Dewey and Movies: A Missed Opportunity?

 

Abstract

 

The question of why Dewey rarely writes about movies will never be answered adequately, but what he did write reveals his own struggle to overcome a disdainful, perhaps tradition-laden, attitude towards an increasingly popular art form. Dewey has two central concerns with movies. One concern he holds about movies is their potential use for propaganda. The second concern he harbors is due to the influence of commercialism detracting from the potential value of movies and effectively deadening the public’s political will. With these two points in mind I will look first to the propagandistic attributes of movies and then to their commercial nature, drawing from his collected works and correspondence. In concluding I argue Dewey was a philosopher of his time, giving movies the due they were accorded by his peers and the society at large. Movies weren’t treated as art, and Dewey treated them with similar (dis)regard.

 

 

Dewey and Movies: A Missed Opportunity?

 

It strikes me as strange that a philosopher for whom experiences of all sorts were significant and whose career flourishes during the birth and golden age of the film industry in America has little to say about movies. The rarity of comment seems all the more surprising when compared with the sheer bulk of his collected writings and correspondence. Imagine the missed opportunities for artistic and social criticism during Dewey’s career. Thomas Edison and Edwin S. Porter in the U.S., and several other Europeans, bring motion pictures to life in the mid-1890s. In 1896 Dewey writes his groundbreaking article, “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” which, if he’d have thought to apply it to the popular spectacles, could have provided him with countless examples to depict his idea of circuits of coordinated activity in individuals. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation revitalized the Ku Klux Klan as the film spread across the country in 1915, on the heels of Dewey’s The Influence of Darwin in Philosophy and as he prepares Essays in Experimental Logic. By the time Dewey put together his study in social psychology in 1922s Human Nature and Conduct movies were an integral part of American life with an average weekly attendance of about 40 million viewers. Charlie Chaplin, the comedian of habit, began to star in feature length films and Soviet filmmakers experimented with montage techniques developed to convey and habituate new ways of seeing films. A few years before the 1934 release of Art as Experience movies gained soundtracks, a perfect example for the middle sections of the book in which he discusses the particular importance of media in art. The same sort of revolution in media occurred again in the late forties when color film became available. Finally, the rise and renewal of several international cinemas immediately after World War II were conditions tailor-made for a philosopher of democracy with a rich aesthetic theory to provide comment and fruitful discussion.

The question of why Dewey rarely writes about movies never will be answered adequately, but what he did write reveals his own struggle to overcome a guarded, perhaps tradition-laden, attitude towards an increasingly popular form of entertainment.[1] Dewey has two central concerns with movies. One concern he holds about movies is their potential use for and as propaganda. Living through the era of U.S. Army newsreels and the German and Soviet propaganda films between the wars, Dewey knows well the effectiveness of mass media on social habits and culture. The second concern he harbors is due to the influence of commercialism detracting from the potential value of movies and effectively deadening the public’s political will. Commercialization creates movies and audiences which seek cheap thrills instead of the application of intelligence for critical reflection. With these two points in mind I will look first to the propagandistic attributes of movies and then to their commercial nature, drawing from his collected works and correspondence. In concluding I argue Dewey was a philosopher of his time, giving movies the due they were accorded by his peers and the society at large. Movies weren’t treated as art, and Dewey for the most part treated them with similar (dis)regard. This conclusion casts an unexpected shadow on his philosophical aesthetics.

In Freedom and Culture Dewey takes up the issue of art used for constructing social consciousness. Regardless of the impetus for any particular art, “works of art once brought into existence are the most compelling of the means of communication by which emotions are stirred and opinions formed. The theater, the movie and music hall…have all been brought under regulation as part of the propaganda agencies by which dictatorship” thrives without dissent (LW 13: 69).[2] Dewey sees what is common knowledge to advertising experts and political campaigns today—“emotions and imagination are more potent in shaping public sentiment and opinion than information and reason” (69).

One such instance of film propaganda occupies much of Dewey’s direct involvement with movies. Dewey, in collaboration with Suzanne LaFollette, criticizes one movie in particular. In 1943 they wrote three responses to the film adaptation of Ambassador Davies’ book Mission to Moscow. LaFollette was secretary of the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, also known as the Dewey Committee. She was responsible for writing the report of the committee’s findings. Together, Dewey and LaFollette lodge several criticisms against the film directed by Michael Curtiz and released in 1943. Dewey, in a few of his letters, claims he but signed his name and made a few suggestions to the letters prepared by LaFollette.[3]

            Their initial criticism, published as a letter to the editor in the New York Times, claimed the film is “the first instance of totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption—a propaganda which falsifies history through distortion, omission or pure invention of facts, and whose effect can only be to confuse the public in its thought and its loyalties”[4] (LW 15: 345). They continue to claim that this method, propaganda, would be disturbing “even in a fictional film” (345).

