Art as experience

Art as Experience (1934) is John Dewey’s major work on aesthetics, originally delivered as a lecture at Harvard (1932). Dewey’s aesthetic has been found useful in a number of disciplines, including new media.

Dewey began writing articles on aesthetics as early as the 1880s. He further considered this issue in the book Democracy and Education (1915). In his largest work, Experience and Nature (1925), Dewey laid the foundation for the theory of aesthetic experience.


Dewey’s theory is an attempt to transfer the understanding of what is characteristic of the artistic process with its physical manifestation in the “expressive object” to the process as a whole, a process whose fundamental element is not the material “work of art”, but the development of “experience”. Experience is what affects a person’s life. Therefore, this theory is important for our social and educational life.

However, such a change in emphasis does not mean that a separate artistic object has lost its meaning: the object is recognized as the most important place for the dialectical processes of experience and a unifying reason for experiences. Through the expressive object, the artist and the active viewer collide with each other, with their material and mental conditions, with their culture as a whole.

The description of the act of experiencing relies heavily on biological and psychological theories. In an article on the psychology of reflex arcs, Dewey says that sensory data and worldly stimuli enter the individual through afferent sense channels and that the perception of these stimuli is a summation.

The biological sensory exchange between man, which Dewey calls “Living Thing”, and the environment is the basis of his aesthetic theory.

Dewey expands the boundaries of aesthetic philosophy because he demonstrates the connection of art with everyday experience and thereby reminds us of the supreme responsibility that art and the individual have always had to each other.

Emphasizing the aesthetic in experience does not mean emphasizing the political, the impractical, or the marginal. This means emphasizing how this experience, being aesthetic, is a manifestation and record of life, a means that stimulates its development. Aesthetic experience is the ultimate judgment of the quality of a civilization.

John Dewey proposes a new theory of aesthetic experience. He suggests that there is an ongoing relationship between the refined experience of works of art and daily activities, and in order to understand the aesthetic, one must begin by studying the scenes and events of everyday life. This idea contrasts with the aesthetic theories offered by Immanuel Kant and other proponents of German idealism, who leaned towards the classicized art forms known as “High Art” or Fine Art. Dewey proves the validity of “popular art”.

We must establish a relationship between aesthetic experience and ordinary existence, with all the difficulties and sufferings that experience is recognized to constitute. It is the theorist’s duty to clarify this connection and its consequences. And if art were understood differently by the public, it would win universal respect and admiration.

Dewey’s critique is that he criticizes existing theories that “spiritualize” art and break its connection with everyday experience. The glorification of art and the erection of it on a pedestal will separate it from public life. Such theories actually do serious harm, preventing people from realizing the artistic value of their daily lives and the popular art (cinema, jazz, comics) that they love most. As a result, aesthetic ideas, which are a necessary component of happiness, are destroyed.

Art has aesthetic value only when it becomes an experience for people. Art enhances the sense of immediate life and emphasizes what is valuable. Art begins with a happy immersion in activity. All those who do their work with extreme care: artists, scientists, artisans are artistically involved in the activity. Aesthetic experience includes the transition from irritation to harmony and is one of the most intense human experiences.

Art cannot be located in museums. There are historical reasons that divided art into museums and galleries: capitalism, nationalism and imperialism.