Dewey on the Isolation of Art from Society

In the first part of his book Art as Experience, John Dewey explores the break between art and daily life.

Photo by Timon Klauser on Unsplash

Dewey notices that whenever an artwork becomes famous and gains a classic status, it simultaneously becomes isolated from society.

Although he is not using this terminology, Dewey is actually talking about musealisation; the process whereby an object placed inside a museum becomes disentangled from its social and historical context losing its previous relationship with daily life and society. A musealised object is in essence a pure artwork.

Dewey notices that art in the modern era is ostracised to a separate realm away from its conditions of origin and operation of experience. For this reason he believes that the task for a true philosophy of art is:

“to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognised to constitute experience. Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations, It is the business of those who are concerned with the theory of the earth… to make this fact evident in its various implications.”

Dewey believes that the theory of art must go beyond art. We need to forget art in order to understand it and look at the wider picture. Only in this way can we finally understand what exactly is the position of art in the world.

However, going beyond art is not as easy as it sounds. It is not enough to look beyond the fine arts, says Dewey. The aesthetic is not limited to the museum or the gallery but extends to so much more.

“The sources of art in human experience will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball player infect the onlooking crowd; who notes… the zest of the spectator in poking the wood burning on the hearth and in watching the darting flames and crumbling coals.”

the aesthetic is an integral part of human experience:

“The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged.”

The American philosopher expresses his frustration that up to his day, art theories have rendered art so alien to the common people that they are unaware that they are experiencing art in their daily life.

In fact, theory has made art appear so distant that people are often repelled when they are told that their daily life has aesthetic quality capable of granting pleasure.

“The arts which today have most vitality for the average person are things he does not take to be arts; for instance, the movie, jazzed music, the comic strip, and, too frequently, newspaper accounts of love-nests, murders, and exploits of bandits. For, when what he knows as art is relegated to the museum and gallery, the unconquerable impulse towards experiences enjoyable in themselves finds such outlet as the daily environment provides.”

According to Dewey, people need to accept that art is not something separated from ordinary experience. When this becomes understood and art finds its place again amongst daily life, society will rediscover its appreciation for distinguished objects. However, the more distant high art appears to society, “esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar.”

4 thoughts on “Dewey on the Isolation of Art from Society

  1. I read it again, and it seems more reasonable on the 2n reading. That art is an outcome of normal creative endeavors like plumbing. He seems to ask good questions, does he follow through with answers? Love your style of the article, a gentle unfolding of informationā€”perhaps like using a soft brush to wipe away sediment from an artifact?

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    1. I am still reading the book and I must admit it is pretty interesting. He has answers some of which are pretty convincing while others not that much. It certainly feels like he is writing a lot about something that could have been written in fewer pages. I will write a detailed article on Art as Experience as soon as I finish the book, so there will be more details about it there!

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