            The thrust of their criticism is the film’s falsification of three items: Soviet history, international relations and American history. In falsifying Soviet history the film takes license with actual events by presenting a meeting between Ambassador Davies with three key Russian figures. In actual history the meeting could not have taken place due to the arrests of two of the persons listed. Dewey and LaFollette contend, “the film borrows primarily from the technique of the Moscow trials in representing an event which could not have taken place” (345). Continuing with a false history, Dewey and LaFollette describe how the film “telescopes” the trials of 1937 and 1938. This telescoping involves selecting which principal Russians to show on trial. While several were involved in a conspiracy this telescoping is not propagandistic. What Dewey and LaFollette take issue with is the film’s depiction of a prisoner who was in fact executed without trial as getting his day in court. “To show Marshal Tukhachevsky having his day in court,” they argue, “may serve the interests of Soviet propaganda. It does not serve the interests of ‘truth about Russia’” as the film purports. (346). Furthermore, they argue the film also falsifies “Mr. Davies’ own reports” of the trials from his written record in dispatches and letters (346). In fact, the whole tenor of the trial shown in the film differs from that recounted in Davies’ book. Dewey and LaFollette cite passages in which Ambassador Davies relates the terror pervading Russian society, enough even to cause him to harbor reservations about the trials. “The make-believe Russia of the film,” they find, “is gay, even festive, and wherever Mr. Davies goes he encounters a happy confidence in the regime” (347).

            In terms of international relations Dewey and LaFollette charge the film with presenting a very narrow view of Russia’s role in its alliance with Germany. The film is careful not to present a negative image of the Soviet Union or of the Communist International as it worked for isolationism in Russia, Europe and even the United States (348). “By the device of leaping over Stalin’s collaboration with Hitler and Churchill’s direction of British affairs,” they argue, the film “conveys the impression that Stalin’s foreign policy has always been democratic and anti-fascist and Britain’s one of appeasement” (348). In this way the “film is subtly anti-British” (348). The effect of these distortions of international relations for Dewey and LaFollette is a film whose “whole atmosphere” gives the “impression that Soviet Russia is our ally in the same degree as Great Britain” (348).

            Back in America the film inaccurately casts Ambassador Davies in the role of involved statesman doing his “duty” for the country (349). It implies Mr. Davies was involved in anti-conscription debates, when in fact these occurred a year or more before his rounds with Congress. But the significant piece of propaganda on the home front is the film’s “sinister totalitarian critique of the parliamentary system” of the U.S. Congress (349). Isolationist proponents before the war are depicted as “equivalent to pro-nazism” (349).  In Dewey and LaFollette’s view this misrepresentation of facts, “can only contribute to confusion in our relations with the Soviet Union” (349).

            The effect of the falsifications in the film Mission to Moscow is a deepening of “that crisis in morals which is the fundamental issue in the modern world.” It and “similar propaganda have helped to create a certain moral callousness in our public mind which is profoundly un-American” (349-350). Dewey and LaFollette do not call the film “propaganda” lightly for they understand propaganda was Hitler’s “method of confusing public opinion” (350). They offer a prognostication that in hindsight seems more hyperbolic than it might have at the time. They insist, “A few more uncritically accepted films like Mission to Moscow—for where thousands read books, millions see motion pictures—and Americans will be deadened to all moral values” (350).

            Dewey’s concern with the reach of popular forms of entertainment is not unique or isolated to this one instance. In 1934 he delivered a radio address entitled “Radio’s Influence on the Mind” (LW 9: 309). In this short address Dewey extols the virtues of radio as a means for communicating with the public. He calls it “the most powerful instrument of social education the world has ever seen” (309). The radio is a boon to democracy because it “has been greatly hindered by the fact that modern means of exchange of physical things has advanced far beyond the means for exchange of knowledge and ideas” (309).

