Should Art be Public?

Our contemporary understanding of art and the
art world appears to give a lot of credit to the subjective opinion of the
individual, so much so that everything and anything can be considered a work of
art as long as it is “a work of art” to someone,
even if that someone is the artist himself. However, is this opinion
legitimate, and who is to acknowledge and verify the validity of the work’s
status as “art” when it is kept private? This essay hopes to deal with the
broad question of “should art be public?” and will attempt to address this
topic through four sub questions, which will be answered in the second half of
my essay.

The sub questions are:

1.     Should
artist create with the intention of publicly displaying their work?

2.     Is a
work of art created in private and for private enjoyment a work of art at all?

3.     Should
the purpose of art be to serve the community?

4.     Is the
enjoyment of art an elitist activity?

For the first part of my essay, I will be
closely analyzing John Dewey’s essay, “Art as Experience”[1] (Aesthetics, Pgs.
296-316), explaining and expanding on his points in an attempt to answer the
questions I have raised. Dewey begins his essay by bringing attention to the
often ironic practice of elevating a work of art to classic status, thereby
taking it away from its original space and intention, and then trying to form a
theory and understanding of the significance of the work under this separated,
abstracted condition. This poses an obvious problem, as Dewey explains, that
the artwork “becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was
brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual
life-experience” (Pg. 296). The example he gives is that of the Parthenon, a widely
acknowledged great work of art. Dewey explains that while today we look at the
Parthenon with elevated awe and admiration, we are not fully experiencing the
original purpose of the architecture, and as such will not be able to
understand the original value of it. In order to perceive the true significance
of the Parthenon, i.e., to have a real aesthetic experience and form a theory
(seek the truth) about it, we have to look at it in its original context and derive
meaning from there. When we do so, we will see that the Parthenon was a
manifestation of the civic commemoration of the Athenian citizens, which came
to fruition as a means of expression of their common life, and had not set out with
the aim to achieve artistic recognition.

Dewey makes a case for the objects and
activities that were admired and revered – the objects and activities that we
glorify and put on a pedestal or in an opera house – saying that in their own
time and place, those things were intimately connected with everyday life and
came about as an intensification of “the sense of immediate living” (Pg. 298). The
different forms of arts and art objects: dance, music, drama, painting,
sculpture… all originated from very realistic needs of everyday communal life.
They have their origins in religious rites and worship, in instruction of history
and tradition, in celebration of glories and festivals, and they all serve the
purpose of strengthening civic pride. Dewey also explains that under such
conditions, Plato’s disdain of art as mimesis, and hence a hindrance to the
truth, is not based so much on the fact that art is a literal copying of
things, but that “it reflected the emotions and ideas that are associated with
the chief institutions of social life” – which obviously proves more powerful
and dangerous (Pg. 298).

How art came about – as a form of expression
and closely connected to everyday life – appears to be vastly different from
our conceptions of “Art” today. Dewey argues that the current segregation of
art, or what he calls the “compartmental conception of fine art”, emerged from
the rise of nationalism and imperialism (Pg. 299). The museums that display
these works of art were built originally to serve as memorials of state power.
They served the purpose of exhibiting the artistic greatness of the state’s past,
while also displaying the military strength and power of the state’s present
via the exhibition of loot gathered by its leaders in conquest of other

The growth of capitalism was also cited by Dewey
as another propelling factor of the chasm between art and common life. The new
riches, with their newly gained capital, saw the need to acquire works of fine
art as a signifier of their status. The rarity of the art works lend to their
high cost, and this exclusiveness serves the purpose of elevating the status of
the new rich capitalists to one of higher culture and good taste. Another
crucial phenomenon that Dewey points out is that not only do individuals
undertake this activity of exhibiting taste and culture, but whole communities
and nations attempt to exhibit their artistic and cultural good taste by
erecting museums and galleries and theatres. As Dewey insightfully puts it,
“these things reflect and establish superior cultural status, while their
segregation from the common life reflects the fact that they are not part of a
native and spontaneous culture” (Pg. 299).

I found that section of his essay to be
especially relevant to my experience in my home country, Singapore, as the arts
and cultural scene in Singapore appears to be undergoing the exact situation
that Dewey is criticizing. Singapore is renowned for being a clean and
beautiful world-class city, with many achievements in its urban planning and
architecture. In fact, for a country as small as Singapore, it is rather
amazing that we are often on the global radar for developing new, contemporary
architecture and urban spaces that serve as leading examples in the industry. From
the perspective of an average citizen, though, these strange and cool buildings
and spaces seem very segregated from everyday life. Not just the shells, but
the content and the purpose of the buildings as well are not entirely
integrated into the everyday lives of citizens. One of the reasons could be
that the central area, where all these exciting new projects are developed, is
essentially the business district where nobody lives or only very rich people
live in; or worse, constructed entirely on reclaimed land that is distant from
the lives of ordinary people. It is curious to think that we simultaneously
invest in beautiful infrastructures of arts, sports, and culture, while cutting
art, P.E., and music classes in schools. The result, then, is that one
invariably feels that these buildings and art spaces are built for show – to attract
expats and rich tourists, to display that we have an arts scene going on (and
by extension are cultured) – and all this alienates the common citizen.

