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This paper explores the epistemologically integral role of the arts in Jane Addams’s work building “cosmopolitan affection” and global citizenship at Hull-House.  I argue that the arts engagement practices of Addams and Ellen Gates Starr provides a rich case study for how ‘moral imagination’ can be collectively facilitated through the arts. Using relational arts praxis as an essential tool to help residents facilitate new knowledge, American citizenship and what Addams often calls an ‘international mind,’ they developed a feminist epistemology concerning the arts. Given this, I suggest both warrant immediate inclusion within pragmatist aesthetics: and like Locke and DuBois, their work on the arts warrants inclusion within pragmatist approaches to democracy. Further, their strategies of ‘learning-through-arts-engagement’ is an alternative to Martha Nussbaum’s version of individual ‘moral imagination’:  I suggest their collective approach to moral imagination collectively facilitated cosmopolitanism and was a unique epistemological approach to the arts.


Title            Cosmopolitan Ethics through Art: 

             Addams, Starr, and Hull-House Aesthetics




            A project examining the interdependency of ethics and aesthetics in the laboratory of the arts at Chicago’s Hull-House settlement is one that should, by all rights, be old news.  Given that work by Charlene Seigfried, Mary Jo Deegan, Elizabeth Minnich, Marilyn Fischer, Judy Whipps and others has highlighted both the pragmatist significance and the philosophical praxis Jane Addams generated at Hull-House, it seems easy to then ask:  what role did the arts play in this setting?  Feminist analyses, though, have largely left questions about Hull-House aesthetics unexplored-- possibly because traditional aesthetics has generally excluded consideration of political dimensions of art.  Pragmatists, though, have long recognized the intertwined nature of arts and ethical concerns, and of arts and epistemology, especially involving human creativity in community--  from Native American thought through the transcendentalists and early pragmatists, through Locke and DuBois, well into contemporary work on pragmatist aesthetics.  One might then expect to find attention to the Hull-House laboratory of the arts in works like Thomas Alexander’s John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature:  The Horizons of Feeling, or Richard Shusterman’s Pragmatist Aesthetics, or Practicing Philosophy or Performing Live, or in  the 1993 collection Philosophy and the Reconstruction of Culture edited by John Stuhr, or in Gunn’s 1992 Thinking Across the American Grain.  Yet this body of work has neglected to consider the Hull-House context as well.

     This paper aims to correct this blind spot, and to consider how the arts played an epistemologically integral role in one of Addams’s ethical projects at Hull-House.  It is the project involving what she calls in Newer Ideals of Peace “cosmopolitan affection” and “cosmopolitan relations,” or the ethical connections involved with being an engaged global citizen. I suggest that the practice and theory of Addams and Starr are a rich case study for how ‘moral imagination’ can be collectively facilitated through the arts, and further, that their arts practice has ramifications for epistemology. Using relational arts praxis as an essential tool to help residents facilitate new knowledge, American citizenship AND what Addams often calls an ‘international mind,’ they developed a feminist epistemology concerning the arts. Given this, I suggest both warrant immediate inclusion within pragmatist aesthetics: and like Locke and DuBois, their work on the arts warrants inclusion within pragmatist approaches to democracy. Further, their strategies of ‘learning-through-arts-engagement’ is an alternative to Martha Nussbaum’s version of individual ‘moral imagination’, and is a unique epistemological approach exemplifying how collective moral imagination is essential to a robust sort of cosmopolitanism.

      I begin with a question that had always puzzled me after multiple reads of Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull-House—namely, the significance of little Chapter 16, “Arts at Hull-House.”  Addams does many things in that book: autobiography, history, sociology, political theory, pragmatist philosophy, social ethics, gender studies.  What she is, in fact, doing in the “Arts at Hull-House” chapter and in her later essay “The Play Instinct and the Arts” is nothing less than what I will call art praxis.  Starr’s chapters “Art and Labor” and “Art and Democracy” in the 1895 Hull-House Maps and Papers are relevant here, as are other writings of hers on the role of art in public education assembled by Mary Jo Deegan and Ana-Maria Wahl in the 2003 collection On Art, Labor and Religion.

