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THE RELATION OF ART AND MORALITY

IN JOHN DEWEY'S "ART & CIVILIZATION"

 By

David Buchanan

dmbuchanan@hotmail.com

 May 2008

 

    In his book Art as Experience (1934), John Dewey makes a particularly striking claim about the relationship between art and morality. In the final chapter, titled “Art and Civilization”, he says, “Art is more moral than moralities” (The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern, edited by Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1995, page 524). The aim of this essay is simply to unpack and otherwise make sense of that pithy statement. Because Dewey’s claim might strike a person as being too idiosyncratic or even uniquely weird, it will be examined by way of a comparison with the views of Martin Heidegger and Robert Pirsig. Since they essentially agree with Dewey’s claim, we can illuminate it from three different angles, so to speak. There are differences of course, but we’ll focus on their similarities. 

     In “Art and Civilization” Dewey says, “The moral office and human function of art can be intelligently discussed only in the context of a culture” (PA, page 522). In fact, that’s the very first thing he said. As the title suggests, Dewey’s concern with art is intimately tied in with his concern for the health of our civilization. He’s concerned with the relatively marginalized position of art in our culture, where it’s too often considered a frill or a luxury. He’s concerned with the way museums tend to present art objects in a de-contextualized manner, behind velvet ropes, under glass and removed from their original settings. As long as art remains isolated in the “beauty parlor” of civilization, to use Dewey’s image, he thinks that art and civilization are both in trouble. Like Heidegger and Pirsig, he thinks art should play a larger and more central role in our lives and culture. To extend the metaphor, we might say they all believe that art belongs on every wall in every room, or even that the house is made of art. As Dewey says, or rather as he quotes a Mr. Garrod approvingly, “’Poetical values are, after all, values in a human life. You cannot mark them off from other values, as though the nature of man were built in bulkheads’” (PA, page 524).  

     Similarly, this claim is that it is being made from within a radically broadened conception of both art and morality. In fact, we aren’t necessarily talking about the class of objects we usually associate with the fine arts. For Dewey, as well as Heidegger and Pirsig, the “poet” is one who produces an imaginative vision in any medium so that figures such as Copernicus and Einstein, Lincoln and Gandhi, Buddha and Christ can be counted among the poets. As the editors tell us in their introduction to this short except, “Dewey concludes that only art is capable of allowing us to conceive of a better future” (PA, page 522). The imaginative conception of a better future doesn’t necessarily involve actual poems, oil paints or bronze.  

    Likewise, the moralities that Dewey contrasts with art are not limited to the taboos and behavioral codes we usually associate with morals. Instead, this is morality broadly construed. This is not limited to whatever might be currently considered right and wrong in terms of church morals or civilized behavior, but also extends to whatever is taken to be correct, true, good or otherwise right in general. In this sense, morality includes the way we see the world, the entire inherited system of values with which we interpretations of the world. As Dewey himself puts it, morals should be “understood to be identical with every aspect of value that is shared in experience” (PA, page 525). Dewey’s claim not only survives these expanded notions of art and morality. It depends upon them. As we’ll see, Dewey thinks that art’s role is to subvert and refresh these moralities and he believe that role is a moral one. 

     In their introduction the editors explain that morals, “according to Dewey, are by their essence conservative” (PA, page 522). By contrast, Dewey thinks art is inherently “subversive” and is, “in an important sense opposed to morals” (PA, page 522). This opposition sets up a basic dualism, we'll find in Heidegger and Pirsig as well. It is a clear contest between the status quo and those who would subvert it. This is not to say that Dewey is fan of evil or that he advocates immorality. He’s not knocking the status quo per se but the distinction is useful so we can understand his claim to mean that art is more moral than the status quo. Art offers a critique of what is deemed normal. As Dewey puts it, “The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art” (PA, page 523). The apparent contradiction between dissolves when it is understood that, for Dewey, art is an imaginative vision that subverts the status quo precisely by being a fresh vision of something better. As Dewey says, “It is by a sense of possibilities opening before us that we become aware of constrictions that hem us in and of burdens that oppress” (PA 523). We’ll soon return to the basic dualism between the status quo and a better future, between the actual and the possible, but first we need to back up a bit. We need to take a look at Dewey’s rejection of certain metaphysical assumptions. Why does that matter when the topic here is the relation of art and morality? 