Capitalism, as manifested through modern
industry and commerce, fueled the mass production and commodification of art
for the international market, stripping works of art of their indigenous
statues, and rendering them as “specimens of fine art and nothing else” (Pg.
299). As a result, what used to be a form of expression and an integral part of
communal and everyday life has now been taken out of context and packaged into
a symbol of privilege and special status. This has detrimental effects on the
status of the artist, as rapid mechanization of industry for mass production
aimed at an international market effectively pushed the relevance of the artist
out of the picture. The artist cannot compete with the speed of the machine in
mass production, and ends up “less integrated than formerly in the normal flow
of social services” (Pg. 299). As a result, the artist loses his place in
society, and being alienated from community life, resorts to making
individualistic “self-expressionist” art, while at the same time taking on a
more eccentric personality to indicate their separateness from and indifference
of the trends of the market. This in turn alienates the artist even more from
the life of community and civic consciousness, and everything spirals into a
vicious circle.

Dewey then goes on to make his crucial point:
all these factors leading to the chasm between the artist and the audience/
consumer ultimately leads to a separation also between the ordinary and the
aesthetic experience. Dewey identifies the nature of his problem to be “that of
recovering the continuity of esthetic experience with normal processes of
living” (Pg. 300). For Dewey, aesthetic experiences are the only authentic and
complete experiences there are to life. He later elaborates in detail in the
third section of his essay what it means to have an experience, and how every
meaningful experience, even that of thinking, would necessarily be marked by
having an esthetic quality to it.

To understand what Dewey means by the esthetic
experience, it might be useful to look at what he had said about non-esthetic
experiences. He explains the two pervading situations of non-esthetic
experience, which are so common that we take them to be the norm of
experiences. The first is a kind of loose, drifting, discursive experience with
“no genuine initiations and concludings” (Pg. 307). The second is a kind of
automatic, mechanical efficiency that is aimless and does not come to “a close
or consummation in consciousness” (Pg. 306). In contrast, esthetic quality in
an experience arises from the unity of emotions and a moving towards a close, a
completeness that is expressed through “a felt harmony” (Pg. 309). It is thus
that Dewey argues that every authentic experience, in so far as to be
considered an experience, is
necessarily consisted of esthetic qualities. It is also true that once the
unity is achieved, this esthetic character would be found even in an experience
not commonly regarded as an esthetic one.

Dewey then proceeds to address the question of
esthetic experience in relation to the artist. We usually associate the
“artistic” with “the act of production” and the “esthetic” with “that of
perception and enjoyment”, Dewey explains (Pg. 310). On the word level, it
would appear to indicate that what the artist experiences when creating is
vastly different from what the audience experiences when viewing the artwork.
Dewey argues that that is not the case. In fact, the opposite is true that
there is a strong connection between perception and appreciation of the artwork,
and the act of creation.

The esthetic experience in itself is linked to
the experience of making. Dewey illustrates this point quite clearly with the
example of a beautiful and pleasing object: that the object ceases to be a work
of art – and hence ceases to evoke an esthetic experience and response – once
we realize that it is formed naturally and not crafted by human hands. And
while the “esthetic”, referring to experiences of appreciation, perception, and
enjoyment, is often linked to the point of view of the consumer, the artist
himself presumes this role of the perceiver during his process of art making.
We can then say that by virtue of his working, the artist is having an experience, and an esthetic one for
the matter. The artist, through his process of artistic creation, has direct
perception of the work he is making, and will only consider a work done when he
perceives the result to be good – and this is achieved through both
intellectual judgment and the artist’s own direct perception.

To elaborate on the connection between
perception and the act of creation, Dewey gave the illustration of the visitor
at a gallery. He argues that esthetic perception on the part of the viewer is
one of continuous interaction with the objects on display, an active exercise
involving the present and the past, of perceptions that sum up the total
experiences and habits of the viewer’s life. What the visitor perceives, beyond
a superficial viewing of the artwork, has to be in keeping in organization and
form with the conscious experiences of the artist when he created the work.

