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The essential thesis of Art as Experience is that art affords an aesthetic experience to the viewer. The artist and the observer are both active in the reception of art. To conceive of art as a static material piece is to ignore art's intrinsic value. Dewey cites flowers as an analogy to art, explaining that flowers are appreciated to a heightened extent when the mechanism of their growth by means of seeds, soil, and moisture is considered. Art, according to Dewey, like flowers, deserves consideration with respect to its means of production. Dewey also highlights emotion as necessary to creating proper art.

This claim results in several concurrent theses in Dewey's work: 1.) Art is representative of the social and cultural conditions in which it was produced. 2.) responsible viewers of art engage in a dialogue with the artist. 3.) capitalism (with its focus on class and markers of status) is responsible for this notion of art as experience.

Dewey's analysis bears a resemblance to "reception theory" in literary criticism (which states that meaning in literature is made by the reader's interpretation); however, Dewey parts company with this theory in his insistence that art is a symbol of its culture.

Dewey's collection of lectures on the purpose and reception of art, as published as Art as Experience, stands now as a monograph of art criticism.


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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.

The Aesthetic Experience

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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 concerns of an organized community, just as in the past rug, mat, and cloth making; dancing; music; and storytelling were an integral part of day-to-day living.

Modern museums and institutions segregate art and remove it from the concerns of most people. Dewey criticizes the modern artist for reflecting the view that art is isolated and for not attempting to reach anyone except those whom the artist regards as having a superior cultural status. The object that the artist produces may be thought of as a work of art, but the actual work of art is to be understood as what affects human experience. The problem of the artist should be to show that artistic activity can be connected with the actual processes of living.

Dewey points to other properties of the aesthetic experience. In their practical concerns with the real world, people think in terms of effect and cause. They convert these for their own use into ends they wishes to achieve and devices for achieving them; that is, into consequences and means, organizing the world in terms of needs and environment. Art, too, involves organization and may be related to any activity of the living organism. The great work of art is a complete organization, and in this completeness lies the source of aesthetic pleasure.

No experience is a unity, Dewey says, unless it has aesthetic quality. The integrated, the well-rounded, the emotionally satisfying make up the artistic structure of the experience that is immediately felt. Because of its relation to experience, art is always a part of the process of doing or making something. Like all experience, it involves emotion and is guided by purpose. Artists organize, clarify, and simplify material according to their interest. Spectators must go though these same operations according to their own interests to have an aesthetic experience from their relation to the art object. They must be creative when confronted by an art object, just as the artist was creative when producing it. What the spectator creates is an experience that is enjoyed and is satisfying for its own sake.

A Medium of Communication

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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 perception. The latter results in classification: Those are rain clouds, so I must carry an umbrella. Aesthetic perception is full, complete, and rhythmical.

“What properties do all of the arts share?” Dewey asks. In the past, it had been argued that they have a common subject matter. However, the tendency in the arts is to go beyond limits. New artists have new interests and express them through innovative uses of material. Yet, the arts do share a common form to the extent that they are all organized toward a unity of experience. Further, all arts operate through sensory mediums. A material such as stone, watercolor, oil paints, or words becomes a medium when it is used to express a meaning other than that of its commonplace physical existence. Different mediums give different qualities to works of art; pastel differs from oil. “Sensitivity to a medium as a medium is the very heart of all artistic creation and esthetic perception.” The medium is a mediator; it relates the artist and the perceiver. Another property that all arts share is that they are concerned with space and time. The arts are dynamic, and all action must occur in space and time. Spatiality is mass and volume; temporality is endurance.

The aesthetic experience, Dewey contends, is located in the interaction between the spectator and the art product. Thus, art products cannot be classified into aesthetic categories. There can be as great a variety of works of art as there can be a variety of unified experiences. The work of art comes into existence when a human being cooperates with the art product. This cooperation results in an experience that is enjoyed because of its liberating and ordered properties. Thus, for Dewey, no art is inherently superior to any other. Every medium has its own power, its own efficacy and value. The important thing is that it communicates by making common, related, and available what had been isolated and singular.

Every work of art contains something of the particular personality of the artist. In practical action, one must divide reality into subject and impersonal object. No such division characterizes aesthetic experience for Dewey. Art is a unity of subject and object. Like rite and ceremony, it has the power to unite people through shared celebration to all the concerns and anticipations of life.

Aesthetic experience, indeed all experience, is imaginative. Imagination helps to adjust the old to the new, connecting the new with its physical past and the past of the person involved. Aesthetic experience is the paradigm of experience, experience freed from the factors that would impede and thwart its development.

