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Art as Experience

Art as Experience (1934) is John Deweys major writing on aesthetics, originally delivered as the rst William
James Lecture at Harvard (1932). Deweys aesthetics
have been found useful in a number of disciplines, including the new media.

the sound. It occurs to change the soundThe

resulting quale, whatever it may be, has its
meaning wholly determined by reference to the
hearing of the sound. It is that experience

Dewey had previously written articles on aesthetics in the

The biological sensory exchange between man, whom
1880s and had further addressed the matter in Democracy
Dewey calls 'the Live Creature' in Art as Experience, and
and Education (1915). In his major work, Experience and
the environment, is the basis of his aesthetic theory:
Nature (1925), he laid out the beginnings of a theory of
aesthetic experience, and wrote two important essays for
...An experience is a product, one might
Philosophy and Civilization (1931).[1]
almost say bi-product, of continuous and cumulative interaction of an organic self with
the world. There is no other foundation
upon which esthetic theory and criticism can
1 Overview
Deweys theory, here, is an attempt to shift the understandings of what is important and characteristic about
the art process from its physical manifestations in the
expressive object to the process in its entirety, a process whose fundamental element is no longer the material
work of art but rather the development of an experience. An experience is something that personally aects
your life. That is why these theories are so important to
our social and educational life.

This is a dramatic expansion of the bounds of aesthetic

philosophy, for it demonstrates the connections of art
with everyday experience and in doing so reminds us of
the highest responsibilities that art and society and the individual have always owed to each other: of art are the most intimate and
energetic means of aiding individuals to share
in the arts of living. Civilization is uncivil
because human beings are divided into noncommunicating sects, races, nations, classes
and cliques.[4]

Such a change in emphasis does not imply, though, that

the individual art object has lost signicance; far from
it, its primacy is claried: the object is recognized as the
primary site for the dialectical processes of experience,
as the unifying occasion for these experiences. Through
the expressive object, the artist and the active observer
encounter each other, their material and mental environments, and their culture at large.

To emphasize what is aesthetic about an experience is not,

nally, to emphasize what is apolitical or impractical or
otherwise marginal about that experience; rather, it is to
emphasize in what ways that experience, as aesthetic, is
a 'manifestation, a record and celebration of the life of a
civilization, a means for promoting its development' and,
insofar as that aesthetic experience relates to the kinds of
experiences had in general, it is also the 'ultimate judgment upon the quality of a civilization.'[5]

The description of the actual act of experiencing is drawn

heavily from the biological/psychological theories Dewey
expounded in his development of functional psychology.
In Deweys article on reex arc psychology, he writes that
sensory data and worldly stimulus enter into the individual via the channels of aerent sense organs, and that the See his Experience and Nature for an extended discussion
of 'Experience' in Deweys philosophy.
perception of these stimuli are a 'summation':
This sensory motor coordination is not a
new act, supervening upon what preceded. Just
as the response is necessary to constitute the
stimulus, to determine it as sound and as this
kind of soundso the sound experience must
persist as a value in the running, to keep it up,
to control it. The motor reaction involved in
the running is, once more, into, not merely to,

2 Chapters
2.1 The Live Creature
John Dewey oers a new theory of art and the aesthetic
experience. Dewey proposes that there is a continuity between the rened experience of works of art and everyday


