Thursday, October 26, 2017

Dewey: The Liberal Arts and the Visual Arts.

The issue of how the studio arts could contribute to a liberal arts education is not something that Dewey addressed in his long career.  This is surprising since he had an enormous impact on educational theory in his early and middle years, and an equal influence on aesthetics, particularly with respect to the visual arts, in his later years.  Moreover, on a practical level, he and his writings had a notable impact on the role of the studio arts in liberal arts education through his effect on various colleges and universities with which he was associated.  Notable in this regard was his impact on those at Black Mountain College who were reshaping our notion of the liberal arts as something that would strongly incorporate the visual arts.  John Andrew Rice, the director of Black Mountain, was strongly influenced by Dewey’s educational theory, as was Josef Albers, one of the leading visual art teachers there.  Dewey was even on the Black Mountain advisory committee and visited on at least two occasions in 1934 and 1935.[1]   Black Mountain was a liberal arts college with a special emphasis on the arts, and it had great influence through such figures as (this list includes both faculty and students) Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Harry Callahan, John Chamberlain, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Robert Duncan, Buckminster Fuller, Suzi Gablik, Paul Goodman, Walter Gropius, Franz Kline, Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, Beaumont Newhall, Kenneth Noland, Charles Olson,  Arthur Penn, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne, Ben Shahn, Aaron Siskind,  Stephen De Staebler, Cy Twombly, and Peter Voulkos.  Dewey also had an influence on art education through his close association with Albert Barnes and the Barnes Foundation.  Even today a large portion of the secondary literature on Dewey’s aesthetics appears in art education journals.
Today, Dewey’s fame is most closely associated with his educational theory, which was mainly directed to K-12 schooling.  So, those who were influenced by Dewey in visual arts education at the college and university level were mainly making inferences either from his educational or his aesthetic theory.   Of course there are some general points that would apply to higher education as well as to K-12:  for example, Dewey was widely known for stressing active learning over rote memorization.   His emphasis on hands-on activity would make studio teaching and practice particularly relevant to his notion of liberal arts education.   He also sought to overcome prejudicial distinctions between vocational and skills-based learning on the one hand and book-learning on the other.  And of course he strongly associated education with the promotion of democracy.
But today if we are to find inspiration in Dewey on the role of the studio arts in liberal arts education we should look mainly to Art as Experience (1934)Only this work provides the theoretical basis for a strong pragmatist reading of the arts upon which can be based a re-evaluation of that role.  I will begin with a review of Dewey’s directly stated views on the liberal arts and on the relationship between the studio arts and the liberal arts, and then will go over some of his views in Art as Experience that are relevant to our concerns here.
Central to our investigation are the passages in Democracy and Education (1916) that deal with play, imagination and fine art.   Chapter 15, “Play and Work in the Curriculum,” is particularly relevant.  There, Dewey stresses that both play and work should be incorporated into school activity.  (Again, this is directed to K-12, but may be extended to higher education.)  Dewey observes that, already in the classroom, “[t]here is work with paper, cardboard [etc] …”  employing such processes as cutting and folding, and using such tools as hammer and saw.  He also mentions ”[o]utdoor excursions, gardening, cooking, sewing, printing, book-binding, weaving, painting” etc. and argues that the educator should “engage pupils in these activities in such ways that while manual skill and technical efficiency are gained and immediate satisfaction found in the work, together with preparation for later usefulness, these things shall be subordinated to education – that is, to intellectual results and the forming of” what he calls “a socialized disposition.”  (106-7)
In Chapter 18, on “Educational Values,” he goes further, arguing that “[a]n adequate recognition of the play of imagination as the medium of realization of every kind of thing which lies beyond the scope of direct physical response is the sole way of escape from mechanical methods in teaching.”  (237)  For Dewey, “imagination is as much a normal and integral part of human activity as is muscular movement.”  (237)  Imagination allows for the translation of symbols into direct meaning.  When play activities “develop in the direction of an enhanced appreciation of the immediate qualities which appeal to taste, they grow into fine arts.”  (237)  It follows that the function of the fine arts is the enhancement of qualities that make ordinary experiences appealing.  (238)  They are the main means for achieving “an intensified, enhanced appreciation.”  (238)   Their purpose, beyond being enjoyable, is that they fix taste, reveal depth of meaning in otherwise mediocre experiences, and concentrate and focus elements of what is considered good.  In the end, the fine arts are “not luxuries of education, but emphatic expressions of that which makes any education worth while.”  (238)
In his chapter on “Labor and Leisure” Dewey addresses Aristotle’s conception of a liberal arts education.   Aristotle distinguishes between useful labor and leisure, where the second is privileged over the first (253).   Dewey believes this prejudicial distinction is still dominant today, as also the related distinction between liberal education on the one hand and professional and industrial education on the other. (251)   He agrees with Aristotle on some points, for example, joining him in rejecting as mechanical whatever renders the student unfit for the exercise of excellence.  But, unlike Aristotle (and the Greeks in general) he holds all men and women to be free.  (255)  He also rejects the idea that it is natural to separate production of commodities and practical achievement from knowledge.  (256)  The thrust of his analysis is to retain the notion of liberal education and yet free it anti-egalitarian Aristotelian assumptions.
