John Dewey's 1906 Definition of Art
by Philip W. Jackson - 2002
This paper contains an appreciative exegesis of a single sentence extracted from a speech that John Dewey delivered to an audience of teachers in 1906. The sentence was selected for analysis because of the extraordinarily concise manner in which it tacitly connects to a wide variety of Deweyan doctrines, particularly those having to do with Dewey’s vision of human flourishing. The overall goal of the analysis is simply to bring the sentence to the attention of a wider audience. By displaying the hidden richness of this small string of words, delivered almost nonchalantly, one suspects, and on such a relatively inauspicious occasion, my hope is to prevent a tiny gem from remaining lost and forgotten within the vastness of Dewey’s published works.
In 1906 John Dewey addressed the Joint Convention of the Eastern Art Teachers Association and the Eastern Manual Training Association. I presume the meeting was held in New York City, although I am not sure. His remarks on that occasion, as they later appeared in the proceedings of the convention, were entitled "Culture and Industry in Education." Toward the close of his address Dewey says this:
To feel the meaning of what one is doing, and to rejoice in that meaning; to unite in one concurrent fact the unfolding of the inner life and the ordered development of material conditions--that is art.1
That single sentence, long buried in a publication that few people today are likely to run across, strikes me as being so remarkably condensed in meaning and therefore such a useful reminder of where Dewey stood with respect to quite a number of important topics that I seldom miss the opportunity of sharing it with almost anyone who will listen. I look upon those thirty-seven words as forming a viscous concoction--a kind of syrupy Deweyan elixir--that requires only the verbal equivalent of water to give it body and thus restore it to a more readily consumable form. To demonstrate that such is so, while at the same time hoping to increase the number of readers who on occasion will later refer back to the sentence or even commit it to memory, as I have done, I propose to add the required diluent to Dewey’s well-wrought words in the form of my own passing commentary. To this end I will move through the sentence phrase by phrase and, where necessary, word by word, pausing after each quoted fragment to offer something of my own understanding of its fuller significance.
"To feel the meaning . . ."
To begin to appreciate the sentence’s richness we must pause even before we reach the end of its first clause. Its first four words suffice to stir controversy in some quarters. They imply that meaning, viewed comprehensively, has something to do with feeling. Contrary to what many others believe, Dewey looks upon meaning as not being restricted to what goes on in the mind alone. It is not just a mental affair. Meanings can be felt as well as cognized. They are not just to be intellectually understood.
This is not a new idea, of course. It goes back to the Greeks, if not beyond, as do so many insights into human affairs. But Dewey wants to refurbish and modernize that ancient observation. He wants us to understand that the feelings associated with all forms of meaning are not just superfluous add-ons to our human rationality. They are key to an understanding of what it means to perceive something fully rather than partially.
As was just said, not all philosophers would agree with Dewey on this point. The logical positivists, for example, who rose to prominence several years after the date of Dewey’s speech, would certainly have taken issue with Dewey’s conjoining of feeling and meaning. So would many of today’s cognitively-oriented philosophers.
What about the members of Dewey’s audience? Would they have been surprised or puzzled by the notion of ‘felt meaning’? I think not. The teachers attending the conference that day likely did not require an explanation of what it meant to feel the meaning of something. They surely must have known what that phrase meant, as do most of us today. They doubtless had often experienced such a condition even though they may never have described it in exactly those terms. If asked to explain the phrase, they might have said something like, "To feel the meaning of something is to be firmly convinced of it" or, even more colloquially, "It’s to feel it in one’s bones."
It is also important to note from the start that Dewey was speaking the teachers’ language rather than the language of professional philosophers. This use of ordinary language constitutes a central feature of Dewey’s writing style. It also connects to his ideas about how philosophers should go about their work. Dewey advised them to launch their inquires in the ordinary and the everyday and to return there when their reflections were complete in order to test the worth of their theorizing.
Let’s now move to the continuation of the first phrase.
"of what one is doing. . . ."
We here note that the feeling being spoken of refers to an on-going activity, something that someone is doing. It is not a feeling about something past, something finished or complete—a prior accomplishment, let’s say, or a recalled discomfort. Nor does it refer to something yet to come--a positively anticipated event, let’s suppose, or perhaps one that is unwelcome or even dreaded. Instead, the feeling refers to the meaning of what one is presently doing.
Dewey’s sentence as a whole makes it clear that he is not talking about those doings that constitute the bulk of our daily activity. He has in mind the doing of art, a form of activity that presumably is rather special, in ways yet to be fathomed. Yet we must be careful not to jump to the conclusion that the art he is speaking of is limited to the activities of those who call themselves artists. To take that step would be an error but to see why that is so is to move too far ahead of our story. Let us, therefore, continue to inch along.
