Reading Guide for Dewey, "Art as Experience"

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Reading Guide for Dewey, “Art as Experience”

  • John Dewey, philosopher, educator, and activist, had a major influence on many aspects of American life. As a philosopher, he is one of the small number of people responsible for the development of the philosophy called Pragmatism. Like Nietzsche he made art central to his philosophy. His philosophy of the arts is sketched in this essay.

Art, art works, and experience

  • When we think of art we tend to think of art objects, says Dewey.
  • But this is a mistake. The real art is the experience of making or encountering the object.
  • When the work is separated from these experiences, it is separated from life.
  • A true work of art is a refined and intensified form of experience.


  • Does Dewey think that every individual unified experience counts as art? Or is it only some of them that do? See if you can find the answer to this question as you read.

Experience in general, and having an experience

  • Experience occurs continuously; but only some experiences are complete and unified. When “the material experienced has run its course to fulfillment”, then we might say, “That was an experience.”
  • “In such experiences, every successive part flows freely, without seam and without unfilled blanks, into what ensues” (p. 206). What do you think of this description of the experience of making or encountering a work of art?


  • Do you agree that every individual experience is unified by “a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts”? Dewey says this on page 206. Think about some experiences of art, and some other experiences you have had, and see if this claim rings true.

Art making and Aesthetic experience

  • The artist is a producer; the product is experienced by the perceiver. But the art maker must also be governed by this experience. If not, the art is cold and dead.
  • “Art denotes a process of doing or making.” This, says Dewey, is why “the dictionaries usually define it in terms of skilled action, ability in execution” (is this possibly backwards? Since maybe there were arts before there was what we call Art.)

Art making and aesthetic experience (cont.)

  • So art unifies “doing and undergoing”. “The artist embodies in himself the attitude of the perceiver while he works.”
  • (But the perceiver of what? Of a message? Of the exercise of skill? Of beauty, or some other property? Maybe even usefulness or efficiency?)

The Expressive Objective (p. 208)

  • Dewey mentions two mistakes one can make when thinking about the work of art as an expression. The first is to think of it as simply expressing the maker’s emotions; the second is to think of its expressive qualities independent of the fact that someone is expressing something by means of the object.
  • Does Dewey avoid making these mistakes himself? In what way does he think a work of art is expressive?

The expressive object (continued)

  • Now Dewey goes on to distinguish extrinsic from inherent meaning.
  • Extrinsic meaning is the kind of meaning that words and mathematical symbols have. It is arbitrary; by a conventional assignment, “dog” stands for a dog. But it could just as well stand for a cat or a car. There is nothing in the letters or the sounds that connects them with a canine (as “bow-wow” might, if that were the word for dog).
  • Inherent meaning is the kind that art works have. It is built-in; it flows from the nature of the thing. E.g. a flower, a snarling mouth, an embrace, a scream, even a jagged line.

The expressive object (cont.)

  • Do you agree that all art works have meaning in this second sense? What about an abstract sculpture? A Calder mobile, like the one hanging in the main hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art? What about a carefully crafted teacup?

Substance and form

  • Dewey emphasizes that substance and form always come together. He also emphasizes that “objects of art are a language.” As with language itself, the public meaning attached to the medium means that the work can move beyond the intent of the maker. Dewey quotes Matisse, who said “When a painting is finished, it is like a new-born child. The artist himself must have time for understanding it.” (p. 211)
  • The artist “assimilates [common] material in a distinctive way to reissue it into the public world in a form that builds a new object” (p. 212)

Substance and form

  • The material for art can be anything at all; and there is no limit on the kinds of form that can characterize it, either. Rather, “form marks a way of envisaging, of feeling and of presenting experienced matter so that it most readily and effectively becomes material for the construction of adequate experience on the part of those less gifted than the original creator (p. 213)”

Substance and form (cont.)

  • Note, bottom of p. 212, Dewey refines his view: the experienced object, not the object by itself, is the art work. “A work of art no matter how old and classic is actually, not just potentially, a work of art only when it lives in some individualized experience….[It] is recreated every time it is esthetically experienced.”
  • This means that works necessarily change through time, because it’s impossible for us to experience the Parthenon, for example, in the way that an ancient Athenian would have experienced that building when it was first made (p. 213).

Substance and form (cont.)

  • Dewey gives an argument (bottom p. 213) that one “undefined pervasive quality of an experience” binds it together and makes it a whole work of art. What evidence does he give for this conclusion. Do you think the evidence proves the conclusion?
  • What is the relationship between the unity of some particular experience and the unity of experience in general? Think about Dewey’s comments on madness and on the meaning of art, (top to middle p. 214) and see what you make of them.

The common substance of the arts

  • Notice Dewey’s comments (top of p. 216) about art media, means which are incorporated in the end result rather than being mere means to achieving it. “Media and esthetic effect are completely fused.” Does this seem right to you, that the means and the end product are always integrated in a work of art?

The common substance of the arts (cont.)

  • Dewey goes on to say that “Sensitivity to a medium as a medium is the very heart of all artistic creation and esthetic perception” (p. 217).
  • Think carefully about this. It could mean that “sensitivity to a medium as medium” substantially defines what art is, or that it is one (though not the only) defining characteristic of art. Is either of these claims true?

The challenge to philosophy

  • P. 218, last paragraph and following: Dewey comes closest here to giving a definition of what distinguishes art from other things. The work of art, he says, works by imagination. It physically embodies an imaginative assembly of meanings, and challenges the perceiver to a similar imaginative assembly of meanings.
  • Finally (p. 219), Dewey indicates why he sees philosophy of art as central to all philosophy. Aesthetic experience is “pure experience”. If you want to understand experience, look to the experience that is art.

A challenge to budding philosophers

  • Write out what you think are the central things Dewey is saying about the arts and aesthetic experience.
  • Ask whether what Dewey has defined describes and captures the essence of some obvious examples (making or looking at a painting, a musical performance, a dance). Ask how his description/definition squares with some less obvious examples (throwing a pot, preparing a gourmet meal).

Challenge to budding philosophers (cont.)

  • Does Dewey’s general approach to the arts appeal to you? Do you think it is basically right?
  • Are there any details of his approach that you think need to be refined or corrected?
  • If you accept Dewey’s views, which of the views we’ve looked at so far would you have to reject, if any?
  • How would you compare Dewey’s approach to that of Larry Shiner?

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