The most problematic chapter of Art as Experience, in my opinion, is the last, Ch. 13, "Art and Civilization." It is an attempt to delineate the role of art and the aesthetic beyond the experience of the individual, its influence on culture and its contribution to "civilization" as that has manifested itself in human history. Central to the whole discussion is Dewey's contention that "every culture has its own collective individuality" that "leaves its own indelible imprint upon the art that is produced" (330).
On the one hand, this seems an innocuous enough reminder that artists emerge from a "culture" the assumptions and character of which are going to color the artist's work in one way or another. On the other hand, I don't really understand what is added to this acknowledgement by calling cultural influences a "collective individuality." It may be true that "the material of esthetic experience in being human. . .is social" (325), but it seems to me that aesthetic experience is social only in the most trivial sense of the term. The "material" of art and the experience of art is certainly human, but how could it be otherwise? The artist draws on his/her experience as a human being among other human beings and human institutions but it seems quite a leap to affirm this undeniable fact by claiming that aesthetic experience "is a manifestation, a record and celebration of the life of a civilization, a means of promoting its development." It is an awful burden to place on the solitary acts of aesthetic creation and perception to require they contribute to the health of both society and civilization.
"For while [art] is produced and enjoyed by individuals," Dewey writes, "those individuals are what they are in the content of their experiences because of the cultures in which they participate." While again I would not want to deny the truthfulness of this assertion, I can't see that it leads to any necessary insights about the relationship between art and culture. Artists can't avoid being, in part, products "of the cultures in which they participate," and to hold culture responsible for the artist's work, or to hold the artist responsible for culture, is a move that I can't myself make. It seems a strange one for Dewey to make, since he has spent the rest of his book making a case for the self-sufficiency of the individual's experience of art, however much he insists on aesthetic experience as continuous with human experience as a whole.
Ultimately I don't think Dewey does want to subordinate art to the social and cultural--indeed, much of the previous chapter of Art as Experience examines the flaws in critical approaches that do this. In a way, it's Dewey's high regard for art and the value of aesthetic experience that prompts him to associate them with "the quality of civilization." He knows that aesthetic experience consists of the intense, and private, encounter with the work of art, but he also thinks that the benefits of such an encounter ought to be as widely shared as possible, that finally the experience of art must have more than a private significance. It is hard not to sympathize with this aspiration.
Unfortunately, in order to elevate art to its rightful place, Dewey must dilute its effects. He thus surveys its role as a carrier of historical information, as supplement to religion, as cultural marker, as medium of universal communication, as a possible complement to science. He also discusses science's extension into technology through industrial practice, arguing that the split between "useful" and fine art has become so thorough as to be the real source of worker alienation, which won't be overcome "until the mass of men and women who do the useful work of the world have the opportunity to be free in conducting the processes of production and are richly endowed in capacity for enjoying the fruits of collective work." For Dewey "enjoying the fruits of collective work" means the appreciation of work for its aesthetic satisfactions, not sharing in the monetary profits, but while this may be Dewey's sincerely held alternative to the Marxist solution of the labor problem, locating an "aesthetic" experience in operating heavy machinery only makes it a more diffuse concept less useful in accounting for actual works of art.
Dewey concludes the final chapter, and the book, by attributing art's greatest good to its exercise of "imaginative vision," leaning heavily on Shelley in evoking the "unacknowledged" influence of art.
The union that is presented in perception [of art] persists in the remaking of impulsion and thought. The first intimations of wide and large redirections of desire and purpose are of necessity imaginative. Art is a mode of prediction not found in charts and statistics, and it insinuates possibilities of human relations not to be found in rule and precept, admonition and administration. (349)
This seems to me a rather tepid and overly familiar justification of art. I much prefer this, from the paragraph preceding the passage just quoted:
Because art is wholly innocent of ideas derived from praise and blame, it is looked upon with the eyes of suspicion by guardians of custom, or only the art that is itself so old and "classic" as to receive conventional praise is grudgingly admitted, provided, as with, say the case of Shakespeare, signs of regard for conventional morality can be ingeniously extracted from his work. Yet this indifference to praise and blame because of preoccupation with imaginative experience constitutes the heart of the moral potency of art. From it proceeds the liberating and uniting power of art.