Topic: Notes on Dewey - Art as Experience

John Deweys - Art as Experience – Lectures on Aesthetics

Not only from the similarity in the title but also from his basic assumption and the intellectual impetus – how he positions himself and his arguments – these lectures are a clear predecessor of our approach. Dewey starts with the provocative thesis “that the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them.” (1)

Definition of Art

For Dewey art is several things: in the opening he writes that “the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience.” (1)

In a later chapter: “ART is a quality of doing and of what is done”(222). Art here is an adjective, not a noun. Something is done artistically. And: “The product of art – temple, painting, statue, poem – is not the work of art”. Instead “there is art in the conduct of [these] activities and this art so qualifies what is done and made as to induce activities in those who perceive them in which there is also art.” (222)

As I understand it, art happens so to speak as well in the production, as in the reception (“in which there is art as well”).

I am not quite sure of the usage of the terms “aesthetic” and “artistic”, when he uses which. Aesthetic I believe is more a general quality, while artistic refers more specifically to art works, or the work of artists.

Artistic Quality

Yet there are also still art objects and Dewey does not give way to aesthetic liberalism altogether. Instead he defines the artistic quality as a form of mastery of production. He calls it a balance between “doing and undergoing”, or the relationship between activity and passivity (the demands of the material): “The doing or making is artistic if its perceived result is of such a nature that it's qualities as perceived have controlled the question of production.” (50)

So Dewey does not go as far as saying that the aesthetic wholly lies in the eye of the beholder, yet puts much emphasis on the perceivability. The artistic therefore is in the experience as well as in the activity or the object that induces that experience.


What is important is, that Dewey supposes that aesthetic “satisfaction” must be linked to a knowledge of the process that went before it. In other words, a cherishing of mastery must be involved to have a true aesthetic experience. (50) Natural occurrences or unintentional creations can therefore create an experience, even intense ones, but they are not aesthetic experiences. They lack the appreciation of the process of “the activity of which it is the consequence.”


Dewey clearly describes what “an experience” is, as opposed to “any experience”. Life is a stream of experiences, undifferentiated. Only when we experience a wholeness and unity of an action or situation, we call it an experience. (37) So we know quite well when we are making an experience. This has to do with a heightened state of awareness, concentration, and lastly reflexivity: “The action and its consequences must be joined in perception. This relationship is what gives meaning; to grasp it is the objective of all intelligence. The scope and content of the relations measure the significant content of an experience.” (46) Otherwise we would not be able to understand it as whole and as harmonious.

He differentiates between “experience” and “recognition”: recognition is perception which “serves some other purpose” not “as to see him for the sake of seeing what is there”. (54) Yet this kind of experience can still include some interest or purpose also. This reminds me of the “handlungsbefreite wahrnehmung” as Böhme calls it. Emotional and existential distance is the key factor for having an experience and for aesthetic perception.

Aesthetic Experience

Consequently Dewey says that an experience always contains an aesthetic quality, “otherwise its materials would not be rounded out into a single coherent experience.” (56) Yet the experience is not distinctively aesthetic, because “of the interest and purpose that control it” (57). Id est: Only if “the end [of an activity] is significant not by itself but as the integration of the parts” we can speak of a truly aesthetic experience. The parts then ”have no other existence.” (57)

Active Reception

Dewey says that art requires an active beholder: “Without an act of recreation, the object is not perceived as a work of art.” The beholder has to “go through these operations” the artist peformed, only from his point of view. That is how the mastery of production can be appreciated at all. (See my notes on artistic quality)

Another quote: “The work takes place when a human being cooperates with the product so that the outcome is an experience that is enjoyed because of its liberating and ordered properties.” (222) The last sentence describes a situation as we understand it. Interesting to note that he uses the term “cooperation”, as if art product and beholder would engage in some kind of work-project together.


As I understand it, Dewey defines art as follows: art is an experience which is integral and dynamic and which involves an appreciation of the production process which has resulted in the creation of this experience. The production of art, the process of creation, is therefore twofold – the production by the artist and the recreation of the production in the experience of the beholder. The latter takes place in a cooperation between beholder and object. Both mirror each other and create an aesthetic experience.