Consummatory Experience and the Democratic Way of Life

(Traditional Paper)

 

In this essay I discuss the relationship between aesthetic experience and democracy construed as a way of life.  Dewey stresses that the fulfillment characteristic of consummatory experience is essential since it is inherently meaningful and since it encourages individuals to become aware of the mental, physical, and social habits that constrain experience.  However, at the same time, Dewey is dismissive of art that explicitly takes a critical stance on moral or political matters since such a stance is at odds with the general capacity of aesthetic experience to function as a means to many ends.  I discuss the relationship between aesthetic form and critical content and argue that a skilled artist can balance them in a way that avoids the constriction of aesthetic experience.  I also discuss what implications consummatory experience has for viewers and argue against a position that holds that fulfilling experience encourages audiences to remain complicit with existing structures of power.

 

            This essay addresses the relationship between aesthetic experience and a democratic way of life.  In Art as Experience Dewey argues that consummatory experience is necessary for a democratic way of life since it is produced by intelligently guiding experience to fulfilling ends, however, Dewey’s discussion raises concerns regarding works of art that contain explicit critical content and the cultural role of artists.  I will argue that works of art can take a critical stance and can retain a high degree of aesthetic value and will argue that this is essential for enriching a democratic way of life.  I will also consider what affects such work has on its viewers and will argue that consummatory experience does not necessarily lead one to accept the values of the majority.

I.

For Dewey, democracy is understood as a mode of associated living characterized by conjoint experience.  In Democracy and Education and later in The Public and Its Problems he argues that a democratic way of life is contingent upon the existence and awareness of a wide array of points of common interest as well as the change of social habits that comes about through “meeting the new situations produced by varied intercourse.”1  More specifically, for individuals, this entails “developing certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life”2  and such development is contingent upon a three-fold faith in the possibilities of human nature, in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment, and in one’s day-to-day workings with others.3  How then does aesthetic experience play into such a life?     

            A democratic way of life is characterized by a variety of rich associations that provide both the context and impetus for aesthetic experience.  In order to illustrate the aesthetic possibilities of a rich social life, Dewey discusses the “gang of thieves” whose limited mode of interaction narrows their experience both internally and externally.4  That is, since the thieves construe their relationships according to their sole aim—thievery—they remain blind to other possibilities as each member of the gang is understood as playing a specific role in the theft and each member conceives himself as playing that role.  At the same time, the aim of the group limits interaction with other groups since they too are construed in terms of the heist.  However, if one lives a democratic way of life that entails pursuing a plurality of ends, then one’s internal and external interactions will be varied and one will continually be confronted with an array of novel social situations that will demand attention, effort, and the modification of entrenched habits—or growth.  A democratic way of life is most conducive to aesthetic experience since it presents individuals with a wide array of relationships that provide the best social context for personal growth.  Indeed, for Dewey, growth is characteristic of aesthetic experience and a democratic way of life since both entail the active pursuit of fulfilling experience.

II.

Though Dewey democratizes aesthetic experience by stressing its origin in everyday life, he also spends a good deal of time discussing artists and their work.  He argues that cultures need artists to demonstrate and clarify how experience can be consciously formed and imbued with aesthetic value.  Further, he holds that artists have an important cultural role to play since they have the ability to communicate with their media in a manner that breaks down barriers and creates communities of experience.5  They enable viewers to transcend entrenched habits of perception and encourage them to see and/or experience differently by drawing attention to what is often overlooked.  They stimulate the imagination and present audiences with experiential alternatives to a world that is commonly accepted as given.6  However, if artists have these abilities, then shouldn’t they take up the social causes that encourage a democratic way of life and/or shouldn’t they criticize the practices that otherwise stifle it?  Dewey is skeptical, for when artists act as moral critics they tend to produce bad art.  This is because when they do so the materials that they utilize (wood, paint, canvas, sound, stone, action, etc.) become mere means to preconceived ends.  Spontaneity is suppressed and the work becomes a lesson that channels experience to but one end.  They consequently cannot generate rich aesthetic experience since they are internally constrained.7  Drawing on Shelley, Dewey argues that the work of art best serves as a criticism of life “not directly, but by disclosure, through imaginative vision addressed to imaginative experience (not set judgment) of possibilities that contrast with actual conditions.”8 