Thus, if Dewey is right, it is to aesthetic experience that philosophers must turn if they are to understand the nature of experience itself. In the past, philosophers have explained aesthetic experience as but one type of experience. Instead, they should have taken experience in its most complete form, the fusion of the self with the objective order and law of the material that it incorporates, and used this—aesthetic experience—as the model for understanding experience in general.

Some Problems of Aesthetics

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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.

The Critic

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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 aesthetic experience. They must discuss form in relation to matter, the function of the medium, the nature of the expressive object. They must lead rather than dictate. They must discover a unifying pattern that pervades the work of art, perhaps not the only one, but one that can be shown to be maintained throughout the parts of the art object.

Art as Experience identifies two fallacies of aesthetic criticism. The first of these is reduction. The reduction fallacy occurs when some aspect of the work of art is taken as the whole. The work of art is a self-contained unity; it combines many things, none of which has aesthetic priority. The second fallacy results from a confusion of categories. Works of art provide data for students of art, for example, for the art historian. However, to identify the historian’s account of the work of art with aesthetic criticism is to be guilty of a confusion of categories.

Another type of category confusion concerns values. The most obvious example is found in moralistic criticism. A work of art may well make moral judgments, but these are not the sole criterion of its aesthetic value. Art is a medium of communication in its own right, not a substitute for religion, science, philosophy, or moral exhortation. The function of the critic is to delineate the aesthetic experience, which has its own inherent value, to reeducate so that others may learn from the criticism to see and to hear.

The artist, the critic, and the aesthetician must face one problem, the relation between permanence and change. Human beings and their environments are continually subjected to change operating within a structure of laws. This structure is in turn subject to gradual change. Art must reflect such changes. Artists and critics have only begun to realize that the rise of industrialism is a source of new patterns and of new materials. Art can show that there is permanence in the changing and change in the permanent.

Art and Civilization

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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.

Ancient civilizations are often thought of in terms of their art products. The art of the past reveals elements of civilization; in the modern world, art is affected by two new elements: natural science in its application to industry and commerce through machinery. These new factors have yet to be absorbed into the attitudes of most people. Science has given people a new conception of the environment and of their relation to it. Science tends to portray people as a part of nature and gives rational support to people’s desire to control themselves and the environment. It enables them to understand themselves in relation to their past, present, and future.

Industry creates an environment in which more and more people leave the rural world of nature for the manmade world of the machine. This new setting can have aesthetic quality. Objects with their own internal functional adaptations can be combined with humanity in a way that yields aesthetic results. The artist can create a physical and moral environment that will shape desires and purposes, that will determine the direction of the interest and attention of human beings. Artistic experience, says Dewey, can and must shape the future.


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Additional Reading

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, this study shows Dewey’s significance for contemporary social and philosophical issues.

Conkin, Paul K. Puritans and Pragmatists: Eight Eminent American Thinkers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976. In discussing several eminent American thinkers, this book provides a solid, although technical, account of Dewey’s place in American thought.

Festenstein, Matthew. Pragmatism and Political Theory: From Dewey to Rorty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. A careful and critical analysis that shows how pragmatism, Dewey’s included, has affected political theory and practice.

Hickman, Larry A., ed. Reading Dewey: Interpretation for a Postmodern Generation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Important interpreters of Dewey’s thought explore his continuing significance for inquiry concerning knowledge and ethics.

Kuklick, Bruce. Churchmen and Philosophers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. An important study that deals with Dewey’s thought in the context of the interconnections between religion and American philosophical thought.

Moore, Edward Carter. American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, and Dewey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. An older but still reliable comparative study of the three classical figures in American pragmatism.

Popp, Jerome A. Naturalizing Philosophy of Education: John Dewey in the Postanalytic Period. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998. A worthwhile appraisal of Dewey’s philosophy of education and its significance in ongoing debates within educational theory.

Rockefeller, Steven C. John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. A detailed and important study of Dewey’s life and thought, focusing on his views about religion and democracy.

Smith, John E. The Spirit of American Philosophy. Rev. ed. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. Attempting to locate a common American spirit among five varied thinkers, this classic study interprets the philosophies of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce, and Alfred North Whitehead as well as the thought of John Dewey.

Stroh, Guy W. American Philosophy from Edwards to Dewey: An Introduction. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1968. An introductory account that places Dewey in relation to his most important predecessors in American philosophy.

Welchman, Jennifer. Dewey’s Ethical Thought. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995. A sympathetic but critical analysis of Dewey’s moral philosophy and its implications.

Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. A readable and carefully done study of Dewey’s influence on American culture and politics.