            Even though he acknowledges the promise of radio he is quick to surmise its negative capacity. “The radio lends itself to propaganda in behalf of special interests,” he writes. Continuing on he cautions, “It can be used to distort facts and mislead the public mind” (309). Whether or not radio works for good or ill depends upon our ability to engage in the “enlightened and fair-minded public opinion and sentiment that are necessary for the success of democracy” (309).

            One of the nascent problems with movies in Dewey’s opinion is that popular arts create a distraction from social involvement. While political problems grow in complexity, people entertain “a number of powerful rivals to political interest…The automobile, radio, movie, have become rivals of politics” (LW 7: 353).[5]

What is perhaps different about Mission to Moscow and Dewey’s criticism of the movie is that it treats actual events flippantly, reorganizing the facts not just to meet the medium’s demands for artistic expression, but to change the overall “atmosphere” and meaning of actual events. And it is important to note that Dewey and LaFollette suggest it is the “uncritical” acceptance of the movie that may lead to America’s moral decline. The onus is placed not solely on the producers of the film but also on the audience’s low capacity for critical appreciation. This view of the audience’s abilities carries over into Dewey’s concern with the commercialized moving pictures.

Dewey’s stance on the negative impact of commercialism and the arts is obvious from the first chapter of Art as Experience. The effects of capitalism help create “the museum as the proper home for works of art,” perpetuating the division of fine and useful arts (LW 10: 14).[6] The concern with movies as propaganda is heightened when coupled with their commercial success. As mentioned above, Dewey understood the overwhelming popularity of movies. These are not absolutely distinct concerns for Dewey—he understands propaganda is only successful if it is widely disseminated.

Economics furthermore distinguishes how people interact with something as simple as a movie. Dewey argues children from “a cramped environment” without many leisure outlets react differently from children having many opportunities for entertainment. According to Dewey, “The luxury of scenes depicted on the screen, the display of adventure and easy sex relations, inoculate a boy or girl living in narrow surroundings with all sorts of new ideas and desires” (LW 9: 188).[7] Children from “well-to-do and cultivated” homes watch movies and the values they display “without especial regard for the means of their attainment” (LW 9: 188). Even if a movie ends with a strong moral message Dewey believes this message pales in comparison with “the force of desires that are excited” (LW 9: 188).

Perhaps the cause of the foregoing complaints with movies should rest more on the audience than on the movies or economy. However, Dewey suggests the root of the problem of “relatively low level of esthetic use of leisure time” and the “inherently low grade of taste” commonly cited is the result of commercialization (LW 8: 86).[8] This argument mimics an earlier one from Politics and Culture. Dewey claims, “Adverse opinions as to the possibility of a general democratic culture are also based on the low standards, intellectually and esthetically, of the radio, the movie and the popular theater. Is there not a possibility that the standards of these things are low (I think we all agree that they are much lower than they ought to be) ultimately because of economic causes?” (LW 6: 44).[9]

The movie, radio programs and other cheap entertainment aim “to make money instead of to serve the values involved” (LW 8: 86). Dewey argues for a “humanizing” and “reconstruction of the economic system” in order for the “liberation of individual creative activity and elevation of esthetic taste” (LW 8: 86). As he understands his times, popular art is “a rebound to stimulation and excitement from those activities of working hours which lack freedom and meaning” (ibid). And “a civilization, in which the average man spends his day in a factory and his evening at a movie, has still a long way to go” (LW 7: 434).

            In Individualism, Old and New Dewey complains that the frontier which once challenged human ability and inspired creativity now only appears on the movie screen. “The wilderness exists in the movie and the novel,” he writes, “and the children of the pioneers, who live in the midst of surroundings artificially made over by the machine, enjoy pioneer life idly in the vicarious film” (LW 5: 80).[10] The social tension which once signaled unrest is replaced by “the protest against a weakening of vigor and a sapping of energy that emanate from the absence of constructive opportunity” (80). The primary cause of this “confusion” is “a troubled and tangled economic scene” (80).

Interestingly enough, Dewey’s aim is not the improvement of movies themselves as an art form but a more critical, intelligent public. Education is his desire, and as this ideal becomes realized he believes people will gain more interest in the traditionally fine arts. Dewey contends, “it is to education to which we must look for improvement in standards of art, literature and recreation” (LW 7: 434). He writes how legislation may protect the popular morality, “but it cannot insure a more healthful taste” (434). Popular arts, among them “the moving pictures, the jazz music, the comic strip,” are “not an object of pride to those who have learned to know good art, good music, and good literature” (434).