An Opinion piece in the New York Times by Michael S. Roth, titled “Learning as Freedom,” has recently returned to Dewey to explore the issue of the survival of liberal arts education today.   Roth observes that “[a] century ago, organizations as varied as chambers of commerce and labor federations backed plans for a dual system of teaching, wherein some students would be trained for specific occupations, while others would get a broad education allowing them to continue their studies in college. The movement led to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which financed vocational education, initially for jobs in agriculture and then in other industries.”[2]   The Smith-Hughes Act (which was applied mainly to high school education) stressed isolation of vocational education from other aspects of education.   Dewey publically opposed the act because he believed it would exacerbate the inequalities of the time.   Although he recognized that there will always be distinctions between managers and subordinates, he believed “the great thing for one as for the other is that each shall have had the education which enables him to see within his daily work all there is in it of large and human significance.”  In short, students should not be reduced to mere tools.  He put his argument in terms of what we would today call a progressive critique of relations of production, writing that, “[t]he kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime….”  Roth also stresses that, for Dewey, liberal arts education was a matter of learning how to learn.  As Dewey put it, “[t]he inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.”
Roth correctly observes that Higher Education faces stark challenges today as well.  He notes “the ravaging of public universities’ budgets by strained state and local governments; ever rising tuition and student debt; inadequate student achievement; the corrosive impact of soaring inequality; and the neglect by some elite institutions of their core mission of teaching undergraduates.”  In a Deweyan spirit he insists that “learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that’s what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society.
Dewey’s Explicit Statement on the Liberal Arts
In his 1944 piece, “The Problem of the Liberal Arts College, ” Dewey sought to re-define the liberal arts in terms of the notion that an art is a liberal art if it is liberating.  This was intended to free up the liberal arts from traditional lists of disciplines that did not, for example, include the practice of creating visual art (although he does not mention this), and also from what he considered an outworn identification of the liberal arts with the linguistic, the literary and the metaphysical.  We should bear in mind, for the sake of our discussion here, that Dewey’s re-visioning of the liberal arts in this essay did not come from his work in aesthetics but from his conception of scientific method.  He believed that previous theories of the liberal arts were based on the notion that knowledge is based on intuition of essences by pure intellect, a view that he saw refuted by the scientific revolution.  He also reiterated his opposition (expressed, as we saw, in Democracy and Education and in his objections to the Smith-Hughes Act) to the separation of the liberal from the useful arts which, in the past, was based on the notion that the useful arts were mere matters of routine.  However, now, with the technological revolution, these arts are much more closely allied with the scientific revolution.  Moreover, he believes a social revolution has occurred in which the useful arts are no longer simply associated with the menial class.[3]  Dewey’s main method of analysis of the liberal arts is to situate a need for a new definition within the reality of changing social conditions.  He sums up the issue in this way: “The problem of securing to the liberal arts college its due junction in democratic society is that of seeing to it that the technical subjects which are now socially necessary acquire a humane direction.”  They can only be “liberating” if they are connected in important ways with humane sources of inspiration.  Similarly, the literary arts can only be humane and liberating when not cut off from the world of the technical.  As he puts it, “The present function of the liberal arts college, in my belief, is to use the resources put at our disposal alike by humane literature, by science, by subjects that have a vocational bearing, so as to secure ability to appraise the needs and issues of the world in which we live.” Dewey would often defend liberal arts education by relating it to the idea that science and the scientific method should be utilized for the welfare of mankind.[4]  However, again, this says little about the role of studio arts in a liberal arts education.  For this, one needs to turn primarily to Dewey’s Art as Experience.