            However, even if a work of art that directly takes on matters of social justice has bad form it still may have a great deal of democratic value in that it can educate viewers about the experience of others and otherwise show them the limitations and implications of their social perspectives.  We saw Dewey arguing that a democratic way of life entails entering into a wide array of associations with others and in developing common interests with them and it seems that a democratic way of life needs to be informed by an awareness of the plight of those who cannot lead such a life.  Indeed, in arguing against what is now called “activist art,” Dewey seems to ignore the experience of those who find themselves controlled by social forces: who cannot grow and/or cannot find avenues of fulfilling aesthetic experience.  The fear is that activist art is not conducive to aesthetic experience since its form is constrained, however, I will show that art can perform a critical function, have good form, and lead the viewer to a consummation that transforms his or her experience.  Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-1979) is an example of such a work.9

The Dinner Party is a mixed-media installation consisting of a triangular table, 48 feet long on each side (Plate One), adorned with 39 place settings (Plates Two and Three).  Each setting represents a celebrated female personage (Kali, Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Sojourner Truth, Virginia Wolf, to name a few) and consists of a large painted plate sometimes carved in high relief (Plate Four), a large goblet, utensils, and a hand-embroidered cloth bearing symbols that pertain to the personage.  The aim of work is to criticize the tendency to omit women from history or to relegate them to minor roles.  This could have been accomplished in any number of ways, but Chicago’s method increases the significance of the point by giving it a visual and sculptural form and by symbolically bringing the personages together in a ceremonial banquet. 

The work has good form as it instantiates the principle of “unity in variety” and since its form is contingent upon the transformation of a variety of material into the media of expression.10  With regard to the first point, there are variations on a common theme that contribute to an accumulation of meaning.  Each place setting is constituted by the same objects but there is variation with regard to the images portrayed, the design of the runners, and the sculptural complexity of the plates.  With regard to the second, the painting, sculpture, and embroidery are all executed with great care and attention to detail. 

Now, one might argue that the form of The Dinner Party is marred by its critical content since the feminism that underlies it railways its form toward the sole end of social critique.  However, it can be replied that the work’s form is developed to the extent that it functions as a means to many ends.11  That is, any instance of good form continually engenders aesthetic experience and, indeed, The Dinner Party remains significant not simply because it heralds the viewer back to the social movements of the 1970’s but because its design clearly communicates the possibility of consciously transforming experience, calls the viewer’s imagination into play (“what if history were truly inclusive of feminine experience?”), and provides him or her with a rich sensuous experience.  The work educates about the traditional methods of recording history and encourages a consideration of the experience of those who have been historically overlooked (as well as a consideration of the experience of women artists who have had difficulty penetrating the art world) but it does so in a way that balances critical content with aesthetic sensitivity.12    

More examples could be given that would demonstrate how artists have remained sensitive to their materials by not allowing them to be trampled by critical content.13  In any case, such work demonstrates that artists can contribute to a democratic way of life not only by providing grist for aesthetic experience and growth, but by fostering new associations for the viewer.  More specifically, it is conducive to a democratic way of life since it is designed to challenge entrenched social perspectives and to encourage the viewer to consider the plight of marginalized social groups. Should artists, then, be political activists?  What does the proceeding analysis tell us about the cultural role of artists?

            Again, for Dewey, the artist is someone whose work demonstrates that experience can be lead to fulfilling ends. That is, her work clarifies for the viewer that experience can be intelligently transformed to the extent that meaningful experience and growth occurs.  However, there is a tradition that sees the artist as playing the role of cultural reactionary and even as the instigator of social change.  Greek and Roman tragedians often enacted political criticism in their work and many other narratives have historically pointed out society’s ills (Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe come to mind).  Further the visual arts have also been used to make political statements, whether Blake’s A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows (1792), Goya’s The Third of May (1808), Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840), Morbelli’s For Eighty Cents (1895), or Picasso’s Guernica (1937).  Dewey too seems to espouse this view when he states that “Impulsion beyond all limits that are externally set inheres in the very nature of the artist’s work” and that “one of the functions of art is precisely to sap the moralistic timidity that causes the mind to shy away from some materials and refuse to admit them into the clear and purifying light of perceptive consciousness.”14 

Indeed, Dewey must leave room for activist art or art that otherwise has direct critical content since he pairs aesthetic experience with a democratic way of life and since such a way of life entails continually appraising the variety of one’s internal and external associations.  Again, the stipulation is that for such work to serve both masters it must strike a delicate balance between form and critical content.  Indeed, this is no easy task and much critical art will be poor since it is easy to let critical content carry the weight that is normally shouldered by artistic skill and sensitivity.15  However, when the balance is struck—in cases such as The Dinner Party—the effect is all the more praiseworthy.          