"and to rejoice in that meaning;. . ."
This qualification is crucial, for it is easy enough to imagine situations in which one feels the meaning of what one is doing yet despairs in that feeling rather than rejoices in it.
Someone who feels caught in a dead-end job, for example, would stand for the former condition. But such is not the set of circumstances that Dewey has in mind. His focus, again, is on the making of art. His "what one is doing" refers to that class of activities in particular. The feeling associated with it is, as we see, decidedly positive.
The word "rejoice" sounds biblical to me. I suspect it had that association for Dewey as well. It refers, in any case, to an uncommon level of pleasure, one associated with rare moments of delight and joy. When might people rejoice in what they were doing? When they were deeply convinced of its importance. When they felt it to be right, fulfilling, satisfying, rewarding, comforting--the list of terms could easily go on. The generic word meaningful would surely appear somewhere on that list. To engage in an activity that is full of meaning might well be an occasion for rejoicing. To a number of today’s readers Dewey’s use of the word "rejoice" may seem a bit quaint, a touch too romantic perhaps.
Also, the fact that he only mentions a positive feeling and such an extreme one at that, may seem too one-sided. Some might think it Pollyannish. "After all," such a reader might complain, "everyone knows that the making of art is not all sweetness and light. There is plenty of pain and disappointment connected with it as well. Witness the familiar, if a bit old-fashioned stereotype of the suffering artist in his freezing garret.
Something like that can still happen today."
Dewey would not disagree. But on this particular occasion he is not trying to portray the plight of the suffering artist. He is speaking of the promise of art, not its hardships. He continues,
"to unite . . ."
Unity stood as a sought-after condition for Dewey throughout his life. What he usually was most concerned about unifying were the classic dualisms of mind and body, intellect and emotion, subject and object--divisions of thought inherited from the Greeks and treated as stable divides by modern philosophers from Descartes forward. Such is his quarry here as well, as will soon be evident.
"in one concurrent fact . . ."
The phrase is a bit odd, obviously enough. How can one fact be concurrent? Concurrence sounds like it would call for two or more of something. It does have more than one referent, as we soon shall see, but Dewey wants to emphasize the organic unity of the elements he is about to mention, each of which is conventionally looked upon as a distinctive entity in its own right.
Another way of putting it might be to say that a single fact becomes legitimately describable as concurrent when its parts, the elements conjoined, are not really parts at all, at least not in a mechanical sense of the term. Instead, they are more like different views of the same thing, different ways of looking at a single object. This means seeing it holistically even while acknowledging that it can be viewed from different perspectives and that for certain purposes it is often quite useful and even necessary to adopt one such vantage point rather than the other.
Perceived in its conjointness we have first,
"the unfolding of the inner life . . ."
What does Dewey mean by the phrase "the inner life"? The fact that he does not pause to say indicates to me that he is taking it for granted that his audience already has a fairly good idea of what the phrase means. Popularly understood, our inner life refers to everything of a psychic nature that we think of as going on inside us. This would include our thoughts, feelings, fantasies, beliefs, aspirations, and so forth. Dewey himself does not hold to the view of there being a sharp and impenetrable distinction between the inside and the outside of our psychic lives, but he clearly understands the usefulness of drawing that distinction when the occasion demands, as he obviously determines it does here.
Note also that Dewey refers to "the inner life," rather than the inner self or our inner thoughts or feelings. He does so, I believe, because the word life is far more inclusive than the other terms. It refers to the mess and confusion of everything within, not partitions neatly bundled into categories called attitudes or opinions or factual knowledge, or whatever.
Dewey speaks of the "inner life" as "unfolding." It has a history. It changes over time. It develops. It is capable of becoming richer and more complex. It also, of course, can regress and have setbacks. But I do not believe those negative developments were part of what Dewey had in mind when he spoke of our inner life unfolding. I believe he was chiefly thinking of the gradual achievement of greater clarity of purpose and increased richness of meaning as plans are worked on and goals move into view.
To unfold is also to disclose or bring to light what heretofore had been covered over or hidden. It is to come upon the truth of our hopes and intentions. The experience, in short, is revelatory in its undergoing.
The circumstances with which it is intimately conjoined immediately follow.
"and the ordered development of material conditions . . ."