Earlier, in the 1930s, Dewey had become involved in a debate over the nature of higher education with Robert Maynard Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago. [5]  Hutchins had published The Higher Learning in America, which Dewey reviewed.   Hutchins argued for pursuit of truth for its own sake, making a strong distinction between liberal and vocational education.  Dewey, by contrast, believed that education should liberate students to prepare them to be good citizens.  For Hutchins, as Lisa Heldke puts it, “[t]o pursue truth requires one to do nothing less than abandon one’s efforts to develop the roles that define our human lives.”  But, for Dewey, as Heldke also nicely states, and I quote here at some length, “[k]nowing ….must be understood as always emerging from, and responding to, a particular context—a time, a place, a problem, a situation. Knowing, furthermore, has both “instrumental” and “consummatory” facets—it aims at solving identifiable problems, and it is also potentially beautiful and worth contemplating. ….The human activity of knowing is a complex, indissoluble mesh of consummatory knowing “for its own sake” and instrumental knowing, pursued for the sake of accomplishing some practical, concrete, or vocational aim.”  For  “abstract understandings regularly present themselves as useful solutions to all sorts of ordinary, day-to-day, practical problems we humans encounter.”  As we saw in Democracy and Education, Dewey believed that the sharp division between liberal and servile arts in the Greeks and in Aristotle need to be replaced in our contemporary democratic vision of the liberal arts.
Art as Experience as the Key
By the time he wrote Art as Experience Dewey was engaged in transforming the notion of experience itself.  He did this in a way that would reconstruct our very notion of knowledge and thus of what higher education could and should be.  Whereas his previous writings, and even his 1944 piece, mainly featured the role of science in knowledge production, Art as Experience placed emphasis on the arts… to the extent that, in many respects, the arts came to be treated as equal to the sciences.  The notion of empiricism itself is expanded.   The unique quality of esthetic experience is a challenge to philosophy, for aesthetic experience is “experience in its integrity” and, Dewey argues, the philosopher must go to aesthetic experience to understand what experience is.   
It is also a challenge to traditional notions of the liberal arts.  It is my view that the role of making and materiality in the liberal arts can only be fully understood once we understand the full implications of Dewey’s closely related concepts of experience and medium.  Dewey’s conception of “an experience” as it relates to artistic making and appreciation can be best understood in terms of his understanding of the creative process.   Materiality plays an important role in this, especially, again, through the concept of medium.  The creative process works in a cyclical way, where the artist draws from the public domain both subject matter and materials, processes this through his or her imaginative activity, and then puts it back out into the world.  Art involves intensification of experiences of everyday life achieved through expression using materials in a medium designed for one of our senses, each art form focusing on a different organ of sensation.  For example, the visual arts develop their media for the perceptive eye.  The creative process is dominated by a pervasive quality which first emerges in the inception of the work, and which evolves to the point at which the artist perceives the work as completed.  But, as I have suggested, the creation of the product is not the end of the creative process.  It continues in the reconstructive perception of the viewer.  
Materiality enters into this in several ways.  First, the subject matter comes from a shared public world.  As Dewey puts it, “[c]raftsmanship to be artistic …must be ‘loving’; it must care deeply for the subject matter upon which skill is exercised.”  (49)  He connects this closely with the idea that the work must be based on an experience of the artist’s own and must be framed for receptive perception by others.  Second, the materials themselves, for example paint and canvas, and the artist’s activity on them, form the medium of the artistic process.  Third, the artist herself is a material being insofar as she is conceived as a live creature interacting with her environment.  Fourth, the product is a material thing, although imbued with meaning.  Fifth, the creative process is actualized in the experience of the audience which itself exists in social context in a publicly shared world.  Sixth, as with Marx, this materialism is closely associated with a democratic impulse that seeks to overcome a social system that alienates the common man.  Seventh, as with a later Marxist, and contemporary of Dewey’s, Walter Benjamin, this all is directed towards overcoming the discontinuity between rarefied fine arts and the experiences of everyday life.
Dewey’s overall approach, then, is materialist.  But it is not physicalist.  He does not reduce the material world to discreet physical objects interacting with each other in a mechanistically organized world.  Instead, his materialism is deep and rich, so much so that it can easily be confused with a form of idealism.  Part of this is because of the importance in his mature thought of the concept of experience.  But Dewey does not take experience to be something merely internal.   To understand what he means by experience we need to understand what he means by “an experience.”    “An experience” is a type of experience.  It is distinguished from confused or incomplete experience in that it is an organized whole with a natural beginning, middle and end, and the above-mentioned pervasive quality.  He mentions, as examples, the experience of a great storm, the breakup of a friendship, and a restaurant meal that sums up all a meal can be, but it should be clear that every appropriate experience of a good or great work of art is “an experience.” 