     No less art lovers than Emerson, Dewey or Danto, Starr and Addams had in Hull-House a laboratory they did not.  Instead, the closest parallel to their practices and theories arising from the Hull-House arts laboratory might be Locke and DuBois’ writings on the arts in the context of the Harlem Renaissance.[i]  This vantage point offered them a unique opportunity to consider the social and ethical dimensions of art-in-action, especially in three pragmatist areas of interest with arts: (a) connections between art and identity, or personhood; (b) connections between art and economic pressures and systems, or what we today refer to with terms ‘commodification’ and ‘class’; and (c)

connections between art and democracy at their particular point of immigration and industrialization.


A.  Pragmatist Aesthetics in Hull-House:

 “hungry for a chance to see and create beautiful things”


                                                …The first furnishings of Hull-House were therefore pictures.

                                                                                                                                -- Jane Addams, “Art Work”[ii]


     Dewey had not yet developed his mature views on aesthetics when Jane Addams and Ellen Starr opened the doors of Hull-House in 1889, and immediately put on the walls the hallowed art they’d bought on their European post-college tour.  But we have a clear sense of developing pragmatist aesthetics from Emerson’s 1841 essay “Art,” themes that can be traced into Dewey’s eventual writing on aesthetics.  They adopted Emerson’s focus of the human organism and its “creative impulse.” He frames artistic creation as a collective human enterprise from the outset—a process in which the artist must “employ the symbols in use in his day and nation, to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow men. Thus the new in art is always formed out of the old…No man can quite exclude this element of Necessity from his labor.”[iii]

      Starr and Addams extended two threads of aesthetics that were dear to Emerson: the macro- lens on human creativity as a process natural for the human organism, and a view of creative making as a transactional process between materials, inherited processes and forms, and the individual.  Their stated aim for Hull-House was so simple and straightforward:  “to secure for working people the opportunity to know the best art.”[iv]

      The original Hull-House art gallery grew to include an art studio, a bindery, a kiln, shop classes that we might today call vo-technical education, artisan training in crafts, a drawing room and a gymnasium as performance space for concerts and plays. The Hull-House music school was opened in 1893 and the Labor Museum in 1900.  At first glance, the initial *methods* by which Starr and Addams literally built Hull-House on the arts might look to us to smack of cultural imperialism and make them seem like well-intentioned but ultimately insensitive aesthetic missionaries of some sort.  Committed to social amelioration, these college-educated women began with a hypothesis:

                Influenced by John Ruskin and William Morris, the Hull-House group believed that one way to bring

                meaning and purpose into the drab lives of immigrant neighbors was to introduce them to things of

                beauty, especially great art.… There is something pathetic about little immigrant girls hanging copies

                of Fra Angelico angels on the dreary walls of their tenement rooms, and about Miss Addams’ conviction

                that the youngsters gained a heroic and historic impulse from viewing art reproductions.  Yet the early

                settlement residents, for all their esoteric art exhibits and art history classes, had captured a basic truth:

                the immigrants were hungry for a chance to see and create beautiful things. 

-          Jane Addams, “Art Work”[v]


     Like Emerson, Starr and Addams found the imaginative power of art praxis to be socially re-constructive: they share his sentiment that “When I have seen fine statues, and afterwards enter a public assembly, I understand well what he meant who said, ‘When I have been reading Homer, all men look like giants’.”  By viewing what had been placed before them as great works of art, Hull-House dwellers had the chance to draw on an imaginative power that Starr and Addams hoped might give them an enlarged sense of what humanity could accomplish.  It invited immigrant residents into the common family of humanity that had produced such beauty and intimated that, with serious effort and the training available down the hall, they themselves might contribute to that story.

     The invitation may seem laughable or ironic, given the daily experiences of the residents:  crippling poverty, high death rates, overcrowded slums, round-the-clock factory work, child labor, and serious xenophobia. Yet at precisely this moment in the U.S. where immigrants faced massive pressure to assimilate quickly and most were far away from whatever counted as home, the paintings on the walls posited and literally framed a community larger than the ‘America’ they were under such pressure to embrace culturally and to produce with their day labor.  On the walls and concerning beauty, Starr and Addams framed America as one country amongst others, and not necessarily all that advanced, either. In a real sense, Starr and Addams proceeded to build a rich multicultural backdrop of creativity far before the term existed. 