activities and events, and in order to understand the aes- 2.2 The Live Creature and Ethereal
thetic one must begin with the events and scenes of daily
life. This idea stands in opposition to the aesthetic theories presented by Immanuel Kant and also the proponents The title of the chapter is taken from John Keats who once
of German Idealism, which have historically been shown wrote, in a letter[8] to Benjamin Robert Haydon,
to favor certain heavily-classicized forms of art, known
commonly as 'High Art' or Fine Art. Dewey argues for
The Sun, the Moon, the Earth and its conthe validity of 'popular art' stating:
tents are material to form greater things, that is,
ethereal things- greater things than the Creator
himself has made.[9]
So extensive and subtly pervasive are the
In Dewey, this statement can be taken several ways: the
ideas that set art on upon a remote pedestal,
term 'ethereal' is used in reference to the theorists of idethat many a person would be repelled rather
alist aesthetics and other schools that have equated art
than pleased if told that he enjoyed his casual
with elements inaccessible to sense and common experecreations, at least in part, because of their esrience because of their perceived transcendent, spiritual
thetic quality. The arts which today have most
qualities. This serves as a further condemnation of aesvitality for the average person are the things he
thetic theory that unjustly elevates art too far above the
does not take to be arts; for instance, the movie,
pragmatic, experiential roots that it is drawn from.
jazzed music, the comic strip
Another interpretation of the phrase could be that the
'earth and its contents being, presumably, the ingrediWe must recover the continuity of aesthetic experience ents to form 'ethereal things further expounds the idea of
with the normal processes of living. It is the duty of the Deweys pragmatist aesthetics. In other words, the 'earth
theorist to make this connection and its implications clear. and its contents could refer to 'human experience' being
If art were understood dierently by the public, art would used to create art, (the 'ethereal things) which, though degain in public esteem and have wider appeal.
rived from the earth and experience, still contains a godly,
creative quality not inherent in original creation.
The task is to restore continuity between
the rened and intensied forms of experience
that are works of art and the everyday events,
doings, and suerings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.[7]

His criticism of existing theories is that they spiritualize art and sever its connection with everyday experience. Glorifying art and setting it on a pedestal separates
it from community life. Such theories actually do harm by
preventing people from realizing the artistic value of their
daily activities and the popular arts (movies, jazz, newspaper accounts of sensational exploits) that they most enjoy, and drives away the aesthetic perceptions which are
a necessary ingredient of happiness.

Apart from organs inherited from animal

ancestry, ideas and purpose would be without a
mechanism of realization...the intervention of
consciousness adds regulation, power of selection, and redisposition...its intervention leads
to the idea of art as a conscious idea- the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of
Addressing the intrusion of the supernatural into art,
mythology, and religious ceremony, Dewey defends the
need for the esoteric in addition to pure rationalism. Furthermore, the human imagination is seen by Dewey to be
a powerful synthesizing tool to express experience with
the environment. Essentially, rationality alone can neither suce to understand life completely or ensure an enriched existence.

Art has aesthetic standing only as it becomes an experiDewey writes that religious behaviors and rituals were
ence for human beings. Art intensies the sense of immediate living, and accentuates what is valuable in enjoyenduringly enacted, we may be sure, in
ment. Art begins with happy absorption in activity. Anyspite of all practical failures, because they were
one who does his work with care, such as artists, scienimmediate enhancements of the experience of
tists, mechanics, craftsmen, etc., are artistically engaged.
livingdelight in the story, in the growth and
The aesthetic experience involves the passing from disrendition of a good yarn, played its dominant
turbance to harmony and is one of mans most intense
part then as it does in the growth of popular
and satisfying experiences.
mythologies today.[11]
Art cannot be relegated to museums. There are historic
reasons for the compartmentalization of art into museums Art and (aesthetic) mythology, according to Dewey, is an
and galleries. Capitalism, nationalism and imperialism attempt to nd light in a great darkness. Art appeals directly to sense and the sensuous imagination, and many
have all played a major role.


The Act of Expression

aesthetic and religious experiences occur as the result of There is no one word to combine artistic and aesenergy and material used to expand and intensify the ex- thetic, unfortunately, but artistic refers to the producperience of life.
tion, the doing and making, and aesthetic to appreciReturning to Keats, Dewey closes the chapter by making ating, perceiving, and enjoying. For a work to be art, it
must also be aesthetic. The work of the artist is to build
reference to another of Keats passages,[12]
an experience that will be experienced aesthetically.
Beauty is truth, and truth beautythat is
all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to