     Dewey, Heidegger and Pirsig all reject subject-object metaphysics and this led them all to reject traditional aesthetic theories as well. As Daniel A. Palmer explains it, “Heidegger explicitly rejects the aesthetic approach to art. The aesthetic view of art is firmly entrenched within the subject-object dichotomy that is characteristic of Western metaphysics and prejudices the enquiry into art…” (“Heidegger and the Ontological Significance of the Work of Art”, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 38, No 4, October 1998, page 402). David A. Granger’s paper compares Dewey to Pirsig and he says they,  “both defy traditional transcendent, foundationalist and subject-object metaphysics” (“John Dewey and Robert Pirsig: An Invitation to ‘Fresh Seeing’”, presented to the American Educational Research Association, April 1995, page 1). Likewise, Nikolas Kompridis compares Dewey to Heidegger and he says they both take up new terms as an alternative to the subject-object dualism. “Heidegger’s analysis of ‘being-in-the-world’, Habermas’s of the ‘lifeworld’, and Dewey’s of the ‘situation’ are analogous attempts to show that we are always already situated in a pre-reflective, holistically structured, and grammatically regulated world” (“On World Disclosure: Heidegger, Habermas and Dewey”, Thesis Eleven, no 37, 1994, page 31). All three of these secondary sources highlight the rejection of subject-object metaphysics as essential for the re-conception of art and morality being sketched out here. The shape of the alternative has already come into view here. Dewey, Pirsig and Heidegger all share the notion that we are “always already situated” in the world. This is supposed to replace the rejected metaphysical picture, which tells us that knowledge or truth occurs when our subjective beliefs properly correspond to an independent, objective reality. Why is that old metaphysical picture a problem for the philosophy of art or its aesthetic theories? 

     When this dichotomy is assumed, when aesthetics is “entrenched” in subject-object metaphysics, the theories become something like a complicated version of the problem of knowledge. How can the subjective mind gain knowledge of objective reality? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder or are some things inherently beautiful? In Kant’s wake, for example, aesthetic theories tended to emphasize the formal properties of the art object, which were to be assessed in a disinterested, almost scientific, way. Pure art or “art for art’s sake” was perhaps born here. Or, conversely, the aesthetic experience of the subject was emphasized. There is something like a correspondence theory of truth at work when we ask which interpretation is the correct interpretation. Some kind of causal relationship between subject and object has been assume and is at work when ask what it takes to have an aesthetic experience or when we try to define good art as the kind that causes such experience. Objective properties and causal relations make a certain amount of sense in the realm of physics. The success of the sciences must be the number one reason why these rejected metaphysical assumptions usually seem so true, but when this method of inquiry is extended to the fine arts it seems that good answers are pretty hard to come by. Thus, Heidegger’s claim that the field is “entrenched” in subject-object assumptions seems to have some validity and I’m sympathetic with all three dissenters. This dualism was given its modern shape by Descartes and it was hardened by Kant and the success of modern science but the trouble goes back to the beginning, all the way back to Plato. 

     It began, at least in terms of my own recent survey of the various aesthetic theories, when Plato condemned Ion the rhapsode for his inability to explain his craft. Plato’s demand for intelligibility in art, a move Nietzsche would later call “aesthetic Socratism”, even led him to condemn the poet for knowing less than the characters he portrayed. He also attacks art as an illusion two-steps removed from what’s really real, as a copy of a copy of the real form. Plato’s moral objections are the most relevant here. As we see in The Republic, Plato would ban most art from his city because of its morally corrosive effects. The impulse to exclude unwholesome art can be extended beyond Plato’s artless utopia, of course. We recognize all too well in our own time. As Alexander Nehamas tells us, Plato’s moral attack on art is still very much alive. Traditionally, the problem is treated as if there were some kind of causal relation between the work of art and a particular individual. The artwork holds up an already existing moral truth for the subject’s edification and instruction. Dewey thinks otherwise. He says, “The relation of art and morals is too often treated as if the problem existed only on the side of art. It is virtually assumed that morals are satisfactory in idea if not in fact, and that the only question is whether and in what ways art should conform to a moral system already developed” (PA, page 524).  