     This “hunger to see and create” also had an ethical dimension, one that connected creative and liberatory making with democracy and broader cosmopolitan awareness beyond that—again, Addams’s ongoing references to an ‘international mind.’  Starr and Addams were good pragmatists in that, like Emerson and later Dewey, they too worked for an ‘art of the everyday’ – they championed arts and crafts, encouraged residents to draw on their daily lives for material, and operated with a pluralist understanding of art and beauty not relegated just to ‘high art’ or refined tastes. They followed Emerson in holding that the arts had a strong ethical dimension, one that involved liberty and responsibility in the face of creative freedom:  that the artist “must not be in any manner pinched or hindered by his material, but through his necessity of imparting himself the adamant will be wax in his hands, and will allow an adequate communication of himself, in his full stature and proportion. He will not need cumber himself with a conventional nature and culture…”  Again, such lofty dreaming seems ill-suited to Chicago slum realities.  But Starr and Addams were determine to democratize such creative dreaming and refashioning/remaking, convinced it was a necessary route to whole personhood and that the educative powers of beauty were not solely the birthright of the upper classes.  In this way, they viewed the arts as a necessary route to full American citizenship.  

     To position immigrant factory workers as heir to the pastime of considering and creating beauty permitted them an agency—as person, citizen, lover-of-beauty, artist—that was typically nonexistent in their daily lives of factory work.  It invited them not into often mindless body labor for profit, but into what Emerson valued and called “the depth of the artist’s insight of that object he contemplates.” More interestingly, I think, is the dimension Addams and Starr engaged beyond American citizenship:  they could see firsthand how such cross-cultural arts-engagement practices werer central to the new immigrant-Americans becoming global citizens more broadly.  Even as they wove ‘American’ into their growing sense of identity, the diversity of different creative arts practices that they were gaining could  ground a cosmopolitan awareness that ‘American’ ways of making or producing were by no means the only ones.


B.    Arts Engagement in Pragmatism and Democracy


     To some degree, this approach to aesthetics *did* produce revolutionary results. Painter Barnett Newman’s famous quip that ‘aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds” had no place in Hull-House thought or practice, unlike the split between practice and theory that no doubt today still plagues many academic departments of English or Art.  A quote from the 1969 collection Eighty Years at Hull-House indicates the results for at least some residents:

            There is abundant testimony that the lectures and pictures have quite changed the tone of their minds: 

                for they have become, of course, perfectly familiar with the photographs of the best things, and have

                cared for them, not “as a means of culture,” but as an expression of the highest human thought

                and perception. One of these has bought from her scanty earnings a number of classic works of art

                which will... be to her the same vital connection with the minds “who have transfigured human life,”

                as a fine library is to the student who has time for constant reading… A few doors down the street a

                tiny bedroom has been changed from a place in which a fragile factory girl slept the sleep of the

                exhausted, into one where she “just loves to lie in bed and look at my pictures; it’s so like Art Class.” [vi]


Even as Starr and Addams drew on these pragmatist themes, the difference in their and Emerson’s vantage point becomes obvious.  Emerson’s artist is a lone ‘he,’ an individual creating through genius in isolation.  Such a vantage point would likely have made little sense to Starr, Addams, and the immigrants inhabiting overcrowded slums, crushing factory work, and a noticeable lack of privilege involving education or leisure time to hone or indulge such ‘genius.’  Another difference is that in Emerson’s little piece, there is much talk of nature, and of Emerson’s ideal Art expressing nature. Starr and Addams watched the pragmatist approach in action as residents shifted conceptions of beauty and connected it instead to *their* daily realities. Like the house itself, the arts at Hull-House took on a collective and co-operative methodology—but not just for the immediate group of residents.  The collective aspect stretched into facilitating cosmopolitanism through cross-cultural experiences of arts engagement practices.


