Art as Experience

by John Dewey

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

John Dewey's book, Art as Experience, is a work of non-fiction, so characters don't appear in it in the same way they do in a novel. There are, however, three identifiable actors or agents in Dewey's book. There's the observer, the person having an experience of a work of art. There's the work of art itself, and there's also the artist. These are the "characters" about which you ask.

According to Dewey, you can't just look at a work of art and have "an experience." You have to contemplate it, derive some meaning from it, and have some insight to finish it off. There has to be a payoff to your interacting with the art. This could be a realization about yourself. It could be a demonstration of its effect on you or other people, which you are able to observe. It could even be a meeting with the artist.

The work of art itself, in Dewey's ideas about the subject, is like a meeting place. You have an experience of the art. The artist has an experience of the art when they create it. Those two experiences overlap and, this is important, form a relationship between the observer and the artist. This experience makes art greater than the sum of its parts.

The artist imbues their work with meaning. Every word or brushstroke or piece of sculpture, for example, is significant to the artist in some way. This meaning is conveyed to the observer during their experience of the art. The precise meaning which the observer receives might be different than the artist intended, because outside influences like weather or the life circumstances of the observer can affect their experience.

These "characters" interact via the work of art which, being the result of an experience as well as the vehicle for experiences of others, have traits in common. Every work of art is somewhere, at some time. One meaning of this is, art has a context, but the work itself can be taken out of context. This is how art as experience can be more than the sum of its parts. It can be more than what the artist intended. It can be more than just words or paintings or objects. It can be more than what the observer feels about it.

To fully understand the experience of a work of art, you have to consider the work itself, the emotional and intellectual content given to the work by the artist, your own observations and feelings, and the particular time and place the work represents.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access