"Material conditions" refer of course to the physical materials that all of the arts require. Without such material there can be no art of any kind. Those materials must be manipulated, which is to say "ordered," in some way. The ordering need not be neat and orderly, needless to say, but it does share one important quality with the unfolding of the inner life: both proceed incrementally. What is ordered develops. It occurs by stages or phases that may or may not retain their identity when the work is finished. It also is usually marked by a cyclic arrangement of stops and starts, about which Dewey has a lot to say in a number of places. He sometime uses the terms doing and undergoing to refer to the two phases of that cycle. The activity as a whole is one of doing something with the materials and then stepping back to reflect on the consequences of what one has done. That back-and-forth cycle of action and reflection continues until the project is finished or until it is abandoned before hand for one reason or another.
Once again we must bear in mind that, for Dewey, the see-sawing back and forth between the poles of doing and undergoing is far from mechanical and clock like. Moreover, since the person while doing is usually observing as well and since the person while undergoing (or contemplatively reflecting) is often imaginatively rehearsing what remains to be done, there is little that remains of the activity that could be called pure doing or pure undergoing. Like the distinction between inside and outside, both are analytic categories and nothing more, useful for certain purposes of aiding thought, but not to be treated as firmly dichotomous.
Dewey’s "material conditions" refer primarily to whatever materials of a physical nature go into the making of a work of art. This would include such things as paper, ink, canvas, paint, metal, wood, bodily movements of dancers, the words of actors and so forth. It also would include, secondarily, the tools required to work those materials--brushes, canvas stretchers, typewriters, musical instruments, theater stages, and so forth. Dewey includes language in such a list of materials, we must not forget. In fact, he calls language "the tool of tools."
Dewey’s account of how those primary materials change in the process of being worked on is crucial to an understanding of the transformative potency of art. What happens is that the so-called raw materials of art, which already may be many steps removed from their state in nature, begin to take on new meaning as the artist works on them. They absorb meaning, one might say, almost the way a painter’s canvas absorbs paint. Meaning penetrates the very fibers of the raw material. The work as a whole thus becomes a vehicle of meaning. The newly formed object becomes literally meaning-full. It embodies meaning within itself.
Dewey uses the term medium to refer to what happens as the move toward greater meaningfulness takes place. What had been dumb matter gradually becomes a medium. It takes on meaning.
This change from material to medium is never final, needless to say. New meanings can always be added to those that were present at the work’s completion. Old meanings can also be lost. Nor is the change from material to medium irreversible. The "ordered" character of the work may be overlooked or ignored, causing the work to be treated as mere material once again. Prosaic examples of that reversal occurring would include the familiar habit of using a book as a paper weight or holding a newspaper aloft as a makeshift umbrella.
When writing about the different forms that meaning can take, Dewey often distinguishes between meanings that are principally instrumental and those that are principally expressive. Instrumental meanings are chiefly extrinsic in reference. They refer to the uses to which an object may be put. Expressive meanings are chiefly intrinsic in reference. They bring attention to the object itself. They call upon the viewer or the listener to perceive the object in its own right. In these terms a street sign would be chiefly instrumental; a painting by Picasso, let’s say, would be chiefly expressive. Like almost all of the distinctions that Dewey makes, the one between instrumental and expressive meaning is by no means hard and fast. He readily acknowledges that both forms of meaning may be present at once (hence my putting the words principally and chiefly before each term). Indeed, he comes close to insisting that they both must always be present even though one or the other may be so dominant in a particular situation that the less dominant form of meaning is temporarily pushed aside or overlooked. While enjoying a work of art expressively, for example, we seldom give thought to what it may be doing to us instrumentally, the kind of person it is making us become.
Expressive objects seldom if ever come with written instructions or diagrams about how to use them, the way a tool might, let’s say, especially one that is fairly complicated and has to be handled with care. The rules to follow in learning to ferret out the meaning of expressive objects are far less specific than are those that govern our use of tools. Yet we learn to follow them all the same, some of us more readily than others, needless to say. We do so principally through repeated exposure to the way other people interpret such objects. We learn to read them, as it were, partially through imitation, just as we learn to read the written word. With time and guided practice we become increasingly proficient in figuratively seeing what they mean.
Expressive meaning can always be ignored, of course. As can instrumental meaning. However, the relative ease with which we in the Western world tend to overlook one or the other seems far from balanced. As a way of looking at things in general instrumentality wins out over expressiveness hands down.
According to both internal and external critics from de Tocqueville forward, we Americans seem especially inclined to adopt an instrumental view over an expressive one.
We do so, however, at our peril, Dewey warns. If there is a single message that reverberates throughout his writings on aesthetics it is that through a tendency to neglect the expressive dimensions of meaning, we live impoverished lives both individually and collectively. A major function of the arts is to remedy that state of affairs, not simply by providing us with isolated moments of aesthetic pleasure but, more importantly, by helping us to see how we might modify the remainder of our lives, living them more artfully.
