Can art change the world? American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey (1859 – 1952) certainly thought so. Dewey's progressive politics and their relationship to art, more specifically how they illustrate social practice art as an aesthetic experience, are the focus of Chicago-based curator Mary Jane Jacob's new book, Dewey for Artists. Written in an easy-to-digest manner, the book establishes Jacob among a small group of artists and art professionals—notably Tom Finkelpearl and Greg Sholette—who have long looked to Dewey as a theoretical foothold.
Known as the father of American pragmatism, Dewey had a prolific output—some 37 volumes of his writings have been published, in addition to compilations of his correspondence and lectures. Art as Experience, the treatise on aesthetics that he penned in 1934, was on the reading lists of Marcel Duchamp, Josef Albers, Robert Motherwell, and Allan Kaprow, in addition to generations of BFA and MFA students. In it, Dewey broadened the definition of art to include everyday activities like "tennis-playing, singing, acting," as well as "knowledge and propositions which are the products of thinking," and the role of the artist to include ordinary people; what mattered for him was that tasks were performed with care and attention. In his estimation, aesthetic experiences, whether found in daily life or with a work of art, were all-consuming, unifying the mind and the body and helping individuals connect to themselves and the world around them. By the 1960s, his assertion that "art is not the thing but the experience" became central for artists whose work was more at home in the street than inside of an art museum and involved numerous co-creators. However, despite artists' increasing attention to life as art, Dewey's philosophy fell out of favor with the advent of Marxist and postmodern theory and the Frankfurt School, which helped artists of the 1980s and '90s parse out identity politics and deconstruct the public realm. Dewey for Artists is thus intended to revive interest in Dewey's thought among today's artists, curators, and educators and to show his relevance to contemporary art practice during the Trump era.
What distinguishes Dewey's theory from his European successors is his uniquely American vision rooted in the merging of theory and practice. He lived through numerous moments of struggle in the United States, from the Civil War and the fight for workers' rights, to the struggle against European fascism and the threat of the Cold War, and his thoughts on society—and art's role in it—reflect these experiences. Dewey believed in the exceptionalism of American democracy and liberalism, which he thought could be realized through progressive social reform. While a professor at the University of Chicago—where he founded the Philosophy Department—he became a leading figure in educational reform and sponsored community projects such as Hull House, a settlement house for recent European immigrants. He also directed his efforts to correcting what he considered injustices, such as his involvement in the Pullman Strike for fair pay for railroad workers and his role in the investigation of cases against communists like Leon Trotsky. Such activities were considered highly controversial and even resulted in his surveillance by the FBI. Notwithstanding, Dewey considered democracy "the sole way of living which believes wholeheartedly in the process of experience as end and as means." "Democracy," he said, "begins with conversation."
Jacob interprets Dewey's ideas through a myriad of experiential and participatory artworks by international artists with whom she has interacted or whose work she has curated, including Tania Bruguera's activist workshop space for immigrants in Queens, the poetic installations of wafting fabric by Ann Hamilton, Thomas Hirschhorn's Bronx housing estate construction dedicated to Gramsci, a film by Jeon Joonho of his father remembering a particularly beautiful sunset, and the Norwegian forest planted to print books for Katie Paterson's Future Library project. In these works, "art" is often found not in objects but in the generation of ideas through discussion and meaningful encounters—which Dewey found paramount to the realization of a more democratic society. Jacob sees socially engaged art as the ultimate expression of Dewey's philosophy, a combination of life processes and art processes into what she calls an "über-aesthetic experience."
Her real success, however, is in illustrating how she herself has embodied Dewey's call for conscious experience as a curator and educator. Jacob draws on her 30-year career, which spans contemporary museums in Chicago and Los Angeles to her current role as a curator and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the early 1990s, she began curating exhibitions of site-specific and socially engaged art, such as Culture in Action in Chicago (1993), which involved artists who prioritized the participation of local communities as audiences and co-producers. The conversation series she curated in Atlanta in 1996, Conversations at the Castle, introduced her to Dewey, but in a way her connection to him had already been solidified as a student in the New York public school system where art was taught to be a valued part of everyday life using a Deweyan model. "Without Dewey," she professes, "I would not have connected art to social justice." Her attempts to loosen the frame of art and dismiss the elitism of the art world follow in his footsteps.
Dewey argued that an art "for the people" promoted democratic values and hence served as an antidote to the rise of totalitarianism. Yet, those hoping to find a practical guide for artists to address social problems like racism and anti-immigration sentiment fostered by today's simmering neo-fascist movement may be disappointed. In showing Dewey's relevance to the present moment, Jacob has perhaps also unwittingly demonstrated that not much has changed since Dewey's time—immigrants still feel unwelcome, economic inequality remains a key issue for the leftist progressive movement, and racially motivated violence continues to plague the country. Hence, Dewey's relentless call for reform and manifold use of hard-to-define terms like "liberty" and "democracy" at times come off as overly optimistic or even slightly naïve for today's context. Jacob posits that Dewey might seem too populist for avant-garde taste or too American for those who rally for decolonization. However, his belief in living life as an artful practice and focus on fostering rational debate and creativity as a means to achieve a more just society remains a worthy lesson for artists and citizens alike.
CARA JORDAN is an art historian and editor whose research focuses on Joseph Beuys’s conceptual legacy in socially engaged art.