2.4 The Act of Expression

Artistic expression is not spontaneous. The mere spewConcerning the passage, Dewey addresses the doctrine of ing forth of emotion is not artistic expression. Art redivine revelation and the role of the imagination in expe- quires long periods of activity and reection, and comes
only to those absorbed in observing experience. An
rience and art.
artists work requires reection on past experience and
a sifting of emotions and meanings from that prior exReasoning must fail manthis of course
perience. For an activity to be converted into an artisis the doctrine long taught by those who have
tic expression, there must be excitement, turmoil and an
held the necessity of divine revelation. Keats
urge from within to go outward. Art is expressive when
did not accept this supplement and substitute
there is complete absorption in the subject and a unison
for reason. The insight of the imagination must
of present and past experience is achieved.
suce...ultimately there are but two philosoThere are values and meanings best expressed by certain
phies. One of them accepts life and experience
visible or audible material. Our appetites know themin all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half
selves better when artistically transgured. Artistic exknowledge and turns that experience upon itpression claries turbulent emotions. The process is esself to deepen and intensify its own qualities
sentially the same in scientists and philosophers as well as
to imagination and art. This is the philosophy
those conventionally dened as artists. Aesthetic quality
of Shakespeare and Keats.
will adhere to all modes of production in a well-ordered


Having an Experience

John Dewey distinguishes between experience in general

and an experience. Experience occurs continually, as
we are always involved in the process of living, but it is
often interrupted and inchoate, with conict and resistance. Much of the time we are not concerned with the
connection of events but instead there is a loose succession, and this is non-aesthetic. Experience, however, is
not an experience.

2.5 The Expressive Object

own beginning and end, its own plot, and its own singular quality that pervades the entire experience. The nal
import is intellectual, but the occurrence is emotional as
well. Aesthetic experience cannot be sharply marked o
from other experiences, but in an aesthetic experience,
structure may be immediately felt and recognized, there
is completeness and unity and necessarily emotion. Emotion is the moving and cementing force.

Dewey observes that some who have denied art meaning

have done so on the assumption that art does not have
connection with outside content. He agrees that art has a
unique quality, but argues that this is based on its concentrating meaning found in the world. For Dewey, the actual Tintern Abbey expresses itself in Wordsworths poem
about it and a city expresses itself in its celebrations. In
this, he is quite dierent from those theorists who believe

The fth chapter Dewey turns to the expressive object.

He believes that the object should not be seen in isolation from the process that produced it, nor from the individuality of vision from which it came. Theories which
simply focus on the expressive object dwell on how the
object represents other objects and ignore the individual
An experience occurs when a work is nished in a satis- contribution of the artist. Conversely, theories that simply focus on the act of expressing tend to see expression
factory way, a problem solved, a game is played through,
a conversation is rounded out, and fulllment and con- merely in terms of personal discharge.
summation conclude the experience. In an experience, Works of art use materials that come from a public world,
every successive part ows freely. An experience has a and they awaken new perceptions of the meanings of that
unity and episodes fuse into a unity, as in a work of art. world, connecting the universal and the individual organThe experience may have been something of great or just ically. The work of art is representative, not in the sense
of literal reproduction, which would exclude the personal,
slight importance.
Such an experience has its own individualizing quality. but in that it tells people about the nature of their experiAn experience is individual and singular; each has its ence.

