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  • John Dewey and the Question of Artful Communication
  • Scott R. Stroud

The American pragmatist John Dewey included tantalizing sections of praise of the power of communication in his important work on community, experience, and their improvement, noting in 1925 that "of all aff airs, communication is the most wonderful" (1988a, LW 1:132) and in 1927 that communication plays an important part in the individual's attempt "to learn to become human" (1984, LW 2:332).1 Some in the field of communication have sensed the important, but undeveloped, role that communication plays in his thought and have attempted to use Dewey's work in analyzing rhetorical practice, cultural studies, and the role of journalism in society.2 While such studies strive to clarify the value and process of communication in Dewey's thought, they fall short of explaining one seemingly simple thing that is implied in these passages—that communication can be experienced as aesthetic or artful. Nathan Crick identifies such a lacuna in the literature and notes that "beyond its utility as an argument against elite forms of academic criticism, the value of Dewey's aesthetic theory for communication studies remained underdeveloped" (2004, 303). Although he does an admirable job of tracing the relation of aesthetics to communication in Dewey's evolving thought, Crick comes no closer than others in answering the fundamental question of how communication can be artful or aesthetic—he merely argues for the general point that " communication, [End Page 153] whether it occurs in an oration, a conversation, or a television, is best understood as a form of art that has the potential to bring about aesthetic experience in its participants and open their eyes to the world of possibility embodied within each of us" (2004, 314). How exactly does this aesthetization of communication occur? Crick ends his article with the interesting claim that "in its aesthetic form communication becomes rhetorical. It turns communication into an art whose goal is a presentation that unites form and rhythm in a manner that can reach down into the experiences of the audience and literally transform them into something new" (2004, 317). How exactly does communication meet such standards? Does such a "high" art of communication as rhetoric fit everyday communication, the vast majority of human communicative practices?3 Although Crick's study is an important inquiry into the overall role of communication in Dewey's aesthetics, it still leaves open the fundamental question—How exactly can any given act of communication (beyond the eloquent and poetic oration) be rendered aesthetic or artful?

This question was vitally important for Dewey, as he places artistic and aesthetic aspects of communicative practice at the very heart of his social and political philosophy. In describing the "Great Community," he announces that it will take place when two conditions hold: "The highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breathe life into it. . . . Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. . . . It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication" (1984, LW 2:350). This is a vital passage for understanding Dewey's aims, as it clearly links a scientific method of thinking (his preferred method of "inquiry") with a form of communication that can be taken as an art.

Yet scholars of communication systematically miss this part of the Deweyan equation. For instance, take Lary Belman's early study of Dewey's view of communication. He concludes by analyzing this same passage from Dewey on the two conditions of the Great Community and states, "The basic conditions for the creation of a Great Community . . . were, Dewey postulated, the presence of (a) vigorous, systematic, and continuous social inquiry to reveal the influential agencies at work in society and their mode of operation, and (b) widespread and rapid distribution of the findings of this inquiry in a form readily understood by those for whom these findings [End Page 154] have significance" (1977, 36–37). It is remarkable that the...


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pp. 153-183
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