     This age-old demand that art should conform to already existing morals is very much at odds with Dewey’s re-conception of the relations between morality and art as the tension between the status quo and subversion. For Dewey, art’s task is to offer alternatives, not to uphold the existing truths and standards. He agrees that art presents us with moral ideals in some sense, but the traditional conception of this fails. He says, “It fails to see or at all events to state how poetry is a criticism of life; namely, not directly, but by disclosure, through imaginative vision addressed to imaginative experience (not to set judgment) of possibilities that contrast with actual conditions” (PA 523). For Dewey, imagination is what gave rise to moral systems in the first place. On a very basic level, civilized behavior depends on the capacity to put our selves in the other guy’s shoes and the existing moral codes should be understood as one in a series, as one possibility among others. At the risk of stretching the point, it seems the rejection of subject-object relations in favor of a contextualized, situated account is expressed when Dewey says, “The theories that attribute direct moral effect and intent to art fail because they do not take account of the collective civilization that is the context in which works of art are produced and enjoyed” and “their whole conception of morals is so individualistic that they miss a sense of the way in which art exercises its humane function” (PA, page 523). The alternative idea, the idea that we are “always already situated in a pre-reflective” world, can serve as well-timed antidote to that “individualistic” conception.  

     Dewey, Heidegger and Pirsig all reject the subject-object dualism and instead adopt terms that designate the whole context, the person and the world, the live creature and the environment, the individual and the cultural situation. As was already mentioned, Kompridis finds the notion that we are “situated” in Dewey and Heidegger. Dewey’s analysis of the “situation” is analogous to Heidegger “being-in-the-world”. (It seems that “Dasein”, which, as literally translated is “there-being”, also refers to the whole situation.) Granger finds the same notion in Dewey and Pirsig. More specifically, Granger locates it in their central terms. When he was a graduate student he read John Dewey’s “Art as Experience” and Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” at the same time and he noticed, “that what Dewey referred to as ‘experience’ had close affinities with what Pirsig’s narrator called ‘Quality’” (Granger, page 1). As Pirsig puts it, “Quality doesn’t have to be defined. You understand it without definition, ahead of definition. Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions” (LILA: An Inquiry into Morals. New York: Bantam Books, 1991, page 64). This might look like naïve realism but direct experience here simply refers to everyday familiarity with the world, what a Heideggerian would call “absorbed coping”. The phrase “prior to intellectual abstractions” refers to that “pre-reflective” aspect. It’s the reality we experience even before we have a chance to think about it. It’s the front edge of experience, to use Pirsig’s image. Granger lists five ways in which Pirsig’s “Quality” and Dewey’s “experience” resemble with each other: 

“First, both are viewed as some type of immediate, primary reality of the world encountered as something suffered and enjoyed. Second, both can be conceptualized in terms of ‘events’ or ‘histories’. Third, both function to impel or motivate change and adaptation by the living organism. Fourth, both serve as the crucible of meaning and value but are not ubiquitously a knowledge affair. And fifth, both defy traditional, transcendent, foundationalist and subject-object metaphysics, and are instead broken-down – for avowed instrumental purposes alone - in terms of stability and flux (Dewey’s favorite descriptors) or static and dynamic (Pirsig’s eventual replacement for classic and romantic; Pirsig, 1991)” (Granger, page 1-2).  

      In both cases experience is not conceived in terms of the subject’s encounter with an objective world. Instead experience is immediate, a “crucible of meaning and value” in an ongoing process of “change and adaptation”. I think it is also important to notice how Dewey and Pirsig both adopt a similar dualism here. Unlike the subject-object dichotomy, which puts reality on one side and mental representations on the other, stability and flux characterize the whole situation. This dualism lines up quite nicely with Dewey’s re-conception of the relations between art and morals, where morals represent stability or the status quo and art is the dynamic process of subversion. As Kompridis explains it, Heidegger’s version of this dualism is found his concept of art as world disclosure. World disclosure is, roughly speaking, a more grandiose version of the disclosure of imaginative vision as described by Dewey. Here the two sides of the process, where the subversive power of art is located precisely in its capacity to offer the vision of a better future, are described in terms of “decentering” and “unifying-repair”. This latter side, he says, “refers as much to the disclosure of new horizons of meaning as to the disclosure of previously hidden or unthematized dimensions of meaning” and he describes the decentration side as, “the scrambling and defamiliarizing of existing patterns of interpretation, action and belief” (Kompridis, page 29 and 30). 