III.

The previous section centers on the relationship between the work of art and a democratic way of life, but something more needs to be said about the experience of those who encounter such work.  Again, The Dinner Party is conducive to consummatory experience since it has good form however, a skeptic may object that the aesthetic experience that it produces undermines its critical content since such experience is characteristically holistic in nature.  That is, the fulfilling experiences that the work tends to generate in its audiences mitigate its critical stance since such experiences ultimately placate and pacify audiences by giving them the false sense that “all is well.”  The skeptic may also add that such work stifles significant personal or social change since it encourages the viewer to think that understanding and appreciating feminist art is sufficient for such change.  When this happens, one leaves an exhibition of The Dinner Party without actually being motivated to resist and/or change the cultural practices that it criticizes.  In order to bring about significant change, the work must be designed to thwart benign consummatory experience.16 

We saw that Dewey holds that consummatory experience is necessary for a meaningful/democratic way of life and yet our skeptic argues that it is parasitic on such a way of life since it provides fulfilling experiences that are at odds with the fragmented experience that characterizes many of the transactions that take place in everyday life.  Fulfilling experience produces a false consciousness that precludes one from becoming aware of the gravity and prevalence of social injustice.  This epistemic component functions by producing false beliefs concerning the plight of various social groups and by otherwise fostering and maintaining categorical frameworks through which one incorrectly interprets social experience.  In doing so fulfilling experience renders audience members complicit with oppressive social practices (call this the domination component).  These two components both spring from the form of a work of art (since the form is the conduit of consummatory experience) and consequently has nothing to do with the work’s content.17      

There are two reasons why I think this account of consummatory experience/aesthetic form is inaccurate.  The first is that it assumes that form and content are independent or, to put it another way, that even critical content will be undermined by aesthetic form. Indeed, this is a stretch, for, it is hard to imagine how the content of The Dinner Party could be overridden by its form and this is because its form and content were designed to work in a reciprocal fashion.  The viewer cannot easily dismiss the criticism that it the work enacts since its form and critical content resonate with one another.18 

Second, this account holds that consummatory experience encourages audiences to construe themselves as “Cartesian subjects,” that is, subjects that are unified and autonomous in nature.  This is the part of the epistemic component that concerns the self and it contributes to the tendency to form false beliefs about others since it encourages the individual to assume that experience is not (and cannot be) fragmented.  The difficulty here is that it is not clear why the form of a work (and consummatory experience in general) necessarily produces the illusion of an autonomous self.  Indeed, Dewey would emphasize that such experience is but a stage in an unending process of growth and would stress that consummatory experience is indicative not of an autonomous subject, but one that is being forced to grow in response to a changing physical and social environment.  Consummatory experience stands out from experience that is either chaotic or overly repetitious in nature and this encourages the individual to pursue meaning experience and/or growth.19      

             Yet another worry voiced by critics is that audiences, because of their admiration for the moral stance of the work, will remain oblivious to its aesthetic merits or flaws.  That is, such viewers are akin to Christians of the Middle-Ages who primarily found religious value in their encounters with triptychs, icons, and cathedrals since their way of life was primarily oriented toward the religious.  For such viewers, only a minimal amount of aesthetic sensitivity was needed for the work to be aesthetically valuable since the ideas that motivated religious art corresponded with their own.  Likewise, The Dinner Party will necessarily have aesthetic value for feminists who consider viewing it as something of a pilgrimage and, like religious individuals who encounter religious art, they will remain somewhat insensitive to the work’s form. 