Finally, I want to examine Dewey’s view on what
it means to be creating artistically. To quote Dewey, “Craftsmanship to be
artistic in the final sense must be ‘loving’; it must care deeply for the
subject matter upon which skill is exercised” (Pg. 311). He also explains that esthetic
experience stems from an authentic experience of creation and production, in
which the artist/ craftsman is alive and “possesses his living through
enjoyment” of his act of production (Pg. 304). Dewey gives the example of the
mechanic who is interested and engaged in his work, genuinely caring for his
tools and materials, and finding satisfaction in his work – that, for Dewey, is
what it is to be artistically engaged.

After a close analysis of Dewey’s essay, “Art
as Experience”, I think it would be safe to say that Dewey’s answer to my question:
“should art be public?” specifically my first question of “should artist create
with the intention of publicly displaying their work?” would be a resounding
“yes”. In fact, for Dewey, art is always created with the intention of being
displayed and enjoyed publicly. He wrote in his essay, “to be truly artistic, a
work must also be esthetic – that is, framed for enjoyed receptive perception”
(Pg. 311). It is clear, then, that for Dewey, art is meant to be a form of
communication, a form of non-passive activity between the creator and the
perceiver. This is in keeping with where he started off in his essay, which was
a lamentation of sorts of our present situation of compartmentalization of art,
as opposed to the origins of art as an expression born naturally from communal

Dewey’s seeming disdain for the artist
embarking on a journey of “self-expressionist” art creation and assuming
exaggerated, eccentric personalities suggests that he would likely be very
against the idea of “art for art’s sake”, and also against self-serving,
“meaningless” art. By that I am thinking of the works of whimsical fancies
created by amateurs, who when asked about the intention or meaning of their
work answers with, “there is no meaning, I just felt like making something”. I
do think that art has to be intentionally created for it to be meaningful, or
even to be considered art at all. But I wonder if it has to be created for the
public? Another question to consider is: Is a work of art created in private
and for private enjoyment a work of art at all?

I think that after reading Dewey’s essay, and
after much thought on my own part as well, I would say that a work created for
personal enjoyment is not to be considered a work of art, or at least it is
incomplete. There is something intrinsic about wanting to share, connect and
communicate with the creation of an artwork. As Dewey writes, “Without an act
of re-creation the object is not perceived as a work of art” (Pg. 314). However,
the late works of Francisco de Goya comes to my mind now, and I think his
example is crucial to the discussion of this topic. At the age of 72, renowned
painter Francisco de Goya moved into a house called Deaf Man’s Villa outside
Madrid[2]. At that point in life, he
was deaf, had survived two fatal illnesses and was anxious of relapse, and was
getting more and more isolated from society[3]. On the walls in that
house, he painted fourteen paintings that were going to be known collectively
as the “Black Paintings”, the most famous one probably being “Saturn Devouring
His Son”. Those fourteen paintings depict scenes of nightmarish vision and
dark, disturbing themes. Goya moved to France in 1823, leaving the house for
his only grandson, Mariano, and the paintings were to stay undisclosed until
1864[4]. Although there have been
recent theories that the paintings are actually painted by his son and not Goya
himself[5], the general consensus is
that these paintings are to be attributed to Goya. It is also widely believed
that with Goya’s embittered attitude towards humanity and his act of self-isolation,
these paintings were never meant to be publicly seen or exhibited. If all that
is true, then should Goya’s black paintings be considered works of art?

With the status of Goya in mind, and the huge
reverence for those fourteen paintings, it would seem difficult to say that
they are not works of art. But when Goya was creating these works, was his
experience esthetic? Did he even consider them to be “works”? Or does a work of
art come into being only when it has been acknowledged by someone substantial –
the art critic or art historian? I would argue that from Goya’s point of view,
if he never intended for them to be seen, that they are not works of art, or at
best incomplete works of art. However, once the paintings were shown and
acknowledged by art critics and viewers, it takes on the position of being a
true work of art. Goya might not have intended to communicate anything, or at
least not to share it with anyone, but through the viewing of his work, the
viewer perceives something and takes away something that I would consider to be
part of an esthetic experience as well.

Another question I wanted to raise in this
paper is: should the purpose of art be to serve the community? Dewey writes
extensively on the value and importance of art and an esthetic experience in
communal life, and even goes so much as to say that esthetic perceptions are
“necessary ingredients of happiness” (Pg. 300). He also concludes that art
stems from and is an enhancement of what is admired and valued in things of ordinary
life. Hence, it should be rather straightforward that, for Dewey, the purpose
of art is to serve the community. In fact, it should be one of a healthy relationship;
wherein the need to create arises naturally from the needs of the everyday life
of the community, and the artist takes pride and finds satisfaction and meaning
in his artistic work. The community, in turn, should engage in the perception
of the artwork actively, seeking his own comprehension of the artist’s original

I would like to return to the example I gave of
the situation in Singapore, in which I expressed my concern for the seemingly
alienating instances of art for the public. There are many local communities
with neighborhood facilities and activities that could be more heavily invested
on, both by the government, but more importantly also by the inhabitants of the
neighborhood. After all, civic pride stems from a direct involvement and a
sense of belonging and responsibility for the community. Indeed, the alienating
aspect of many of the art centers/ cultural hubs in Singapore originates from
the fact that they feel too elitist. As I have previously noted, much of the
pristine, avant-garde buildings in Singapore, as well as much of the social and
recreational venues and facilities, often feel extremely detached and elitist.
It is not so much an “art scene” we have, but rather an “art business scene”.

