Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 30, 1999
Philip W. Jackson John Dewey and the Lessons of Art New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 222 pp. Cloth $48.00 (9780300072136)

Pragmatism maintained that a proposition must be tested, rendered active, before it can be deemed valid. The criteria of judgment that William James set out is simply “what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world formula or that world formula be true.” It is therefore appropriate that the first American school of theory should be used to test the operations of contemporary American art. William James’s criteria is extended by the philosopher John Dewey, who asks that a proposition not only be tested to make a difference, but that the experience therein should “clarify” a proposition and be actualized in a “program of behavior for modifying the existing world.”

John Dewey’s writings were centered on analyzing the nature of experience and growth as a cycle of individual change. His thinking on the subject was applied in situations that would realize the aim of fostering individual growth as the wellspring of cultural development. Therefore, the pragmatist quest should be examined in relation to art. Philip Jackson’s book, John Dewey and the Lessons of Art, is both a careful examination of Dewey’s principals of experience as well as an examination of the relationship between works of art and individual change. Jackson does a good job of summarizing Dewey’s theory of experience by focusing on the experience of art itself. Although the book is grounded in Dewey’s writing, especially Art as Experience, Jackson devotes much of the text to the primary “art centered experience.” Naturally the properties of an aesthetic experience are complex, but they characteristically unfold as an experience of expression, resonating with values as time passes. The definition of an aesthetic experience and its value is elastic; Dewey wanted to preserve the potential outcome of an experience and he had the wisdom to know that the range of art centered experiences would be vast.

The book explicates Dewey’s thinking on the subject of experience, its coherence to contemporary art, and the application of these lessons to teachers. At first glance, art professionals (artists, historians, and critical theorists) will be divided over some of the criteria Jackson lays out. For example, the unity of an aesthetic encounter, which involves balance of form and content, is part of both the making and experiencing of art. This criteria of judgment will certainly aggravate the way we think about works that are intentionally disjunctive, but Jackson reconciles the argument by discussing how particular artists like John Cage and Michael Heizer operate within Dewey’s theory.

This book’s target reader (art educators) will benefit by recognizing how Dewey’s theory of experience relates to primary experiences with works of art. It illustrates how to use “art centered experiences” as mechanisms for learning. Dewey is certainly familiar enough to anyone in the field, but the concept of looking at art as an opportunity for re-examining the content of both ordinary and extraordinary things alike may not be. The primary goal of art is well summarized in the following passage by Dewey; it informs much of Jackson’s book, and is at the root of Dewey’s theory: “Art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things, it quickens us from the slackness of routine and enables us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world about us in its varied qualities and forms. It intercepts every shade of expressiveness found in objects and orders them to a new experience of life.” (Art and Experience)

On the other hand Jackson’s secondary audience (artists and critical professionals) may benefit from his laying out Dewey’s theories altogether. Jackson is at his best when he is explicating Dewey’s theory in relation to the experience of specific contemporary artists. Several key works and writers are enlisted in support of Jackson’s project. Among them is Cage’s 4’ 33" (four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence), which directed our attention to the nature of sound and the experience of silence. Additionally, Michael Heizer’s monumental earthwork Double Negative, two cuts in the Nevada desert that measure 50′ × 30′ × 1,500’ makes us attentive to the primordial movements of the earth through time. What draws these works together is their capacity to make the invisible visible through the viewer’s experience. Jackson uses first-hand accounts from other viewers, and what is most interesting is how they are changed by the art they see and how their change changes us as well.

The heart of John Dewey and the Lessons of Art is in the first two chapters which explore the bearing of Dewey’s theory of art. They are concerned with both making and experiencing the arts. Jackson’s book is by no means limited to the visual arts—his range extends deep into poetry, fiction and music. What is at stake is the application of Dewey’s theory of experience to a range of art forms, specifically accounting for individual aesthetic propensities and levels of readiness. The book is centered upon the experience of art and its potential rather than a critical or historical theory of art. Therefore phenomena must resonate with either the maker or the viewer, preferably both, at some potential junction, to make them worthwhile.

The subsequent chapter “Experience as Artifice: Putting Dewey’s Theory to Work” brings the pragmatist axiom “what definite difference it will make to you and me” with the experience of art upon our lives. Here the book brings some new material into the playing field, surprisingly in the form of several self-help teachers and popular authors. More startling yet, we find out that Dewey was both a teacher of physical culture and a student of F. Mattheis Alexander, founder of the Alexander technique. The lesson is simultaneously clichéd and profound. Viewing art requires a lot of time, discipline, and total absorption. The authors discussed in this chapter all teach us something about the power of a focused mind, and its ability to understand works of art more fully. This is a startling departure for the author, one which he acknowledges and makes useful by bringing his reader to a fuller understanding of how the viewer can encounter work.

In the final chapter, the book is concerned with the educational application of Dewey’s theory. Jackson is critical of Dewey’s teaching style. There is substantial testimony given—often first-hand accounts of tedious lectures and apparent disregard for his students. Jackson tries to turn the tedium of Dewey’s lectures into a metaphorical device for the experience of art. The lesson is: if you pay attention to Dewey’s process, the unfolding of his own thought, he is exposing and modeling the operations of his mind. This was something of a stretch for his students and will not be a very helpful lesson to most educators.

Jackson didn’t extend Dewey’s theory into praxis in a way that demonstrates how using art, contemporary or otherwise, connects subject matter with developing intelligence; perhaps that’s another book. Nevertheless progressive museum professionals have taken Dewey into account as they develop interdisciplinary educational programs that are centered upon the viewer’s discovery of art. Most notable among these are open-ended questions that unfold the meaning of art from the viewer’s own encounter. The following passage by Eleanor Duckworth, whose writings have been instrumental for extending the mission of experience based education, may help make sense of the potential value of art. “Intelligence can not develop without matter to think about. Making new connections depends on knowing enough about something in the first place to provide a basis for thinking of other things to do or other questions to ask that demand more complex connections in order to make sense.” Not only is the matter and experience of phenomena essential to the development of intelligence, but as Duckworth points out, the right question at the right time will demand a more complex experience of art and subsequent connection to the world.

I believe, as does Jackson, that John Dewey would have been pleased to see and hear about some things that are happening in contemporary culture. Museums are flush with visitors, art programs are expanding, and art itself is being created in an atmosphere of growth and change. Moreover, art educators are using “art-centered experiences” to make a difference in many different people’s lives. John Dewey and the Lessons of Art is a worthwhile read for its thorough and provocative discussion of the experience of art, through the lens of a most essential thinker and activist.

Jean-Paul Maitinsky
Hudson River Museum