Since "the movements of the individual body enter into all reshapings of material," all art, according to John Dewey could be described as performances, or at least as encompassing " the rhythm of vital natural expression, something as it were of dancing and pantomime" ("The Varied Substance of the Arts," Art as Experience). But the "shaping arts" (Dewey also calls these the "technological arts) transform and extend the possibilities of performance:
. . .print has acted--or reacted--to profoundly modify the substance of literature; modifying, by way of a single illustration, the very words that form the medium of literature. The change is indicated on the unfavorable side by the growing tendency to use "literary" as a term of disparagement. Spoken language was never "literary" till print and reading came into general use. But, on the other side, even if it be admitted that no single work of literature excels, say, the "Iliad". . .yet print has made for an enormous extension not merely in bulk but in qualitative variety and subtlety, aside from compelling an organization that did not previously exist.
Still, the "vital natural expression" we think we find more directly in performing arts--which is itself, of course, not exactly spontaneous--can still be attributed to poetry or painting or architecture--or at least to the semblance of "performance" embodied in the poem's lines, the painting's brushstrokes, or the building's contours. The reader or viewer "appreciates" the performance not as a passive spectator but by actively attending to the "shaping" that is the performance. Here lies, I think, the crucial difference between an aesthetic experience as conceived pragmatically by Dewey and an aesthetic "object" as implied by the practice of, say, the New Critics. The reader of a poem or novel in Dewey's formulation seeks to trace the "subtlety" of the work as manifest in the writer's aesthetic choices. The reader tries to re-create the writer's performance as much as possible. For the formalist, the object itself, the text, is the sufficient focus of interest, the "shape" rather than the shaping. The distinction here might seem itself rather subtle, but Dewey's insights help us avoid fetishizing the art "object" and push us harder to think through the implications of an aesthetic strategy in the context of strategies not pursued. They help us see "aesthetics" as an always renewable process rather than as the fixed qualities of a particular work.
One could say that reading involves becoming aware of that "organization that did not previously exist" when language was/is a specifically oral performance. As the most highly organized constructions of language, poetry and fiction especially solicit our attention to the way their "words" are organized. They allow words to become a "medium." I tend to think that those who do "use 'literary' as a term of disparagement" ("merely literary") ultimately don't want to accept language as a "medium" in Dewey's account of the term. As a medium, the language of fiction and poetry precisely mediates between "natural expression" and the reader's response to what is expressed. The act of "saying something" becomes unavoidably dispersed in the entangling energies that literary "organization" brings forward. Many readers seem to find this frustrating.
One naturally wonders whether Dewey would find the cyberspatial revolution to be a sufficient change in our encounter with language that it would again "profoundly modify the substance of literature." I believe he probably wouldn't. The internet, whether through blogs or online versions of literary magazines, is not inherently incapable of the "extension" and the "variety and subtlety" introduced by print, and if that extension now seems somewhat circumscribed online, it doesn't always have to be so. When everyone is online, cyberspace will be just as capable of displaying language as an aesthetic medium as print has been. Some of its features--instaneity, linking--might even work to "extend" the medium even farther.