The reach of popular movies was not foreign to Dewey or his family. As early as July of 1918 Jane writes to Lucy and Evelyn, “we are getting to be regular movie fans.”[11] A month later Alice comments to John in a letter how movies help her to “get out of this domestic atmosphere.”[12] Some months later, still in 1918, John explains to Lucy how, “Mama seems inclined to celebrate the return of sunshine by going to a movie” and how he’ll “tag along” ostensibly because “there have [been] no movies for a month or so to go to.”[13] In a letter dated the same day Alice provides a different account to Evelyn stating, “Our movies have begun again and it has just moved me to go see one.” Alice suggests it’s no sure thing as she must “tackle the prof and ask him if he will go to the movies with me.”[14]

In 1938 Dewey writes to Roberta while he’s in Florida with Jane. “We’ve been to the movies once,” he writes, “because it was Lost Horizon.”[15] Lost Horizon was a popular book written in 1933 by James Hilton. Its screen adaptation was directed by Frank Capra, though this film preceded Capra’s fame arising from his Hollywood hits Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life.[16] The draw here was the story of the novel and Dewey declares, “I was badly disappointed tho after seeing it I realized it was impossible to give on the screen the feeling one gets from the book, & that the story had to be jazzed up.” The story is about a group of people whose plane crashes in the Himalayas, survive the wreck, and are led to the idyllic valley of Shangri-La. While Dewey’s criticism here is a comment on the applicability of the story to the film medium, his dissatisfaction also extends to the acting. “Rodman Coleman,” he writes, though intending to critique Ronald Coleman who starred in the film, “never forgot for a moment that he was a Hollywood movie actor.” In this letter Dewey critiques a movie for its inability to match the experience of the novel from which it is adapted and the performance of the lead actor.

Dewey’s lack of enthusiasm is understandable when set against his concerns with popular arts. However, it is surprising to set his discussion of movies within the larger sphere of his treatment of the arts and aesthetic experience. In working to resolve the dualism between the fine and useful, high and low, ideal and productive arts, Dewey apparently wants to upend traditional aesthetic philosophies and imbed the possibility for an aesthetic experience in any human activity. The experience of watching and/or making movies is implicitly involved in this equation. Yet from the passages included above Dewey seems to possess a fairly traditional mindset when it comes to cultivated tastes. His critical attitude was decidedly prejudiced with his experience of the novel Lost Horizon, and he judged his experience of the movie against an unrealistic standard. To his credit he acknowledges as much.

An undesirable notion which must occur to people familiar with Dewey’s aesthetics is that he could not fully break philosophical aesthetics from the grip of the traditional theories of art. Tradition esteems the fine arts and denigrates the low; painting, sculpture, music, poetry and sometimes architecture gain praise and provide the exemplars by which all subsequent artworks are judged. Even Dewey, who aimed to dissolve distinctions between kinds of experiences relies heavily on authoritative figures and works when elaborating his theories.

He draws on poetry from Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats and Poe among others. He discusses great painters like van Gogh, Titian, Renoir and El Greco. The only plates of paintings in Art as Experience come from El Greco, Renoir, Cézanne and Matisse. He analyzes prominent theorists and critics who formed the artworld in late-19th and early-20th century Western civilization. Fry, Shelley, Croce, Santayana, Bosanquet, Coleridge, Tolstoy and others provide him with ideas both influential and reactionary. Most influential of all was Albert Barnes, with whom Dewey spent long hours discussing the history of the arts and painting in particular. The collaboration between Barnes and Dewey provided Dewey with the opportunity to view fine art firsthand, and discuss it with a passionate, knowledgeable collector and educator.

The era in which Dewey encountered movies, though, might give some pause to cast a dim view of Dewey’s approach to movies. Film was not a de facto art form. In fact, the critical effort to establish cinema as a peer to the painting, sculpture and symphony was just showing signs of life. Vachel Lindsay, an itinerant American poet and philosopher treated motion pictures as art in 1915.[17] Hugo Münsterberg, William James’ replacement at Harvard, analyzed the optical effects of movies and applied a rather Kantian aesthetics to their reception in his 1917 work.[18] Soviet filmmakers in the twenties worked from the Hegelian dialectic to forge the techniques of montage. But these were mere technical means unless and until the movies were baptized as an art form. All through the years between the two world wars advances in French, German and Soviet filmmaking, not to mention in New York and Hollywood, pushed the development of movies from mere means to an artistic medium.