            However, those familiar with Dewey will notice that this worry is foreign to his aesthetic since he holds that aesthetic value cannot be divorced from the values that color day-to-day life.  That is, in many places in Art as Experience Dewey argues that aesthetic value is contextualized by one’s concerns, beliefs, and practices.  For example, the Parthenon was, for the ancient Athenians, an expression of “civic commemoration” that corresponded to their way of life.20  Likewise, “primitive art” is an expression of the life and values of an organized community and that expression is altered when it is stripped from its context in a way that renders it conducive to a detached manner of looking.21  Hence, for Dewey, the point that the aesthetic value will not be fully appreciated is moot since it assumes that the work of art must be viewed objectively.  The religious believer should view religious art in terms of his or her belief and the feminist should likewise appreciate feminist art since it resonates with his or her beliefs, values, and practices.  Aesthetic experience is necessarily shaped by the contours of one’s personal experience, however, with this said, the stipulation must be made that living a democratic way of life entails ensuring that the possibility of pursuing a plurality of values remain open.  Hence, the correspondence between religious belief and religious art is appropriate, however, this does not mean that every work of art must be interpreted religiously, for doing so impedes the ability of the work to create communities of experience among those who share different beliefs and values and can otherwise distort the meanings of the work.  In democratizing aesthetic experience, Dewey emphasizes that it is contextualized by everyday life and this entails a correspondence between aesthetic experience and religious, political, and ethical life, however, since a democratic way of life entails entering into a wide array of internal and external social associations, it must be kept in mind that aesthetic value must not be monolithically dominated by other values.  

            In conclusion, it was shown that a work of art can have critical content as along as it is skillfully formed.  If form is not developed and material not transformed into media of expression, then the work will function as a lesson and will not have the ability to actualize a plurality of ends.  In turn, this account of form and content answers the question concerning artistic activism, for the artist can choose to address social ills and still produce works of art that have a high degree of aesthetic value.  Such works balance social critique and artistic skill in a reciprocal relationship that contributes to the overall significance of the work.  Finally, it was argued that consummatory experience is not necessarily structurally antithetical to social criticism and that the worry about the aesthetic sensitivity of sympathetic viewers is not a problem if it is kept in mind that aesthetic experience necessarily reflects one’s values and if room is left for the work to communicate novel experience.  Indeed, living a democratic way of life entails remaining open to works of art so that growth may occur.   

Notes-

 

1 – Democracy and Education (New York: The Free Press), 1944, p. 87.

2 – “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us,” in John Dewey: The Later Works

      1939-1941 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, Jo Ann Boydston (ed.),

      14:226.  

3 – Ibid.

4 – Democracy and Education, pp. 83-87.

5 – Art as Experience (New York: Perigree), 1934, pp. 334-336.  Hereafter, this text will

      be referred to as “AE”.

6 – Ibid., pp. 272-273, 334-336.

7 – AE, p. 116.

8 – Ibid., p. 346.

9 – See Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party (New York: Penguin), 1996

10 – For more on this principle see AE, pp. 160-161.

11 – For more on this see AE pp. 197-198.

12 – I should say that some are critical of the form of The Dinner Party.  It has been  

        criticized for being overly repetitious (39 place settings) and for being kitschy 

        (the Sojourner Truth plate presents a caricature of African mask imagery).  With this

        said, I do not think that such flaws hinder the ability of the work to generate

        consummatory experience.  See Robert Hughes, “An Obsessive Feminist Pantheon,”

        Time, December 15, 1980, pp. 85-86 and Hilton Kramer, “Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner

        Party’ Comes to Brooklyn Museum,” New York Times, October 17, 1980, C1, p. 18.  

        For a more positive review see Arthur Danto’s “The Feminine Mystique,” The

        Nation, November 25, 2002, pp. 32.

13 – The photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and the paintings of Robert Colescott

        come to mind.

14 – AE, p. 189.

15 – Arthur Danto suggests that the prevalence of bad art is due to the fact that

        “disturbatory art” focuses primarily on advancing social criticism and/or criticism

        of the art-world itself.. See his essay “Bad Aesthetic Times,” Encounters and 

        (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux), 1990, pp. 297-312.

16 – For example, one could cite the “work” of “The Guerrilla Girls” whose mission

        is to expose the sexism that still abounds in the art world.  See their website at

        <http://www.guerillagirls.com> (accessed 8/29/06).

17 – I am indebted to Noel Carroll’s discussion of ideology and mass art in his A

        Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1998, pp. 360-412.

18 – Fore Dewey’s discussion of the relationship between form and content see AE, 

        pp. 106-133. 

19 – I would add that this is facilitated by the problem solving process that the encounter

        with a good work of art elicits.

20 – AE, p. 4

21 – AE, pp. 326-331.

