Art as Experience: An In-Depth Guide to John Dewey’s Theory of Art

Art as Experience is the main piece of the John Dewey theory of art. Dewey explored the significance and function of art finding its essence in “the aesthetic experience.”

Oct 18, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
john dewey theory
Portrait of John Dewey, via Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (left); with Hands with Paint by Amauri Mejía, via Unsplash (right)


John Dewey (1859-1952) was perhaps the most influential American philosopher of the 20th century. His theories on progressive education and democracy called for a radical democratic reorganization of education and society. 


Unfortunately, the John Dewey theory of art has not received as much attention as the rest of the philosopher’s work. Dewey was among the first to view art differently. Instead of looking at it from the side of the audience, Dewey explored art from the side of the creator. 


What is art? What is the relationship between art and science, art and society, and art and emotion? How is experience related to art?  These are some of the questions answered in John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934). The book was pivotal for the development of 20th-century American art and especially Abstract Expressionism. Besides, it retains its appeal until today as an insightful essay on art theory.


The Break Of Art And Society In The John Dewey Theory

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Multicolored Graffiti photographed by Tobias Bjørkli, via Pexels


Before the invention of the museum and the institutional history of art, art was an integral part of human life. 


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Religious art is a great example of this. Temples of all religions are filled with artworks of religious significance. These artworks do not satisfy a purely aesthetic function. Whatever aesthetic pleasure they offer serves to amplify the religious experience. In the temple, art and religion are not separated but connected.  


According to Dewey, the break between art and daily life occurred when man declared art an independent field. Aesthetic theories served to further distance art by presenting it as something ethereal and disconnected from daily experience.  


In the modern age, art is no longer part of society but is exiled in the museum. This institution, according to Dewey, serves a peculiar function; it separates art from “its conditions of origin and operation of experience.” Artwork in the museum is cut off from its history and treated as a purely aesthetic object.  


Let’s take Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as an example. Tourists visiting the Louvre most likely admire the painting either for its craftsmanship or ‘masterpiece’ status. It is safe to assume that few visitors care for the function that Mona Lisa served. Even fewer understand why it was made and under which circumstances. Even if they do the original context is lost and all that remains is the white wall of the museum. In short, to become a masterpiece, an object must first become a work of art, an ahistorical purely aesthetic object.  


Rejecting Fine Arts

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Sculpture Covered Yellow Plastic on White Background photographed by Anna Shvets, via Pexels


For the John Dewey theory, the basis of art is the aesthetic experience that is not confined within the museum. This aesthetic experience (explained in detail below) is present in every part of human life.


“The sources of art in human experience will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball player infects the onlooking crowd; who notes the delight of the housewife in tending her plants, and the intent interest of the goodman in tending the patch of green in front of the house; the zest of the spectator in poking the wood burning on the hearth and in watching the darting flames and crumbling coals.” (p.3)


“The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged.” (p.4)


Modern society is unable to understand the broad nature of art. Consequently, it believes that only fine arts can provide high aesthetic pleasures and communicate high meanings. Other forms of art are also treated as low and insignificant. Some even refuse to acknowledge as art what lies outside the museum. 


For Dewey, there is no point in separating art into low and high, fine, and useful. Additionally, art and society must remain connected because. Only that way can art play a meaningful part in our lives.


By not understanding that art is all around us, we are unable to experience it fully. There is only one way for art to become once again a part of social life. That is for us to accept the connection between the aesthetic and the ordinary experience. 


Art And Politics

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Image of an old Building on American Banknote photographed by Karolina Grabowska, via Pexels


Dewey believes that capitalism shares the blame for the isolation of society from the origins of the aesthetic experience. To counter the problem, the John Dewey theory takes a clear stance. A stance asking for radical change in order to reshape the economy and reintegrate art into society. 


As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (“Dewey’s Aesthetics“) explains: “Nothing about machine production per se makes worker satisfaction impossible. It is private control of forces of production for private gain that impoverishes our lives. When art is merely the ‘beauty parlor of civilization,’ both art and civilization are insecure. We can only organize the proletariat into the social system via a revolution that affects the imagination and emotions of man. Art is not secure until the proletariat are free in their productive activity and until they can enjoy the fruits of their labor. To do this, the material of art should be drawn from all sources, and art should be accessible to all.”


Art As A Revelation

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The Ancient of Days by William Blake, 1794, via The British Museum, London


Beauty is truth, and truth beauty—that is all 

ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.  

(Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats)


Dewey ends the second chapter of his book with this phrase by English poet John Keats. The relationship between art and truth is a difficult one. Modernity only accepts science as a path towards deciphering the world around us and unlocking its secrets. Dewey does not dismiss science or rationalism but he claims that there are truths that logic cannot approach. As a result, he argues in favor of a different path towards truth, a path of revelation. 


Rituals, mythology, and religion are all attempts of man to find light in the darkness and despair that is existence. Art is compatible with a certain degree of mysticism as it addresses the senses and imagination directly. For this reason, the John Dewey theory defends the need for esoteric experience and the mystical function of art. 


“Reasoning must fail man—this of course is the doctrine long taught by those who have held the necessity of divine revelation. Keats did not accept this supplement and substitute for reason. The insight of the imagination must suffice… Ultimately there are but two philosophies. One of them accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities—to imagination and art. This is the philosophy of Shakespeare and Keats.” (p.35)

Having An Experience 

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Chop Suey by Edward Hopper, 1929, via Christie’s


John Dewey Theory distinguishes ordinary experience from what he calls an experience. The difference between the two is one of the most fundamental aspects of his theory. 


Ordinary experience has no structure. It is a continuous stream. The subject goes through the experience of living but does not experience everything in a way that composes an experience. 


An experience is different. Only an important event stands out from general experience.


“It may have been something of tremendous importance – a quarrel with one who was once an intimate, a catastrophe finally averted by a hair’s breadth. Or it may have been something that in comparison was slight – and which perhaps because of its very slightness illustrates all the better what is to be an experience. There is that meal in a Paris restaurant of which one says “that was an experience”. It stands out as an enduring memorial of what food may be.” (p.37)


An experience has structure, with a beginning and end. It has no holes and a defining quality that provides unity and gives it its name; e.g. that storm, that rupture of friendship. 


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Yellow Islands by Jackson Pollock, 1952, via Tate, London


 I think that, for Dewey, an experience is what stands out from general experience. It is the parts of life that are worth remembering. Routine in that sense is the opposite of an experience. The stressful routine of the working life is marked by repetition which makes days seem inseparable. After some time in the same routine, someone might notice that every day appears the same. The result is that there are no worth-remembering days and the daily experience becomes short of the unconscious. An experience is like an antidote to this situation. It wakes us up from the dream-like state of daily repetition and forces us to confront life consciously and non-automatically. This makes life worth living.


The Aesthetic Experience

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Untitled XXV by Willem de Kooning, 1977, via Christie’s


An aesthetic experience is always an experience, but an experience is not always an aesthetic one. However, an experience always has an aesthetic quality.


Works of art are the most notable examples of an aesthetic experience. These have a single pervasive quality that permeates all parts and provides structure. 


The John Dewey theory also notices that the aesthetic experience is not only related to appreciating art, but also with the experience of making:

“Suppose… that a finely wrought object, one whose texture and proportions are highly pleasing in perception, has been believed to be a product of some primitive people. Then there is discovered evidence that proves it to be an accidental natural product. As an external thing, it is now precisely what it was before. Yet at once it ceases to be a work of art and becomes a natural “curiosity.” It now belongs in a museum of natural history, not in a museum of art. And the extraordinary thing is that the difference that is thus made is not one of just intellectual classification. A difference is made in appreciative perception and in a direct way. The aesthetic experience – in its limited sense – is thus seen to be inherently connected with the experience of making.” (p.50)


Emotion And Aesthetic Experience

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Photo by Giovanni Calia, via Pexels 


According to Art as Experience, aesthetic experiences are emotional, but not purely emotional. In a beautiful passage, Dewey compares emotions with a dye giving color to an experience and granting structural unity.


“Physical things from far ends of the earth are physically transported and physically caused to act and react upon one another in the construction of a new object. The miracle of mind is that something similar takes place in experience without physical transport and assembling. Emotion is the moving and cementing force. It selects what is congruous and dyes what is selected with its color, thereby giving qualitative unity to materials externally disparate and dissimilar. It thus provides unity in and through the varied parts of an experience. When the unity is of the sort already described, the experience has aesthetic character even though it is not, dominantly, an aesthetic experience.” (p.44)


In contrast to what we usually think of emotions, Dewey does not think of them as simple and compact. For him, emotions are qualities of a complex experience that moves and changes. Emotions evolve and change over time. A simple intense outbreak of fright or horror is not an emotional state for Dewey, but a reflex.   


