Art as Experience

by John Dewey

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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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