 

Plates-

 

Plate One

 

Plate Two

 

Plate Three

 

Plate Four

Consummatory Experience and the Democratic Way of Life

(Traditional Paper)

 

In this essay I discuss the relationship between aesthetic experience and democracy construed as a way of life.  Dewey stresses that the fulfillment characteristic of consummatory experience is essential since it is inherently meaningful and since it encourages individuals to become aware of the mental, physical, and social habits that constrain experience.  However, at the same time, Dewey is dismissive of art that explicitly takes a critical stance on moral or political matters since such a stance is at odds with the general capacity of aesthetic experience to function as a means to many ends.  I discuss the relationship between aesthetic form and critical content and argue that a skilled artist can balance them in a way that avoids the constriction of aesthetic experience.  I also discuss what implications consummatory experience has for viewers and argue against a position that holds that fulfilling experience encourages audiences to remain complicit with existing structures of power.

 

            This essay addresses the relationship between aesthetic experience and a democratic way of life.  In Art as Experience Dewey argues that consummatory experience is necessary for a democratic way of life since it is produced by intelligently guiding experience to fulfilling ends, however, Dewey’s discussion raises concerns regarding works of art that contain explicit critical content and the cultural role of artists.  I will argue that works of art can take a critical stance and can retain a high degree of aesthetic value and will argue that this is essential for enriching a democratic way of life.  I will also consider what affects such work has on its viewers and will argue that consummatory experience does not necessarily lead one to accept the values of the majority.

I.

For Dewey, democracy is understood as a mode of associated living characterized by conjoint experience.  In Democracy and Education and later in The Public and Its Problems he argues that a democratic way of life is contingent upon the existence and awareness of a wide array of points of common interest as well as the change of social habits that comes about through “meeting the new situations produced by varied intercourse.”1  More specifically, for individuals, this entails “developing certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life”2  and such development is contingent upon a three-fold faith in the possibilities of human nature, in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment, and in one’s day-to-day workings with others.3  How then does aesthetic experience play into such a life?     

            A democratic way of life is characterized by a variety of rich associations that provide both the context and impetus for aesthetic experience.  In order to illustrate the aesthetic possibilities of a rich social life, Dewey discusses the “gang of thieves” whose limited mode of interaction narrows their experience both internally and externally.4  That is, since the thieves construe their relationships according to their sole aim—thievery—they remain blind to other possibilities as each member of the gang is understood as playing a specific role in the theft and each member conceives himself as playing that role.  At the same time, the aim of the group limits interaction with other groups since they too are construed in terms of the heist.  However, if one lives a democratic way of life that entails pursuing a plurality of ends, then one’s internal and external interactions will be varied and one will continually be confronted with an array of novel social situations that will demand attention, effort, and the modification of entrenched habits—or growth.  A democratic way of life is most conducive to aesthetic experience since it presents individuals with a wide array of relationships that provide the best social context for personal growth.  Indeed, for Dewey, growth is characteristic of aesthetic experience and a democratic way of life since both entail the active pursuit of fulfilling experience.

II.

Though Dewey democratizes aesthetic experience by stressing its origin in everyday life, he also spends a good deal of time discussing artists and their work.  He argues that cultures need artists to demonstrate and clarify how experience can be consciously formed and imbued with aesthetic value.  Further, he holds that artists have an important cultural role to play since they have the ability to communicate with their media in a manner that breaks down barriers and creates communities of experience.5  They enable viewers to transcend entrenched habits of perception and encourage them to see and/or experience differently by drawing attention to what is often overlooked.  They stimulate the imagination and present audiences with experiential alternatives to a world that is commonly accepted as given.6  However, if artists have these abilities, then shouldn’t they take up the social causes that encourage a democratic way of life and/or shouldn’t they criticize the practices that otherwise stifle it?  Dewey is skeptical, for when artists act as moral critics they tend to produce bad art.  This is because when they do so the materials that they utilize (wood, paint, canvas, sound, stone, action, etc.) become mere means to preconceived ends.  Spontaneity is suppressed and the work becomes a lesson that channels experience to but one end.  They consequently cannot generate rich aesthetic experience since they are internally constrained.7  Drawing on Shelley, Dewey argues that the work of art best serves as a criticism of life “not directly, but by disclosure, through imaginative vision addressed to imaginative experience (not set judgment) of possibilities that contrast with actual conditions.”8 