This leads to still another question I have in
mind, which is: is the enjoyment of art an elitist activity? Dewey would argue
that it should not be, but the development of capitalism, imperialism and a
global art market all factor towards the detached and elitist experience of art
making and art consuming that is the norm right now. As Dewey notes in his
essay, “economic patronage by wealthy and powerful individuals has at many
times played a part in the encouragement of artistic production” (Pg. 299).
Indeed, contemporary art is so commodified and hyped to the point of absurdity.
But are the people in the art world, the art dealers and art critics, the
people who invested time and money to be “educated” about Art, willing to
reconcile with the fact that art is to be enjoyed and could be enjoyed by
everyone? It is also interesting to note a phenomenon in big cities right now,
that is the trend of gallery and museum hopping amongst young, middle class
people. While they appear to be engaged and participating in art, most of the
people are unfortunately only looking, and not perceiving. They are what Dewey
calls the “lazy, idle, … indurated in convention” – the people who would not
really “see or hear” (Pg. 314). In response to that, contemporary art becomes
even more about providing a beautiful or interesting photo spot for the
spectators. All this has been undoubtedly caused by the rise of social media
and smartphones Apps. It is also worthwhile to think about how our devices have
altered our experience of art viewing: the television and smartphones have
killed film, and now Instagram has killed fashion. It is also interesting to
think about the works of art that are created for and exists only in the
digital realm – these are works on a completely different level of mechanical
reproduction, and perhaps could only be understood by Wollheim’s theory of
artworks as “types” and their particular manifestations as “tokens”[6] (Aesthetics, Pgs. 466-478).
These questions and fancies would require a separate essay to dwell on, and
shall not be examined deeper for the scope of this essay.

Coming back to Dewey, he argues that experience
is something available to everyone, and that if art is only made for the elite,
then it is not experiential. With the widespread usage of the Internet and its
technologies, could artists and artworks be more assimilated into daily life
again? The situation appears to be similar to what Dewey described in his essay
in the 1930s: “The arts which today have the most vitality for the average person
are things he does not take to be arts”. What come to mind in today’s context is
the Internet meme and gif. Both are manifestations of the Internet era, created
to be consumed online, and have a wide community outreach and relevance. While
it is difficult to consider every meme or every gif created to be a work of
art, I would argue that the whole collective of these sorts of means of
production is artistically intended. Perhaps what could testify to the relevance
of these forms as works of art is their appropriation and appearance in
museums. In an article by Huffington post[7] announcing a past
exhibition of the Internet’s best memes in a gallery, the writer celebrates the importance of memes
and comments on “their powerful
imagery and impact on the collective consciousness”, which gave rise to their
“recognition as an art form” (Huffington post, 2012). It is no wonder that in a
by PBS Idea Channel, the host boldly declared that memes are the most
democratic art forms we have encountered. The democracy undoubtedly lies in the
fact that anyone with access to a computer and the Internet could create a meme
and upload it online, and possibly garner millions of views and reactions.
These views and reactions are from real people with real engagement and
connection, i.e., there is a real
virtual community. This is perhaps telling of the situation of contemporary
life in 2017 – that we are living online more than we are living in real life.

Whether we are living in virtual reality or
in real reality, it appears that art and its esthetic experience are matters of
public affair. While I do not agree entirely that artists should create with
the intention of displaying their work publicly, as many artworks were created
as a form of expression of personal emotions that were not meant to be publicly
displayed, I do think that works of art become works of art only by virtue of
their being publicly displayed and recognized, i.e., to have established a
connection and communication with the viewer. It would then proceed that a
non-self-serving, community-conscious work of art is even more desirable – the
work of art that is truly Public.

“Art as Experience”, John Dewey, Aesthetics, A comprehensive anthology, Pgs.
296-316, Edited by Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin, Blackwell Publishing, 2008


“The Black Paintings”, Erik E Weems,

“The Black Paintings”, Erik E Weems,

“The Secret of the Black Paintings”, Arthur Lubow, July 27, 2003,

Refer to “Art and Its Objects”, Richard Wolheim, Aesthetics, a comprehensive
anthology, Pgs. 466-478, Edited by Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin, Blackwell

“Gallery 1988 honors the Internet’s best ‘Memes’ in new exhibition (photos)”,
May 4 2012,


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