is similar in some ways to the poem: neither is a "correct descriptive statement.
(Nietzsche uses Wordworth's "Tintern Abbey" to explain his point, but in a strange way since he thinks the poem reveals something about the abbey. In reality the poem never mentions the abbey except in the title. It actually describes a scene a few miles upriver from the abbey. It has been said that Wordsworth intended the reference to the abbey to add to his tendency to spiritualize nature. Based on reading the poem it is difficult to see how Tintern Abbey could have expressed itself in Wordsworth's poem.)
Dewey's definition of art then shows art to be necessarily interconnected with the creative process and the process of reception as well as with the public world which forms the material of expression. Philosophy of art for Dewey must be based on the aesthetics of everyday life which includes also the aesthetics of the creative process of the artist and the aesthetic of the receptive process of the viewer.
A bit more could be said about Dewey's implicit definition of art can be said in relation to the chapters on "Substance and Form" and on "The Common Substance of the Arts" since work on the ontology of art is surely related in some way to definition of art.