            However, even if a work of art that directly takes on matters of social justice has bad form it still may have a great deal of democratic value in that it can educate viewers about the experience of others and otherwise show them the limitations and implications of their social perspectives.  We saw Dewey arguing that a democratic way of life entails entering into a wide array of associations with others and in developing common interests with them and it seems that a democratic way of life needs to be informed by an awareness of the plight of those who cannot lead such a life.  Indeed, in arguing against what is now called “activist art,” Dewey seems to ignore the experience of those who find themselves controlled by social forces: who cannot grow and/or cannot find avenues of fulfilling aesthetic experience.  The fear is that activist art is not conducive to aesthetic experience since its form is constrained, however, I will show that art can perform a critical function, have good form, and lead the viewer to a consummation that transforms his or her experience.  Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-1979) is an example of such a work.9

The Dinner Party is a mixed-media installation consisting of a triangular table, 48 feet long on each side (Plate One), adorned with 39 place settings (Plates Two and Three).  Each setting represents a celebrated female personage (Kali, Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Sojourner Truth, Virginia Wolf, to name a few) and consists of a large painted plate sometimes carved in high relief (Plate Four), a large goblet, utensils, and a hand-embroidered cloth bearing symbols that pertain to the personage.  The aim of work is to criticize the tendency to omit women from history or to relegate them to minor roles.  This could have been accomplished in any number of ways, but Chicago’s method increases the significance of the point by giving it a visual and sculptural form and by symbolically bringing the personages together in a ceremonial banquet. 

The work has good form as it instantiates the principle of “unity in variety” and since its form is contingent upon the transformation of a variety of material into the media of expression.10  With regard to the first point, there are variations on a common theme that contribute to an accumulation of meaning.  Each place setting is constituted by the same objects but there is variation with regard to the images portrayed, the design of the runners, and the sculptural complexity of the plates.  With regard to the second, the painting, sculpture, and embroidery are all executed with great care and attention to detail. 

Now, one might argue that the form of The Dinner Party is marred by its critical content since the feminism that underlies it railways its form toward the sole end of social critique.  However, it can be replied that the work’s form is developed to the extent that it functions as a means to many ends.11  That is, any instance of good form continually engenders aesthetic experience and, indeed, The Dinner Party remains significant not simply because it heralds the viewer back to the social movements of the 1970’s but because its design clearly communicates the possibility of consciously transforming experience, calls the viewer’s imagination into play (“what if history were truly inclusive of feminine experience?”), and provides him or her with a rich sensuous experience.  The work educates about the traditional methods of recording history and encourages a consideration of the experience of those who have been historically overlooked (as well as a consideration of the experience of women artists who have had difficulty penetrating the art world) but it does so in a way that balances critical content with aesthetic sensitivity.12    

More examples could be given that would demonstrate how artists have remained sensitive to their materials by not allowing them to be trampled by critical content.13  In any case, such work demonstrates that artists can contribute to a democratic way of life not only by providing grist for aesthetic experience and growth, but by fostering new associations for the viewer.  More specifically, it is conducive to a democratic way of life since it is designed to challenge entrenched social perspectives and to encourage the viewer to consider the plight of marginalized social groups. Should artists, then, be political activists?  What does the proceeding analysis tell us about the cultural role of artists?

            Again, for Dewey, the artist is someone whose work demonstrates that experience can be lead to fulfilling ends. That is, her work clarifies for the viewer that experience can be intelligently transformed to the extent that meaningful experience and growth occurs.  However, there is a tradition that sees the artist as playing the role of cultural reactionary and even as the instigator of social change.  Greek and Roman tragedians often enacted political criticism in their work and many other narratives have historically pointed out society’s ills (Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe come to mind).  Further the visual arts have also been used to make political statements, whether Blake’s A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows (1792), Goya’s The Third of May (1808), Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840), Morbelli’s For Eighty Cents (1895), or Picasso’s Guernica (1937).  Dewey too seems to espouse this view when he states that “Impulsion beyond all limits that are externally set inheres in the very nature of the artist’s work” and that “one of the functions of art is precisely to sap the moralistic timidity that causes the mind to shy away from some materials and refuse to admit them into the clear and purifying light of perceptive consciousness.”14 

Indeed, Dewey must leave room for activist art or art that otherwise has direct critical content since he pairs aesthetic experience with a democratic way of life and since such a way of life entails continually appraising the variety of one’s internal and external associations.  Again, the stipulation is that for such work to serve both masters it must strike a delicate balance between form and critical content.  Indeed, this is no easy task and much critical art will be poor since it is easy to let critical content carry the weight that is normally shouldered by artistic skill and sensitivity.15  However, when the balance is struck—in cases such as The Dinner Party—the effect is all the more praiseworthy.          

