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Public Art and Dewey's Democratic Experience: The Case of John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls

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The aesthetic and political sides of public art have recently been examined from different theoretical vantage points. Pragmatist accounts, however, have been largely absent from the discussion. This article develops a theory of public art on some central ideas of John Dewey's aesthetics and social philosophy. From a pragmatist perspective, the best cases of public art turn out to have high social significance, for they are means of promoting the sense of community, which Dewey saw as foundational for well‐functioning democracies. The Deweyan account of public art developed in this article is set against theories that explain its social value by public artworks’ ability to disrupt people's everyday routines and beliefs, as well as by the political alertness they often raise. Diana Boros's recent treatment of what she calls “visionary public art” serves as the main specimen of this approach. The Deweyan understanding of public art is illuminated and defended with the help of a reading of John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls—a piece composed in memory of the victims of 9/11—that highlights its capacity to generate such communal experiences that have a fundamental role in Dewey's theory of democracy.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2016

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