that art expresses the inner emotions of the artist. The
dierence between art and science is that art expresses
meanings, whereas science states them. A statement gives
us directions for obtaining an experience, but does not
supply us with experience. That water is H2O tells us
how to obtain or test for water. If science expressed the
inner nature of things it would be in competition with art,
but it does not. Aesthetic art, by contrast to science, constitutes an experience.
A poem operates in the dimension of direct experience,
not of description or propositional logic. The expressiveness of a painting is the painting itself. The meaning is
there beyond the painters private experience or that of
the viewer. A painting by Van Gogh of a bridge is not
representative of a bridge or even of Van Goghs emotion.
Rather, by means of pictorial presentation, Van Gogh
presents the viewer with a new object in which emotion
and external scene are fused. He selects material with a
view to expression, and the picture is expressive to the
degree that he succeeds.
Dewey notes that formalist art critic Roger Fry spoke of
relations of lines and colors coming to be full of passionate meaning within the artist. For Fry the object as such
tends to disappear in the whole of vision. Dewey agrees
with the rst point and with the idea that creative representation is not of natural items as they literally happen.
He adds however that the painter approaches the scene
with emotion-laden background experiences. The lines
and colors of the painters work crystallize into a specic
harmony or rhythm which is a function also of the scene
in its interaction with the beholder. This passion in developing a new form is the aesthetic emotion. The prior
emotion is not forgotten but fused with the emotion belonging to the new vision.
Dewey, then, opposes the idea that the meanings of the
lines and colors in a painting would completely replace
other meanings attached to the scene. He also rejects the
notion that the work of art only expresses something exclusive to art. The theory that subject-matter is irrelevant
to art commits its advocates to seeing art as esoteric. To
distinguish between aesthetic values of ordinary experience (connected with subject-matter) and aesthetic values
of art, as Fry wished, is impossible. There would be nothing for the artist to be passionate about if she approached
the subject matter without interests and attitudes. The
artist rst brings meaning and value from earlier experience to her observation giving the object its expressiveness. The result is a completely new object of a completely new experience.
For Dewey, an artwork claries and puries confused
meaning of prior experience. By contrast, a non-art drawing that simply suggests emotions through arrangements
of lines and colors is similar to a signboard that indicates
but does not contain meaning: it is only enjoyed because
of what they remind us of. Also, whereas a statement
or a diagram takes us to many things of the same kind,


an expressive object is individualized, for example in expressing a particular depression.

2.6 Substance and Form

Consistent with his non-dualistic thinking, Dewey does
not draw a sharp distinction between substance and form.
He states that there can be no distinction drawn, save
in reection, between form and substance. For Dewey,
substance is dierent from subject. One could say that
Keats Ode to a Nightingale has a nightingale for a subject,
but for Dewey the substance of the poem is the poem.
Substance represents the culmination of the artists creative eorts. Form for Dewey is the quality of having
form. Having form allows the substance to be evoked in
such a way that it can enter into the experiences of others and enable them to have more intense and more fully
rounded out experiences of their own. This process exemplies Deweys triadic relationship between artist, art
object, and creative viewer.

2.7 Natural History of Form

In this chapter, Dewey states that the formal conditions
of artistic form are rooted deep in the world itself. The
interaction of the living organism with its environment is
the source of all forms of resistance, tension, furtherance,
balance that is, those elements essential for aesthetic experience and which, themselves, constitute form. These
elements of interaction are subsumed in one broad term
for Dewey, rhythm. He states: There is rhythm in nature before poetry, painting, architecture and music exist. These larger rhythms of nature include the cycles of
day and night, the seasons, the reproduction of plants and
animals, as well as the development of human craft necessary for living with these changes in nature. This gives
rise to the development of the rituals for planting, harvest,
and even war. These rhythms of change and repetition
have seated themselves deep in human subconsciousness.
Via this path from nature, we nd the essential rhythms of
all the arts. Dewey writes: Underneath the rhythm of every art and of every work of art there lies, as a substratum
in the depths of the subconsciousness, the basic pattern of
the relations of the live creature to his environment. The
aesthetic deployment of these rhythms constitutes artistic

2.8 Organization of Energies

Energy pervades the work of art, and the more that energy is claried, intensied, and concentrated, the more
compelling the work of art should be. Dewey gives the
example of young children intending to act a play. They
gesticulate, tumble and roll, each pretty much on his own
account, with little reference to what others are doing.


