- Hit by the Street:Dewey and Popular Culture
The idea for this paper started with an image that is likely wholly imaginary but interesting nonetheless. It's the late 1920s in New York City. John Dewey, after a busy day of teaching and working through the notes that will eventually become Individualism Old and New, leaves his office at Columbia University. Instead of turning south toward home, he turns north and east, into Harlem. He strolls for a bit, turns up 7th Ave., and stops in front of the Regent Theatre. He goes inside, takes off his coat, and catches the early showing of The Lights of New York. Fifty-seven minutes later, he leaves the Regent. He heads home, has a bite to eat with his daughter, but still feels restless. After dinner, he puts on his coat and hat and heads out again—this time to 51st and Broadway, where a bandleader named Fletcher Henderson is playing at a club called Roseland. Dewey stands in the back, bespectacled and moustached, and watches the people dance to this new music called jazz. Maybe he even has a drink . . . .
I am not sure this ever happened, but it makes a compelling image, at least for someone who is interested in Dewey's aesthetics. Dewey lived in one of the artistic centers of the world during the emergence of two significant forms of popular art that remain huge influences on our culture—jazz and film. Dewey also did not tackle aesthetics until relatively late in his career. First, there was a chapter on "Experience, Nature, and Art" in Experience and Nature (1925). Later, after criticism from Lewis Mumford and prompting from Albert Barnes, Dewey published his thorough treatment of the philosophy of art in 1934 as Art as Experience. In both works, Dewey advanced a view of aesthetics that is sensitive to the role social class plays in traditional conceptions of aesthetics. He attempts to overcome this tradition by radically refocusing aesthetics from art objects to aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience is marked by continuity, in which various aspects of our experience that are often separated, such as mind and body, reason and affect, and means and ends, are brought together. [End Page 26]
In what follows, I will briefly outline Dewey's aesthetics with an eye toward the role of social class within his theory of aesthetic experience. Then, I will delve briefly into Dewey's views on film as an example of the complexities Dewey's aesthetics provides for a theory of popular art. Dewey was seemingly dismissive of film and other forms of popular art, despite a developing aesthetic theory that would seem to encompass such forms. Such dismissiveness seems to arise from these class concerns. Popular art is produced for economic reasons and consumed for escapist ones. Just because Dewey was sensitive to the role class plays in the division between fine and popular art does not mean he embraced the emerging popular arts of his day. I see this as a tension within Dewey's own writings—a tension between the social class dynamics of art and the potentiality of aesthetic experience inherent everywhere. This tension seems to be somewhat out of place, if only because Dewey was very concerned with demonstrating the aesthetic potentiality of "merely" utilitarian objects such as buildings or pots. Finally, I will offer some contemporary examples of how Dewey's aesthetics is used to engage elements of popular culture. Both John McDermott and Richard Shusterman recognize that a Deweyan aesthetic provides valuable conceptual resources for critique and understanding of popular art. Thus, McDermott and Shusterman move Dewey along, overcoming the unresolved tension Dewey left in his own aesthetics. Taking popular art seriously is important, for it is one of the major social forces that has considerable educational influence; we must reckon with popular art if we are serious about human growth and flourishing.
In the preface to the 1929 version of Experience and Nature, Dewey is clear that his emerging theory of aesthetic experience seeks to bridge gaps. The primary gap is between, as the title of the work suggests, experience and nature. The gap between how the...