His criticism of existing theories is that they "spiritualize" art and sever its connection with everyday experience. Glorifying art and setting it on a pedestal separates it from community life. Such theories actually do harm by preventing people from realizing the artistic value of their daily activities and the popular arts (movies, jazz, newspaper accounts of sensational exploits) that they most enjoy, and drives away the aesthetic perceptions which are a necessary ingredient of happiness.
Art has aesthetic standing only as it becomes an experience for human beings. Art intensifies the sense of immediate living, and accentuates what is valuable in enjoyment. Art begins with happy absorption in activity. Anyone who does his work with care, such as artists, scientists, mechanics, craftsmen, etc., are artistically engaged. The aesthetic experience involves the passing from disturbance to harmony and is one of man's most intense and satisfying experiences.
Art cannot be relegated to museums. There are historic reasons for the compartmentalization of art into museums and galleries. Capitalism, nationalism and imperialism have all played a major role.
Having an Experience
John Dewey distinguishes between experience in general and "an" experience. Experience occurs continually, as we are always involved in the process of living, but it is often interrupted and inchoate, with conflict and resistance. Much of the time we are not concerned with the connection of events but instead there is a loose succession, and this is non-aesthetic. Experience, however, is not an experience.
An experience occurs when a work is finished in a satisfactory way, a problem solved, a game is played through, a conversation is rounded out, and fulfillment and consummation conclude the experience. In an experience, every successive part flows freely. An experience has a unity and episodes fuse into a unity, as in a work of art. The experience may have been something of great or just slight importance.
Such an experience has its own individualizing quality. An experience is individual and singular; each has its own beginning and end, its own plot, and its own singular quality that pervades the entire experience. The final import is intellectual, but the occurrence is emotional as well. Aesthetic experience cannot be sharply marked off from other experiences, but in an aesthetic experience, structure may be immediately felt and recognized, there is completeness and unity and necessarily emotion. Emotion is the moving and cementing force.
There is no one word to combine "artistic" and "aesthetic," unfortunately, but "artistic" refers to the production, the doing and making, and "aesthetic" to appreciating, perceiving, and enjoying. For a work to be art, it must also be aesthetic. The work of the artist is to build an experience that will be experienced aesthetically.
The Act of Expression
Artistic expression is not "spontaneous." The mere spewing forth of emotion is not artistic expression. Art requires long periods of activity and reflection, and comes only to those absorbed in observing experience. An artist's work requires reflection on past experience and a sifting of emotions and meanings from that prior experience. For an activity to be converted into an artistic expression, there must be excitement, turmoil and an urge from within to go outward. Art is expressive when there is complete absorption in the subject and a unison of present and past experience is achieved.
There are values and meanings best expressed by certain visible or audible material. Our appetites know themselves better when artistically transfigured. Artistic expression clarifies turbulent emotions. The process is essentially the same in scientists and philosophers as well as those conventionally defined as artists. Aesthetic quality will adhere to all modes of production in a well-ordered society.
The Expressive Object
The fifth chapter Dewey turns to the expressive object. He believes that the object should not be seen in isolation from the process that produced it, nor from the individuality of vision from which it came. Theories which simply focus on the expressive object dwell on how the object represents other objects and ignore the individual contribution of the artist. Conversely, theories that simply focus on the act of expressing tend to see expression merely in terms of personal discharge.
Works of art use materials that come from a public world, and they awaken new perceptions of the meanings of that world, connecting the universal and the individual organically. The work of art is representative, not in the sense of literal reproduction, which would exclude the personal, but in that it tells people about the nature of their experience.
Dewey observes that some who have denied art meaning have done so on the assumption that art does not have connection with outside content. He agrees that art has a unique quality, but argues that this is based on its concentrating meaning found in the world. For Dewey, the actual Tintern Abbey expresses itself in Wordsworth's poem about it and a city expresses itself in its celebrations. In this, he is quite different from those theorists who believe that art expresses the inner emotions of the artist. The difference between art and science is that art expresses meanings, whereas science states them. A statement gives us directions for obtaining an experience, but does not supply us with experience. That water is H
2O tells us how to obtain or test for water. If science expressed the inner nature of things it would be in competition with art, but it does not. Aesthetic art, by contrast to science, constitutes an experience.