Dewey, Collingwood, and the “When” of Art

Keith Sawyer’s “Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity” highlights the improvisatory qualities of art as they are framed by the communication theories of John Dewey and R.G. Collingwood, respectively. The theories of both Dewey and Collingwood rely on regarding art as process and thus as extended in temporality. Dewey frames works of art as psychological processes that work upon players (“viewers”). Entities work as art when they enable players to create their own experiences and thus perceive rather than recognize the entities at hand (153, 157). Collingwood frames the imaginative experience as the work of art, demarcating it as existing in the artist’s mind rather than in the visible results (products) of artistic processes (153). Whereas Dewey’s theory focuses on the reception of art, Collingwood’s theory lends more attention to its generation. Both theories intersect in exploring how the imaginative conceptualization of entities lends them to be perceived as works of art.

The temporal unfolding of entities as art enables them to exhibit features of novelty. Dewey conceives of the experience of art as being characterized by perception rather than recognition. Recognition arises “in time” once the novelty of a work has worn off, or, instantaneously if the viewer immediately subsumes its contents under “readymade” concepts. Either way, an entity exists as a work of art prior to but not after the application of concepts, thus lending it the quality of existing at discrete junctions of space and time as determined by the mental state of the player. Collingwood supports this conclusion when he states that artistic activity does not use a ready-made language; rather, it creates languages as it goes along (157). The “ready-made-ness” of a language should not be perceived of as an objective characteristic if we want to assert that works of art have longevity over space and time; Van Gogh’s Starry Night is “fresh” to a player who has never seen it or read about its history and context . To those who have already seen it and subsumed it under concepts, it is merely an entity that is “recognized.”

Players’ perception of entities as art ties in to the experience of alternate reality games. Alternate reality games employ a “this is not a game” aesthetic, which is more a mode of belief than an appearance. Players exist in a state of limbo in ascertaining whether or not the game is indeed a game, and that is what makes the alternate reality experience one of a game, as such. It “teases” the player with something new; it does not provide answers but rather asks the player to seek them out his/her/their self. The alternate reality experience is confirmed as a game only at the very end, at which point the game cannot be repeated because the “answers” have been found out. Entities that function as art, too, employ a “this is not art” aesthetic until the “game” is over and the perceived entity is subsumed under concepts that dictate what type of thing one is engaging with is and thus should be. Entities are experienced as art as they toggle between perception and recognition. Once recognized, the entity in question no longer functions as art to the player in question, for that game has already been played and that puzzle has already been solved.

All of this is not to say that alternate reality games and works of art cannot be appreciated over time, or multiple times. In fact, they can, but their process of materializing “as art” cannot be replicated; it can only unfold along paths divergent to the original one. For example, an alternate reality game could feasibly be replayed by the same player if the diagrammatic layout, content, and rabbit hole changed enough to lend it to be unrecognizable. Similarly, a work of art encountered in entirely different circumstances, say facing backwards, or upside down, may enable the player to experience it as art until recognition of it as art (if not as the same work of art) sets in. Nelson Goodman broaches the temporal existence of entities as art in, “When is Art?”, by speaking of the environmental contexts that lend entities to be perceived aesthetically. I argue that the aesthetic perception of works as art is mentally rather than environmentally determined, and thus that the temporal quality of works as art are contingent upon the setting-in of concepts rather than of spaces.

2 thoughts on “Dewey, Collingwood, and the “When” of Art

  1. I like your connection between the idea of when art becomes “art” and when the ARG is recognized as a game, but I admit I’m having a little trouble letting that connection sit in my head. The thing about art to me is that it may not necessarily *be* art when it is first put out into the world, whereas when an ARG is released the fact that it is a game is already a fundamental part of how it works. But I can see your point that both art and ARGs eventually require perception to be recognized as art and games.


    1. Nice comment. I suppose I think that when an ARG is “released,” it need not be a mere game. It depends on the individual’s stake(s) in it. In other words, I don’t think there is anything structurally inherent to games and thus I don’t believe that an ARG can be one by default.


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