Dewey, for all his writing, teaching and political activities was probably just too busy to deal with the popular arts more in depth. Art as Experience expresses his argument in favor of film as art, whether he recognized it or not. However, he experienced movies in a very habitual way, not out of step with most Americans. Except for a few occasions movies were diversions and entertainment.[19] Dewey’s cultivated morals wouldn’t let them be otherwise.

 

 

 

 

 

Word Count: 3467

Traditional Paper Submission SAAP 2007


 

[1] In The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1952 and The Correspondence of John Dewey, 1871-1953 electronic editions searches of key words easily reveal his references. In his published writings Dewey used the word “movie” 20 times, most often in combination with other popular arts (radio, jazz, comic strip) or current innovations (automobiles). “Cinema” appears twice. “Film” occurs 43 times, mainly in the discussion about Mission to Moscow (discussed below), once in Individualism, Old and New cited in this paper, and the rest of the occurrences are in Introductions or Textual Commentary not by Dewey. In his correspondence “movie” or “movies” appears 48 times, though only a handful of these references are by Dewey himself. “Film” appears 61 times, and when these are Dewey’s own they are about arranging “film talks” or in reference to Mission to Moscow (again, see below). “Cinema” appears twice in the correspondence, once in a letter to Dewey in 1928 from Frank Lorimer in a discussion about the potency of art (1928.4.10, letter 05871).

[2] John Dewey. Freedom and Culture. The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953 The Electronic Edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953, Volume 13: 1938-1939. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 1999.

[3] Letter 1943.05.31 Dewey, writing to Joseph Ratner, claims LaFollette “did the work on them”. And in a letter dated 1943.06.07 to Arthur F. Bentley, responding to Bentley’s praise for the critique of the film, Dewey writes, “You give me credit that doesn’t belong to me.” The Correspondence of John Dewey 1871-1953 The Electronic Edition, Volume 3: 1940-1953. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 2004.

[4] John Dewey. “Several Faults Are Found in Mission to Moscow Film.” The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1952 The Electronic Edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1952, Volume 15: 1942-1948. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 1999.

[5] Ethics. The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1952 The Electronic Edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1952, Volume 7: 1932. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 1999.

[6] Art as Experience. The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1952 The Electronic Edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1952, Volume 10: 1934. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 1999.

[7] “Character Training for Youth.” The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1952 The Electronic Edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1952, Volume 9: 1933-1934. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 1999.

[8] “Contributions to the Educational Frontier.” The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1952 The Electronic Edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1952, Volume 8: 1933. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 1999.

[9] Politics and Culture. The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1952 The Electronic Edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1952, Volume 6: 1931-1932. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 1999.

[10] Individualism, Old and New. The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1952 The Electronic Edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1952, Volume 5: 1929-1930. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 1999.

[11] 1918.7.27. Jane to Lucy and Evelyn. The Correspondence of John Dewey 1871-1953 The Electronic Edition, Volume 1: 1871-1918. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 2004.

[12] 1818.8.21. Alice to John. The Correspondence of John Dewey 1871-1953 The Electronic Edition, Volume 1: 1871-1918. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 2004.

[13] 1918.11.19. John to Lucy. The Correspondence of John Dewey 1871-1953 The Electronic Edition, Volume 1: 1871-1918. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 2004.

[14] 1918.11.19. Alice to Evelyn. The Correspondence of John Dewey 1871-1953 The Electronic Edition, Volume 1: 1871-1918. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 2004.

[15] 1938.1.15. John to Roberta Lowitz Grant Dewey. The Correspondence of John Dewey 1871-1953 The Electronic Edition, Volume 2: 1919-1939. Ed. Larry A. Hickman. Charlottesville, VA. InteLex Corp. 2004. This same letter is the source for the quotations through the remainder of the paragraph.

[16] Interestingly enough, Capra would go on to direct a series of seven propaganda films for the U.S. Army titled Why We Fight (1943-1944).

[17] Vachel Lindsay. The Art of the Moving Picture. IndyPublish.com. 2006 (1915).

[18] Hugo Münsterberg. The Photoplay: A Psychological Study. Routledge. 2001 (1917).

[19] Dewey also engaged with movies as teaching tools, arranging with Sidney Hook and Horace M. Kallen to have his lectures filmed and also developing animated “film talks” for presentations at local Rotary Clubs and other social groups (see for example letters 1932.8.10 and 1939.3.21).