     Interestingly, I think, Kompridis says, “the phenomenon of world disclosure has been taken up and energetically pursued in two directions. The direction taken depends on whether the decentering or unifying-repairing power of world disclosure is emphasized” (Kompridis, page 37). He names Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida as examples of thinkers who emphasize the subversive, decentering aspect and he says Charles Taylor, Hubert Dreyfus and Heidegger are among those who emphasize the unifying aspect. Both sides risk distortion, he says. The first group risks “an incoherent pluralism” and the second group risks a world “too tightly woven” (Kompridis, page 37). In other words, the first one is too dynamic and the second is too static. This is one of the areas where Heidegger parts ways with Dewey. Because of his romantic, idealized and “too tightly woven” conception of cultural change, Heidegger paid little heed to the constant smaller changes and instead treated the phenomenon of world disclosure as a few, rare “world-historical events” or “the next verse in Being’s poem” (Kompridis, page 44, endnote #13). Kompridis thinks Dewey strikes a good balance between these two tendencies because of the way he viewed any kind of experience as a continuous process of adjustment, of change and adaptation in an ongoing relationship. As Kompridis (page 42) explains it: 

“The crisis-inducing effects of disclosure, that is, its decentering effects, can be handled properly only through our constant activity of reconstructing shattered interpretations of the world in light of new ones. Dewey understood this reconstructive process as the continuous readjustment of the relationship between the ‘discrete’ and the ‘continuous’”

Here’s how Pirsig explains his own balancing act: 

“Static quality patterns are dead when they are exclusive, when they demand blind obedience and suppress Dynamic change. But static patterns, nevertheless, provide a necessary stabilizing force to protect Dynamic progress from degeneration. Although Dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of quality, the quality of order, preserve our world. Neither static nor Dynamic Quality can survive without the other” (Lila, page 121). 

     The problem is that the “poet’s” fresh vision or new way of seeing uniformly turns into hardened fact and becomes the established truth. When the needed stability turns to rigidity, when it becomes too oppressive, brittle, limiting or otherwise worn out, along comes another poet to shatter that truth. As Jefferson might put it, the tree of liberty must be refreshed now and then with the blood of tyrannical moral systems. As Pirsig puts it, “In the West progress seems to proceed by a series of spasms of alternating freedom and ritual. A revolution of freedom against old rituals produces a new order, which soon becomes another old ritual for the next generation to revolt against, on and on” (Lila, page 384). Pirsig uses a wide range of examples: the Bohemian revolt against Victorian morality, the hippie revolution against square America and a particular Zuni witchdoctor. He calls them all “contrarians”. “That’s what drives the really creative people – the artists, composers, revolutionaries and the like – the feeling that if they don’t break out of this jailhouse somebody has built around them, they’re going to die” (Lila, page 359). These are Dewey’s “immoral and sordid” shockers of conservative taste (PA, page 523). They’re the dynamic one’s, the sources of cultural renewal, if not world disclosure. In Dewey’s terms, these creative people are fighting “the consecrations of the status quo” (PA, page 524).  Cultural change or world disclosure is rarely the aim. The struggle is personal. But changes move out in waves from each center and once in a while big things happen as a result. Pirsig says history is biography. I think Dewey (PA, page 525) agrees on this final point too: 

“What is true of the individual is true of the whole system of morals in thought and action. While perception of the union of the possible with the actual in a work of art is itself a great good, the good does not terminate with the immediate and particular occasion in which it is had. The union that is presented in perception persists in the remaking of impulsion and thought. The first intimations of wide and large redirections of desire and purpose are of necessity imaginative. Art is a mode of prediction not found in charts and statistics, and it insinuates possibilities of human relations not to be found in rule and precept, admonition and administration.”

 

Please note that the copyright of this paper remains with the author who need to be contacted directly for permission to use this material elsewhere. 

dmbuchanan@hotmail.com

Davids Fun with Blasphemy” paper can also be found on this website here 

and his paper “Clash of the Pragmatists” here.