The Varied Substance of the Arts

This is contrasted with the well-constructed and wellexecuted play. However, it does not necessarily follow
that the latter play will be better than the former. This
is merely an extreme case of contrasting aesthetic values
based on dierent organizations of energy. The organization of energy manifests itself in patterns or intervals,
now more now less. This patterning is related to Deweys
earlier ideas on rhythm. He writes that instances of energy are piecemeal, one replacing anotherAnd thus we
are brought again to rhythm. However, the organization
of energies is not the same as rhythm. The organization
of energy is important as the common element in all the
arts for producing a result. Artistic skill exemplies
skillful organization of energy. An over-emphasis of a
single source of energy (at the expense of others sources
of energy) in a work of art shows poor organization of
energy. At the end of the chapter, Dewey states that art
is, in fact, only denable as organization of energies.
The power of art to move and stir, to calm and tranquilize is intelligible only when the fact of energy is made
central to an understanding of art. The qualities of order
and balance in works of art follow from the selection of
signicant energy. Great art, therefore, nds and deploys
ideal energy.


The Common Substance of the Arts

In this chapter Dewey examines several qualities that are

common to all works of art. Early in the chapter, Dewey
discusses the feeling of a total seizure, a sense of an
inclusive whole not yet articulated that one feels immediately in the experiencing of a work of art. This sense
of wholeness, of all the parts of the work coalescing, can
only be intuited. Parts of the work of art may be discriminated, but their sense of coalescence is a quality of
intuition. Without this intuited enveloping quality, parts
are external to one another and mechanically related.
This sense of wholeness conveyed by the work of art distinguishes the work from the background in which it sits.
Evidence of this idea of the artwork standing apart from
its background is our constant sense of things as belonging or not belonging, of relevancy, a sense which is immediate. Yet the background represents the unlimited
envelope of the world we live in, and the work of art,
though seen as a discrete thing, is intimately connected
with the larger background. We intuit this connection,
and in this process there is something mystical. An experience becomes mystical in the degree which the sense,
the feeling, of the unlimited envelope becomes intense
as it may do in the experience of an art object. Though
this mystical quality may not be a common substance of
all art objects, the sense of wholeness within the object
and its relation to a background are.
A further common substance to all works of art is related
to the idea of means and ends. In aesthetic works and
aesthetic experience, means and ends coalesce. Means
are ends in the aesthetic. The non-aesthetic has a clear

separation of means and ends: means are merely means,
mechanical steps used solely to achieve the desired end.
Dewey uses the idea of journeying as an example. Nonaesthetic journeying is undertaken merely to arrive at the
destination; any steps to shorten the trip are gladly taken.
Aesthetic journeying is undertaken for the delight of
moving about and seeing what we see. Extending nonaesthetic experience may lead to frustration and impatience, whereas drawing out aesthetic experience may increase a feeling of pleasure.
Every artwork and art discipline has a special medium
that it exploits. In doing so, the dierent disciplines
achieve the sense of wholeness in a given work, and the
coalescing of ends and means in qualitatively dierent
ways. Media are dierent in the dierent arts. But possession of a medium belongs to them all. Otherwise they
would not be expressive, nor without the common substance could they possess form.
Dewey discusses another matter that is common to the
substance of all works of art: space and time. Both space
and time have qualities of room, extent, and position. For
the concept of space, he identies these qualities as spaciousness, spatiality, and spacing. And for the concept
of time: transition, endurance, and date. Dewey devotes
most of the remainder of the chapter to a discussion of
these qualities in dierent art works and disciplines.
In the nal paragraphs, Dewey summarizes the chapter.
He claims that there must be common substance in the
arts because there are general conditions without which
an experience is not possible. Ultimately, then, it is the
person experiencing the artwork who must distinguish
and appreciate these common qualities, for the intelligibility of a work of art depends upon the presence to the
meaning that renders individuality of parts and their relationship in the whole directly present to the eye and ear
trained in perception.

2.10 The Varied Substance of the Arts

2.11 The Human Contribution
2.12 The Challenge to Philosophy
2.13 Criticism and Perception
2.14 Art and Civilization

3 See also
List of publications by John Dewey

4 Notes
[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[3] Art as Experience p. 220
[4] Art as Experience p. 336
[5] Art as Experience p. 326
[6] Art as Experience p. 06
[7] Art as Experience p. 03
[9] Art as Experience p.20
[10] Art as Experience p. 25
[11] Art as Experience p.30
[13] Ode on a Grecian Urn
[14] Art as Experience p.34


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