III.

The previous section centers on the relationship between the work of art and a democratic way of life, but something more needs to be said about the experience of those who encounter such work.  Again, The Dinner Party is conducive to consummatory experience since it has good form however, a skeptic may object that the aesthetic experience that it produces undermines its critical content since such experience is characteristically holistic in nature.  That is, the fulfilling experiences that the work tends to generate in its audiences mitigate its critical stance since such experiences ultimately placate and pacify audiences by giving them the false sense that “all is well.”  The skeptic may also add that such work stifles significant personal or social change since it encourages the viewer to think that understanding and appreciating feminist art is sufficient for such change.  When this happens, one leaves an exhibition of The Dinner Party without actually being motivated to resist and/or change the cultural practices that it criticizes.  In order to bring about significant change, the work must be designed to thwart benign consummatory experience.16 

We saw that Dewey holds that consummatory experience is necessary for a meaningful/democratic way of life and yet our skeptic argues that it is parasitic on such a way of life since it provides fulfilling experiences that are at odds with the fragmented experience that characterizes many of the transactions that take place in everyday life.  Fulfilling experience produces a false consciousness that precludes one from becoming aware of the gravity and prevalence of social injustice.  This epistemic component functions by producing false beliefs concerning the plight of various social groups and by otherwise fostering and maintaining categorical frameworks through which one incorrectly interprets social experience.  In doing so fulfilling experience renders audience members complicit with oppressive social practices (call this the domination component).  These two components both spring from the form of a work of art (since the form is the conduit of consummatory experience) and consequently has nothing to do with the work’s content.17      

There are two reasons why I think this account of consummatory experience/aesthetic form is inaccurate.  The first is that it assumes that form and content are independent or, to put it another way, that even critical content will be undermined by aesthetic form. Indeed, this is a stretch, for, it is hard to imagine how the content of The Dinner Party could be overridden by its form and this is because its form and content were designed to work in a reciprocal fashion.  The viewer cannot easily dismiss the criticism that it the work enacts since its form and critical content resonate with one another.18 

Second, this account holds that consummatory experience encourages audiences to construe themselves as “Cartesian subjects,” that is, subjects that are unified and autonomous in nature.  This is the part of the epistemic component that concerns the self and it contributes to the tendency to form false beliefs about others since it encourages the individual to assume that experience is not (and cannot be) fragmented.  The difficulty here is that it is not clear why the form of a work (and consummatory experience in general) necessarily produces the illusion of an autonomous self.  Indeed, Dewey would emphasize that such experience is but a stage in an unending process of growth and would stress that consummatory experience is indicative not of an autonomous subject, but one that is being forced to grow in response to a changing physical and social environment.  Consummatory experience stands out from experience that is either chaotic or overly repetitious in nature and this encourages the individual to pursue meaning experience and/or growth.19      

             Yet another worry voiced by critics is that audiences, because of their admiration for the moral stance of the work, will remain oblivious to its aesthetic merits or flaws.  That is, such viewers are akin to Christians of the Middle-Ages who primarily found religious value in their encounters with triptychs, icons, and cathedrals since their way of life was primarily oriented toward the religious.  For such viewers, only a minimal amount of aesthetic sensitivity was needed for the work to be aesthetically valuable since the ideas that motivated religious art corresponded with their own.  Likewise, The Dinner Party will necessarily have aesthetic value for feminists who consider viewing it as something of a pilgrimage and, like religious individuals who encounter religious art, they will remain somewhat insensitive to the work’s form. 