One likely reason for our neglect of expressive meaning is that it is harder to fathom than is the form of instrumental meaning that tells us what to do. Expressive meaning tends to be opaque. It lies beneath the surface. It awaits being ‘read’ by someone skilled in such reading. Once revealed, however, it elicits appreciation. It is emotionally engaging.
Although Dewey looks upon the meaning conveyed by works of art as principally expressive, art is by no means alone in having expressive properties. Expressive meaning abounds, Dewey tells us, not only in the arts but throughout human experience. An intriguing question is whether expressive meaning, in Dewey’s sense of the term, is always there to be perceived, at least potentially. Might the most common object or event, as well as the most celebrated artwork, be looked upon expressively if one worked at doing so? Several of the English Romantics of the nineteenth century answered "yes" to that question. They sought to prove the truth of that answer through their art by purposely focusing on ordinary objects and commonplace events. They sought to help others see the beauty of the ordinary. Dewey, I believe, was a Romantic in that sense. I think he would have argued that there can be no fully perceived object completely free of either expressive or instrumental meaning. Both, he would say, are always present as potentialities, even though one may be focused upon to the near exclusion of the other.
Let’s assume that to be so. Where does it take us? Since it is already apparent, at least to Dewey and his followers, that most people do not look upon the world expressively much of the time, to assume that they could always or almost always do so if they tried or were properly instructed raises the double question of whether such aid should be made available to all and how it should be delivered. The teaching of art appreciation and studio art in today’s schools (in those schools fortunate enough to still enjoy such instruction, I must sadly interject) constitutes a partial answer to that double question. The fact that instruction in the arts is usually elective rather than required keeps the pot of controversy at a boil. But the deeper question is whether the way in which today’s aesthetic connoisseurs have come to look upon and appreciate works of art can be extended to the way we look at objects having nothing to do with the arts at all, at least not in any formal way. Dewey’s answer to this question is tacitly contained in the last three words of his definition, to which we now return.
"--that is art."
There are several ways of reading those three words, needless to say. To some they may sound abrupt and dogmatic, almost as though Dewey were closing the door to further discussion of the subject, as though he were saying, "That is art. Period. Take it or leave it. Case closed. Now let’s move on to something else."
As I interpret his words, however, Dewey’s "--that is art" actually opens doors rather than closes them. I read the portion of his statement that leads up to his final declaration as an invitation to extend our traditional conception of what constitutes art. The declaration itself strikes me as something one might say to someone whose conception of art was far narrower than Dewey’s own. It is as though he was urging an extension of that narrower conception, as though he was saying to such a person, "What I have just described, that is art, my friend, wherever one might find it and whether you presently think it to be or not. In the light of my definition, art is to be found in provinces far removed from those in which we commonly go looking for it."
To be engrossed with what one is doing, to feel deeply about its meaningfulness, to undergo, even if only for a time, the near erasure of the traditional distinction between inner and outer, subjective and objective, to feel as one with the object taking form under one’s own agency--that, Dewey tells us, is what it means to be artfully engaged in doing something.
It is easy enough to find fault with Dewey’s one-sentence definition of art, especially if we treat it as a formal definition of the kind one finds in a dictionary. Even to label it a definition may be a mistake, for doing so certainly makes it sound like something one would look up in a dictionary.
A different kind of complaint might be that Dewey’s statement is too inclusive to be of value. It allows too many camels’ noses under the tent and in so doing threatens to allow into Art’s fold some very strange creatures indeed. "Might not Dewey’s definition apply as well to a fanatical bomb-maker, let’s say, as to a dedicated artist?," a skeptic might ask, "Recall, after all, the artful, if lethal, constructions of yesterday’s Unibomber!"
I think Dewey would have to agree that in gross terms his quasi-definition (let’s call it that from now on) could well apply to such an outlandish and destructive activity. Bomb-makers can certainly be artful in the pursuit of their task, there is no doubt about that. They can also be deeply convinced of the rightness of their actions (hence "feel" the meaning of what they are doing and "rejoice in that meaning"). But I picture Dewey as hastening to point out that the bomb-maker’s art is evil in both intent and outcome. In such aspects it is like the science of the mad scientist portrayed in fiction. Art and/or science that seeks to harm others does go on, needless to say. Under certain circumstances both may even be deemed necessary (think of weapons research and wartime propaganda designed to mislead). But neither activity would fit within Dewey’s positive conception of either art or science. Both lack the redeeming virtue of being undertaken chiefly if not exclusively for the benefit of others. It is important, then, that we understand and accept the moral one-sidedness of Dewey’s definition. He does not deny the reality of either artistic or scientific perversity. He does, however, take a firm stand with respect to a vision of human flourishing.
