Art as Experience is the most extensive and, many say, the best book on aesthetics from the pragmatic point of view. Dewey believed that aesthetic theory should attempt to explain how works of art come to be and how they are enjoyed in experience. How is it that something produced to fill a need becomes in addition a source of aesthetic enjoyment? How is it that ordinary activities can yield a particular kind of satisfaction that is aesthetic? These and similar questions must be answered by an adequate aesthetic theory.
Dewey’s interest in biology influenced his description of the aesthetic experience. An organism lives in an environment through which it fulfills certain needs. The process of fulfilling these needs is called “experience” and may be more or less satisfactory to the organism. When experience seems to be completely satisfactory, when it is a happy experience that combines memories of the past and anticipations of the future, when it is an achievement of the organism in the world of things, Dewey calls it “an experience.” An experience, realized by a human being, is aesthetic. Thus, there is no sharp line between animal and human experience. Animals could have an aesthetic experience, but no one would be likely to call it that.
Aesthetic experiences are not found in museums or in libraries alone. As a matter of fact, such settings often make enjoyment impossible by putting works of art beyond ordinary human activities and concerns. For Dewey, an intelligent worker performing a job, interested in it, and finding satisfaction in doing it well is having an experience. The worker is artistically engaged and is finding aesthetic enjoyment. Consequently, everyday activities are the ones most meaningful to the average person. To the average person, the most vital arts are popular music, comic strips, newspaper accounts of crime and love, and articles on the intimate doings of popular entertainers. These things are a significant part of the...
One reason for the importance of art, claims Dewey, is that it supplies “the only media of complete and unhindered communication between man and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience.” Since art communicates, it requires, like language, a triadic relation of speaker (the artist), the thing said (the art product), and the hearer (the spectator). All language involves what is said and how it is said—substance and form. In art, substance is the content of the work itself; form is the organization of this content.
Each art has its own medium, fitted for a particular kind of communication. When there is a complete set of relations within a chosen medium, there is aesthetic form. Form is relation, and relations are modes of interaction: pushes, pulls, lightness, heaviness. In a successful work of art, the stresses are so adapted to one another that a unity results. The work of art satisfies many ends, none of which is laid down in advance. Artists experiment. They communicate an individual experience through materials that belong to the public world. They mean the work of art, and the work of art means whatever anyone can honestly get out of it.
Art as Experience differentiates between the art product and the work of art. The art product—the statue, the painting, the printed poem—is physical. The work of art is active and experienced. When the art product enters into experience, it takes part in a complex interaction. It is the work of art with its fixed order of elements that is perceived. However, the work of art is like an organism: It manifests movement, it has a past and present, a career, a history. Energy is organized toward some result. The spectator interacts with the work of art so that energies are given rhythmic organization, are intensified, clarified, concentrated.
The fact that art organizes energy explains its power to move and to stir, to calm and to tranquilize. Paintings that seem dead in whole or in part are those that arrest movement rather than carry it forward toward a dynamic whole. Thus aesthetic perception differs from ordinary...
Dewey uses the principles delineated in Art as Experience to solve what he takes to be some of the major problems of aesthetics. Does art express the universal or the unique and particular? In Dewey’s opinion, it does neither exclusively. It forms a new synthesis that is both. The expression is neither objective nor subjective, neither solely personal nor completely general.
Does art convey knowledge? It is true that it makes life more intelligible, says Dewey, but not through concepts in the way that knowing does. Art clarifies by intensifying experience. Both philosophy and art depend on the imaginative power of the mind. Art is a manifestation of experience as experience, of experience unalloyed. Because of this manifestation, it can provide a control for the imaginative ventures of philosophy.
Dewey has much advice for the critic. Criticism is a judgment about art. If one is to understand the nature of criticism in the arts, one must first understand the nature of judgment. The material that judgment uses is supplied by perception. This material in a mature judgment must be controlled and selected. In viewing a work of art, the spectator conducts a controlled inquiry, which requires an extensive background and developed taste. The spectator must discriminate and unify, but unlike the jurist he has no socially approved rules to apply. The law is conservative, but criticism must be sensitive to new forms of expression that stem from spiritual and physical changes in the environment.
At the opposite extreme from Dewey is the impressionistic critic. Mere impression can never organize experience; unification and discrimination always involve reference to some theory. If works of art are not to be judged by impressions, they are also not to be judged by fixed standards. In the primary sense, a standard is a physical object that measures quantitatively. The critic measures qualitatively.
How, then, can critics make objective judgments? The qualities that they are judging are those of an object, and their judgment requires a hypothesis. It is this hypothesis that provides a criterion for judging the critics themselves. Their theories of criticism must be adequate to enable them to point to properties of the art object that will evoke an...
In a broad sense, aesthetic experience reveals the life and development of civilization. Art is a magnificent force that brings together conflicting elements found in every period of history. The customs and rituals of a people, all of their communal activities, unite the practical, social, and educative into an aesthetic unity.
The art of the past must have something to say to the present to be worthy of present consideration. An art can die just as can any other human institution. However, great art, for Dewey, is a revelation of self and always has something to say to succeeding peoples under different environments; it tells of the ordered movement of the matter of some experience to a genuine fulfillment.
Alexander, Thomas M. John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature: The Horizons of Feeling. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. A thoughtful consideration of John Dewey’s understanding of experience and the role of aesthetics and the arts within it.
Bernstein, Richard J. John Dewey. New York: Washington Square Press, 1966. A brief, clear, and reliable overview of Dewey’s philosophy.
Boisvert, Raymond D. John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Tracking the implications of Dewey’s thought,...