Art, Aesthetic, Artistic

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Jacob’s Ladder by Helen Frankenthaler, 1957, via MoMA, New York


In John Dewey theory, the act of producing art and the act of appreciating are two sides of the same coin. He also noticed that the was no word in English to describe both these acts.


“We have no word in the English language that unambiguously includes what is signified by the two words “artistic” and “esthetic.” Since “artistic” refers primarily to the act of producing and “aesthetic” to that of perception and enjoyment, the absence of a term designating the two processes taken together is unfortunate.” (p.48)


Artistic is the side of the producer, the creator.

“Art [the artistic] denotes a process of doing and making. This is as true of fine as of technological art. Every art does something with some physical material, the body or something outside the body, with or without the use of intervening tools, and with a view to production of something visible, audible, or tangible.” (p.48)


The aesthetic is the side of the consumer, the perceiver, and is closely related to taste. 

“The word “aesthetic” refers, as we have already noted, to experience as appreciative, perceiving, and enjoying. It denotes the consumer’s… standpoint. It is gusto, taste; and, as with cooking, overt skillful action is on the side of the cook who prepares, while taste is on the side of the consumer…” (p.49)


The unity of these two sides – the artistic and the aesthetic – constitutes art. 

“In short, art, in its form, unites the very same relation of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy that makes an experience to be an experience.” (p.51)


The Importance Of Art

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Moscow Red Square by Wassily Kandinsky, 1916, in The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


What is the importance of art? Leo Tolstoy said that art is a language for communicating emotion. He also believed that art was the only way of understanding how others experience the world. For this reason, he even wrote that “without art, mankind could not exist.”


Dewey shared some of Tolstoy’s views but not entirely. Explaining the importance of art, the American philosopher felt the need to distinguish it from science. 


Science, on the one hand, signifies the mode of statement that is most helpful as direction. On the other hand, art is expressive of the inner nature of things.


 Dewey uses the following example to explain this concept:

“…a traveler who follows the statement or direction of a signboard finds himself in the city that has been pointed towards. He then may have in his own experience some of the meaning which the city possesses. We may have it to such an extent that the city has expressed itself to him- as Tintern Abbey expressed itself to Wordsworth in and through his poem.” (pp.88-89)


In this case, scientific language is the signboard directing us towards the city. The experience of the city lies in real-life experience and can be transmitted using the artistic language. In this case, a poem can provide the experience of the city. 


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Cape Cod Morning by Edward Hopper, 1950, via Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.


The two languages – scientific and artistic – are not contradictory, but complementary. Both can aid us in deepening our understanding of the world and experience of life.


As Dewey explains, art is not interchangeable with science or any other mode of communication.

“In the end, works of art are 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.” (p.109)


John Dewey Theory And American Art

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People of Chilmark by Thomas Hart Benton, 1920, via Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.


The John Dewey theory placed emphasis on the experience of the art creator, studying what it means to make art. Unlike many others, It also defended abstraction in art and linked it with expression: 

“every work of art abstracts in some degree from the particular traits of objects expressed…the very attempt to present three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane demands abstraction from the usual conditions in which they exist.

…in art [abstraction occurs] for the sake of the expressiveness of the object, and the artist’s own being and experience determine what shall be expressed and therefore the nature and extent of the abstraction that occurs” (p.98-99)


Dewey’s emphasis on the creative process, emotion, and the role of abstraction and expressiveness influenced the development of American art. 


A good example is regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton who read “Art as Experience” and drew inspiration from its pages.


Abstract Expressionism And Art As Experience

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Elegy to the Spanish Republic #132 by Robert Motherwell, 1975–85, via MoMA, New York


Art as Experience was also a major inspiration for a group of artists that rose in New York during the 1940s; the Abstract Expressionists


The book was read and discussed among the pioneers of the movement. Most famously, Robert Motherwell applied the John Dewey theory in his art. Motherwell is the only painter to explicitly mention Dewey as one of his main theoretical influences. There are also many links suggesting influences with leading figures of Abstract Expressionism such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Martin Rothko, and many others.


Further Readings On John Dewey Theory And Aesthetics



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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA). Antonis is a senior staff member at TheCollector, managing the Archaeology and Ancient History department. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.