What of the critic who says, "Well, that may be your definition of art, Mr. Dewey, but it’s not mine. Moreover, calling it yours does not make it true. It’s but one man’s opinion." How would Dewey reply to such a challenge?
I imagine him readily agreeing that his own conception of art stands open to criticism and modification. It is clearly "one man’s opinion" in the sense of Dewey standing behind it and being willing to defend it. Yet that does not make it only one man’s opinion. It is the "but" that needs correction. Whether it is "but" one man’s opinion depends whether others share it. If no one does, then the critic is right. But Dewey’s whole point in offering his definition is to invite others to agree. His characteristic reliance on common sense increases the likelihood of that happening.
The chief thing to say about these two complaints concerning the inadequacies of Dewey’s definition is that they miss the point of what he was trying to do. They see him either as trying to advance an all-purpose definition of art or as trying to put forward in idiosyncratic vision. In my view he was doing neither.
What was he trying to do? There are so many answers to that question that it’s hard to know where to begin and too late in this essay to present any of them fully. He was obviously trying to communicate with his audience. He also was trying to say something interesting and informative that would be uniquely suited to them. He was not addressing a professional congress of aestheticians nor one of analytic philosophers (the latter had not yet come into being). Nor was he trying to frame anything like a formal definition of art. He was talking to a group of school teachers and to two particular kinds of teachers at that-- those who taught art and those who taught the industrial arts. The question we better might ask is: How did his words fit the occasion? To answer it, we turn to an examination of the context of Dewey’s remark.
As he announced at the start, Dewey’s chief concern in this particular address was the avowed relationship between culture (as pursued artistically), on the one hand, and industry (driven by the interests of business), on the other. Yet the abstractions he draws upon in exploring that relationship turn out to be universal or close to it (as has already been remarked upon). They bear upon many other topics beyond those of immediate interest to his audience. His one-sentence quasi-definition of art, for example, could as easily appear in an essay treating the relationship between art and ordinary experience, which is the connection that interested me when I first came upon the sentence while browsing in a book on the history of art education. Under that more universal rubric the message would be that any conduct that conforms to the quasi-definition that Dewey employs ought to be looked upon as art, whether or not we presently see it in that light.
The idea of extending the concept of art to include activities not normally thought of in those terms leads naturally to the question of how to apply such a notion, which is precisely where Dewey sought to wind up with his audience of teachers, I am sure.
What would happen, we might ask, if we applied Dewey’s definition as broadly as possible--if we started looking for degrees of artfulness in all of our doings, not only in our schools and our personal lives but throughout the entire fabric of our society? Would the effect be liberating and potentially beneficial to humanity at large? I vouchsafe it would.
To me Dewey’s quasi-definition constitutes a step in the direction of demystifying art with a capital A, while at the same time democratizing it. It reveals the concept of art as being central to a model of human flourishing. To be artful, it says is to be fully human, no more and no less. It is to erase the distinction between thinking and feeling. It is to restore unity to the separation of subject and object. It is to live holistically, at least for a time. It is, in short, a way of life awaiting adoption by us all.
That message strikes me as being just as timely today (even more sorely needed perhaps) as when it was first delivered to its audience of teachers, who themselves were drawn from almost opposing pedagogical traditions--one of them dedicated to the teaching of art with a capital A, the other to the teaching of what was then called manual training, a portion of the curriculum that was often disparaged by those defending art with a capital
A. Dewey’s 37-word sentence neatly bridges that pedagogical divide with its tacit suggestion that not only can both kinds of teaching be done artfully but so can both kinds of learning. I can almost hear the applause that must have erupted a minute or so after those words were spoken. He ended, incidentally, in a truly Deweyan manner, returning from the heights of abstraction to the situation at hand, thus enacting the advice that he routinely gives to others. Oddly enough, his final two sentences also preternaturally pre-echoed the memorable close of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961, which neither Dewey nor many members of his 1906 audience in all likelihood would live to hear. His closing words were:
"So I end as I began. Let us cease asking ourselves what the school can do for industry, and let us begin asking ourselves what industry, conceived in the spirit of art, may do for the school"
Those two sentences also contain thirty-seven words, coincidentally, though they do not match in concision the ones I have tried to expand upon in this essay. Still, I would call the above a pretty fine ending for a convention speech, even an artful one. Dewey might not have been rejoicing as he turned from the podium but he at least had a right to feel pleased.
1 Dewey, John, Essays on the New Empiricism 1903-1906,The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 3, edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977. p. 292.