C.    Learning through arts engagement:  ‘moral imagination’ and cosmopolitanism


     It is not ‘news’ that pragmatists found both creative self-expression and collective artistic expression central to a lively democracy.  I’m suggesting, however, that what Addams and Starr uniquely contributed to pragmatist aesthetics is their distinctively collective and communitarian emphasis on imaginative thinking. ‘Moral imagination’ enabled Hull-House residents to dream and imagine collectively, not just individualistically:  beyond connecting with one another, they connected with other cultures not just through the singular act of one reading the literature of an ‘other’ country and thereby gaining sympathy for them, but through group acts (some within similar ethnic groups, some within mixed groups) of both making and engaging art that seemed foreign in some way.    

     In an unpublished paper given at SAAP last year, Marilyn Fischer compared Martha Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism with that of Addams, and noted the way the role of the arts (or what Nussbaum calls ‘narrative imagination’) differed for each.  She makes the case that while Nussbaum recommends the “sympathetic understanding of all outcast or oppressed people” that can come from reading poets and novelists (in a way that Nussbaum herself suggested is “lonely and abstract,” Addams’s arts practices were more—as Fischer puts it—“crowdedly social and concrete.”[vii]   Since Addams and Starr encouraged residents to share with each other the artisan craft methods they had used in their native countries, experiencing art and beauty at Hull house expanded to a multifaceted and robust practice, with many ‘ways in’ to the progressive power of the arts. Art engagement also came through artisan craft: residents of diverse nationalities watched and compared with their neighbors the techniques to combine foods, weave clothing, craft furniture, make pottery, etc.  In doing this, the residents not only re-connected with creative agency via pastimes they had thought foreclosed from the American experience: many were reminded, sitting beneath the ‘little pictures’ on the walls at Hull-House, that they had in fact always had some relation to beauty in their home setting. 

The exhibits afforded pathetic evidence that the old immigrants do not expect the solace of art in this

country; an Italian expressed great surprise when he found that we, although Americans, still liked

pictures, and said quite naively that he didn't know that Americans cared for anything but dollars—

that looking at pictures was something people only did in Italy. [viii]


     Some realized anew that ‘passing’ into American culture did not require them to jettison practices of creative making: that one could be American and love the arts, that being a good industrial ‘American worker’ one might also (though still in crimped time) be an imaginative artisan of beauty as well.  Sharing these inherited traditional forms of making was educational in this larger epistemological sense: not only did the techniques get taught, but the histories, values, ways of life, and arts-engagement practices of the residents’ home cultures, too. Art praxis at Hull-House had an ethical dimension in that residents systematized this deeper form of human connection to materials, to their home communities, and to other humans in other cultures—exactly what Addams meant with her aim to foster a cosmopolitan ‘international mind.’ In doing this, they rejected the pressures of sheer assimilation and found another way of relating both to objects and to each other, stressing plurality in creative practices but recognizing the commonalities across cultural ways of making.




Contributions of Hull-House art praxis to pragmatist aesthetics

     Emerson in 1841 and Dewey nearly 100 years later in Art as Experience were certainly correct to identify as a pragmatist problem the division between fine art and everyday existence, and proposing to instead live life as art.  But the dream of making industrialized life within the factory conform to their expectation that everyday experience would be an enhanced aesthetic experience is clearly far too much of a stretch when one begins in the context that was Hull-House. Because they identified this as the fundamental pragmatist problem, the rapidity with which they dismissed any version of art-for-art’s-sake as Unpragmatist and socially unprogressive was too hasty and in reality set up ‘aestheticized experience’ and ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ as binary opposites.  Through art praxis at Hull-House, Starr and Addams followed the pragmatist strategy of replacing ‘either-or’ binaries with ‘both-and’ pragmatist contextualizations:  BOTH enhanced daily experience as aesthetic AND older forms of art (art-for-art’s-sake) can be progressive, depending on the context and the aims had by those whose lived experience it is. We can trace Emerson’s ideal of Art with a capital ‘A’ infusing all experience into Dewey’s eventual notion of “an experience.”  Of course both were right, in a sense, to call for all our experiences to be as thickly artistic as they ideally can: but for immigrant factory workers, this effectively rendered 90% of their time somenow ‘not experiential’ and therefore seemingly irrelevant to the pragmatist model—a dynamic that flies in the face of general pragmatist aims. 