            However, those familiar with Dewey will notice that this worry is foreign to his aesthetic since he holds that aesthetic value cannot be divorced from the values that color day-to-day life.  That is, in many places in Art as Experience Dewey argues that aesthetic value is contextualized by one’s concerns, beliefs, and practices.  For example, the Parthenon was, for the ancient Athenians, an expression of “civic commemoration” that corresponded to their way of life.20  Likewise, “primitive art” is an expression of the life and values of an organized community and that expression is altered when it is stripped from its context in a way that renders it conducive to a detached manner of looking.21  Hence, for Dewey, the point that the aesthetic value will not be fully appreciated is moot since it assumes that the work of art must be viewed objectively.  The religious believer should view religious art in terms of his or her belief and the feminist should likewise appreciate feminist art since it resonates with his or her beliefs, values, and practices.  Aesthetic experience is necessarily shaped by the contours of one’s personal experience, however, with this said, the stipulation must be made that living a democratic way of life entails ensuring that the possibility of pursuing a plurality of values remain open.  Hence, the correspondence between religious belief and religious art is appropriate, however, this does not mean that every work of art must be interpreted religiously, for doing so impedes the ability of the work to create communities of experience among those who share different beliefs and values and can otherwise distort the meanings of the work.  In democratizing aesthetic experience, Dewey emphasizes that it is contextualized by everyday life and this entails a correspondence between aesthetic experience and religious, political, and ethical life, however, since a democratic way of life entails entering into a wide array of internal and external social associations, it must be kept in mind that aesthetic value must not be monolithically dominated by other values.  

            In conclusion, it was shown that a work of art can have critical content as along as it is skillfully formed.  If form is not developed and material not transformed into media of expression, then the work will function as a lesson and will not have the ability to actualize a plurality of ends.  In turn, this account of form and content answers the question concerning artistic activism, for the artist can choose to address social ills and still produce works of art that have a high degree of aesthetic value.  Such works balance social critique and artistic skill in a reciprocal relationship that contributes to the overall significance of the work.  Finally, it was argued that consummatory experience is not necessarily structurally antithetical to social criticism and that the worry about the aesthetic sensitivity of sympathetic viewers is not a problem if it is kept in mind that aesthetic experience necessarily reflects one’s values and if room is left for the work to communicate novel experience.  Indeed, living a democratic way of life entails remaining open to works of art so that growth may occur.   

Notes-

 

1 – Democracy and Education (New York: The Free Press), 1944, p. 87.

2 – “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us,” in John Dewey: The Later Works

      1939-1941 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, Jo Ann Boydston (ed.),

      14:226.  

3 – Ibid.

4 – Democracy and Education, pp. 83-87.

5 – Art as Experience (New York: Perigree), 1934, pp. 334-336.  Hereafter, this text will

      be referred to as “AE”.

6 – Ibid., pp. 272-273, 334-336.

7 – AE, p. 116.

8 – Ibid., p. 346.

9 – See Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party (New York: Penguin), 1996

10 – For more on this principle see AE, pp. 160-161.

11 – For more on this see AE pp. 197-198.

12 – I should say that some are critical of the form of The Dinner Party.  It has been  

        criticized for being overly repetitious (39 place settings) and for being kitschy 

        (the Sojourner Truth plate presents a caricature of African mask imagery).  With this

        said, I do not think that such flaws hinder the ability of the work to generate

        consummatory experience.  See Robert Hughes, “An Obsessive Feminist Pantheon,”

        Time, December 15, 1980, pp. 85-86 and Hilton Kramer, “Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner

        Party’ Comes to Brooklyn Museum,” New York Times, October 17, 1980, C1, p. 18.  

        For a more positive review see Arthur Danto’s “The Feminine Mystique,” The

        Nation, November 25, 2002, pp. 32.

13 – The photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and the paintings of Robert Colescott

        come to mind.

14 – AE, p. 189.

15 – Arthur Danto suggests that the prevalence of bad art is due to the fact that

        “disturbatory art” focuses primarily on advancing social criticism and/or criticism

        of the art-world itself.. See his essay “Bad Aesthetic Times,” Encounters and 

        (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux), 1990, pp. 297-312.

16 – For example, one could cite the “work” of “The Guerrilla Girls” whose mission

        is to expose the sexism that still abounds in the art world.  See their website at

        <http://www.guerillagirls.com> (accessed 8/29/06).

17 – I am indebted to Noel Carroll’s discussion of ideology and mass art in his A

        Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1998, pp. 360-412.

18 – Fore Dewey’s discussion of the relationship between form and content see AE, 

        pp. 106-133. 

19 – I would add that this is facilitated by the problem solving process that the encounter

        with a good work of art elicits.

20 – AE, p. 4

21 – AE, pp. 326-331.

 

Plates-

 

Plate One

 

Plate Two

 

Plate Three

 

Plate Four