An experience is not a subjective or ideal entity, but neither is it merely describable in terms of material causal processes.  Experience is a function of the live creature interacting with her environment.  When we have “an experience,” which, again, is the high point of experience, the past is drawn into the present and projected into the future.  We have here something in which the end is a culmination of all that went before.  The dynamic relation of past, present and future in “an experience” gives the creative process a quality of going beyond what we immediately see, one that makes crude or mechanistic materialism impossible.
 An undefined pervasive quality binds together all the defined elements, making them a whole. Evidence for this is the immediate sense of relevance of the parts to the whole. For Dewey, “A work of art elicits and accentuates this quality of being a whole and of belonging to the larger, all-inclusive, whole” which is the universe.  This is why we feel a great clarity and even religious feeling in front of an esthetically intense object.  We experience a “world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live” and this carries us beyond ourselves in such a way as to find ourselves.   The work deepens “that sense of an enveloping undefined whole” characteristic of normal experience, and this is felt as an expansion of ourselves.  Unless we are egoists, we are “citizens of this vast world beyond ourselves” with which we can feel unity.   Many of Dewey’s readers saw this almost religious way of talking to be a betrayal of his naturalism and his commitment to a science-based view of the world.  However, it might better be seen as consistent with a manner of materialism based on an accurate understanding of human experience true not only to our material being to the way we experience the world as material beings.
Imagination plays an important role in this dynamic process.   It is not, for Dewey, an isolated faculty with mysterious potency.   It too is material in the sense that it exists where “the mind comes in contact with the world.” (278)  It is present when old things become new in experience.  Esthetic experience is imaginative, but then all conscious experience has some imaginative quality:  in all experience, at least all that is live, meaning come in from prior experience.  And experience is only human when meaning and value, drawn from what is absent, are present imaginatively.  The artist uses imagination to draw from the past and project into a future culmination.[6]   Imagination, then, should be distinguished from mere day-dream which is arbitrary and fanciful.  It is perhaps most evident in art.  For in works of art, as opposed to non-art experience, meanings are embodied in a material as medium.  Imaginative quality dominates here.  The work of art, “unlike the machine, is not only the outcome of imagination, but operates imaginatively” through enlarging and concentrating experience.  As Dewey puts it, in art “the formed matter of esthetic experience directly expresses …the meanings that are imaginatively evoked…”  This is not only true for the art creator:  the work of art also challenges the experiencer to a similar imaginative act. Thus, as Dewey puts it, “Imaginative vision is the power that unifies all the constituents of the matter of a work of art….”  

[1] Dewey wrote to Black Mountain College “I hope, earnestly, that your efforts to get adequate support for Black Mountain College will be successful. The work and life of the College (and it is impossible in its case to separate
the two) is a living example of democracy in action. No matter how the present crisis comes out, the need for the kind of work the College does is imperative in the long-run interests of democracy. The College exists at the very ‘grass roots’ of a democratic way of life.” Füssl, Karl‐Heinz. "Pestalozzi in Dewey’s Realm? Bauhaus Master Josef Albers among the German‐ Speaking Emigrés’ Colony at Black Mountain College (1933–1949)." Paedagogica Historica, vol. 42, no. 1/2, Feb. 2006, pp. 77-92.   81.
[2]  Michael S. Roth, “Learning as Freedom,” Opinion Pages, NYT, Sept. 5, 2012.
[3] We should of course beware of identifying the fine arts with practical vocation-based arts.  Although Dewey saw a continuity between these he did not erase all distinction.  Many advocates of the fine arts practice as part of the liberal arts might insist that these arts gain this status precisely by being less practical and more cerebral than the vocational arts. 
[4] See for example Janean Stallman, “John Dewey’s New Humanism and Liberal Education for the 21st Century” Education and Culture  Fall 2003  20:2
[5] Lisa Heldke “Robert Maynard Hutchins, John Dewey, and the Nature of the Liberal Arts.” The Cresset:  A Review of Literature, the Arts and Public Affairs, 2005 (Vol LXIX, No. 2, p 8-13)   See Dewey “The Problem of the Liberal Arts College.” Vol. 15 of John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953: 276–280.

[6]  See his sophisticated non-idealist theory of imagination pp. 277-286.

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