      Hull-House art praxis extends some pragmatist concepts of how the arts are liberatory, while it simultaneously offers an internal pragmatist critique of pragmatist aesthetics. It also makes a unique pragmatist epistemological point:  that shared cross-cultural forms of arts engagement foster cosmpolitanism, and communicate ethical ways of creative being and making that allowed residents to not only become American but to become broader global citizens in a meaningful way.  Starr and Addams took this decidedly un-ideal main lived experience of immigrants’ factory and slum lives not as the end of pragmatist inquiry but as the starting point. Given their context, they could not afford the pessimism with which Emerson had claimed “The fountains of invention and beauty in modern society are all but dried up… Art is poor and low.”


Epistemological significance of Hull-House art praxis for cosmopolitanism


     Women were at the helm of art praxis at Hull-House, and despite the rigid gender constraints of turn-of-the-century America, women and men there shared something of an egalitarian access to artistic creation and appreciation.  The deeper feminist consideration here, though, is one raised by Shannon Sullivan in her discussion of the dual impact of continental and pragmatist philosophy on feminism.  She suggests this dual impact “challenges the philosophical construction of sharp dichotomies and opposed binaries.  Such a challenge is feminist because even when dualisms do not explicitly refer to women, gender, or sexuality, they tend to be implicated in and to produce male privilege.” [ix] In a patriarchal Chicago and U.S. ruled by the iron law of wages and profit drive, Addams’ work and the field of sociology too were devalued as feminized pastimes of caretaking for human connections. We can be sure that Hull-House art praxis was taken to be completely irrelevant not just to ‘real work,’ real social improvement, or even real philosophy.  But there are seeds, here, of a feminist-pragmatist epistemological lens that suggests knowledge-seeking practices can be most fruitful when they start in exactly this sort of context—one that posits a plurality of practices. Today ‘feminist epistemology’ is discussed almost solely in terms of sciences and reframing the ‘objectivity and subjectivity’struggle: physicist Evelyn Fox Keller and others critique the model of lab science that bills scientific process to be objective (male) rationality ‘taming’ fluctuating (female) nature into submission. The feminist-pragmatist alt. model Keller and others favor assumes kinship rather than competition as the starting point of inquiry, where the knower begins with “a feeling for the organism” under study. But as we know, disciplinary boundaries are artificial, we need not think feminist epistemology just in the sciences: Addams and Starr didn’t. What they developed was a similar feminist epistemology concerning the arts, where relational arts praxis helped residents facilitate new knowledge and citizenship.  They saw that scientific knowledge-gaining is deeply enmeshed in, and not divorced from, creative art-making practices, and that residents collectively teaching one another foreign arts-engagement practices led to them retaining their home nationality, becoming American, AND becoming cosmpolitan in an important sense.  I’d argue this awareness let them, more effectively than other pragmatists, develop concrete strategies to help the most disenfranchised populations fulfill the pragmatist quest of ‘living life like art’—but globally, not merely as an American.




[i] Leonard Harris has written on this other pragmatist arts context: “The Great Debate:  W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Alain Locke on the Aesthetic.” Philosophia Africana, Vol. 7, No. 1, March 2004, pp. 13-37.

[ii] Jane Addams, “Art Works,” Eighty Years at Hull House, p. 50.

[iii] All Emerson citations from his essay “Art” come from his 1847 Essays: First Series now in the public domain, accessible at http://www.emersoncentral.com/art.htm

[iv] Twenty Years at Hull-House, p. 213.

[v] Jane Addams, “Art Works,” Eighty Years at Hull-House, p. 50.

[vi] Jane Addams, “Art Works,” Eighty Years at Hull-House, p. 51-52.

[vii] Marilyn Fischer, “A Pragmatist Cosmopolitan Moment: Reconfiguring Nussbaum’s Cosmopolitan Concentric Circles,” p. 10.

[viii] Jane Addams, “Art Works,” Eighty Years at Hull-House, p. 50.

[ix] Shannon Sullivan, “Intersections Between Pragmatist and Continental Feminism,” 2002,  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/femapproach-prag-cont/



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