In ‘The Expressive Object’, Dewey explains how the artist uses the attributes of the medium in which they are working for expression. He makes an important distinction between expression and statement, that serves to get at the essence of what art is. A statement uses signs to point to a distinct goal with as much accuracy as possible, as exemplified by scientific notation. An expression however, does not seek to lead the viewer to an end but to create an association in the audience by way of experience. In the statement, the specific qualities of media are irrelevant, or worse, a hindrance to clearly conveying a message, while expression relies on the same completely. It is the artists “emotion”, as Dewey chooses to define it, the inner impulsion, that is worked through the material of the medium to gain the status of expression. Past experience is activated by new experience to form something new. Simple gushing forth of emotion is not expression, as expression requires thought and engagement with the world. The expressive object is the result of the mutual causation of individual and world, and the only way anything new may enter the world. As emotion changes material, material in turn changes the emotion and thus the individual themselves, and moves from personal experience to shared experience, from emotion to expression, thus becoming meaningful.
The re-ordering necessary for expression could not take place without abstraction, even life-like depictions are to some degree abstractions. The artist’s “imaginative vision” does not just see what is there literally, but also infers relations that lie outside the scope of the actual depiction. The expressive object says more than what is there, it goes beyond mere draftsmanship. Expression is dependent on the artist’s “integrated experience”, and can take the form of any medium.
Brun shares the view that we can never know what art or music is, because it is not defined by an end goal. Music itself is an experience not a statement, and can thus not be explained away. Brun says instead that there is something forever changeable but fundamentally consistent in music, and that is what distinguishes music from all audible phenomena, or art from life. Importantly this distinction is permeable and dynamic. Both composer’s and listener’s ideas of what music is change over time and in constant relation to the world and the emergence of new media.
Brun argues for media-specific analysis in saying that in order to really hear a piece of music you must know the system it is based on, to know the parameters it works against and that give it definition. In this account, relations between acoustical events are what make music rather than the acoustical events themselves. Every medium has its affordances that provide parameters for the final piece. Thus, it corresponds with Dewey’s principle of expression as necessarily engaged with material (or immaterial material, such as sound). According to both Dewey and Brun, the medium should be chosen with reference to the idea, how it may be most suitably expressed. The medium and its inherent qualities will then feed back into and alter the idea itself. Bad art comes from blindly sticking to your guns, or conversely, allowing the material to wash away the impulsion.
Because of the organic nature of the relationship between the artist and the world, new media influences “old” media and how we use and perceive them. Changes in the material induce changes in the imagination, or emotional reservoir of the artist, giving rise to new impulsions. The impulsion is given meaning by its association to things outside of it, creating a whole of which it is part.
The universality of these concepts and the obvious correspondence between Dewey’s and Brun’s texts, even though they are considering different arts disciplines, lets us deduce that the artist’s engagement with new and “old” media is in fact based on the same principles, and thus does not differ in kind. The engagement that is the result of impulsion and the world is the same for all expression, however the artist decides to engage with material. The different materials facilitate different types of work, while the artist’s engagement remains in principle the same. Through expression, art lifts things out of habitual association to be seen anew, in whatever medium.