Chapter 3 Art Is (Not) Experience

Engaging Dewey in Reverse

In: Imagining Dewey
John Baldacchino
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By exercising their autonomy—as free and intelligent beings—women and men make art by deed of their historicity as a dynamic social relation. This explains why, when we talk about art and education, we are talking about matters that we experience as being factually there, in their fullness and not as part of a universe of identical elements. However, this raises a question over the relationship between a critical and experiential approach to art, which, as Dewey would argue, would enhance the possibility of experimentation and pragmatic openness. But here we are challenged by a double bind between what is within (as immanence qua interiority) and that which is found outwith art as an autonomous form which, as an object that is made, equally relates to the outward experience that (a) is lived as art and (b) prompts us to make art.

While some would either dismiss this double bind or seek to resolve it, I would argue that the inherent aporia that this represents comes with a disclaimer, especially when we take a closer look at the relationship between art, experience and education, where neither education nor art could be construed as experience. This is where I would like to position my approach to Dewey’s Art as Experience. Using both text and image, I propose to critique an often-misconstrued interpretation of what he means by art as experience, and how this needs to be read in the context of other major books of his, notably Experience and Nature. Here I am proposing that we read Art as Experience in reverse.

Figure 3.1
Figure 3.1

Shakespearean Sketch I, fragment [Acrylic and crayon on paper]. (2015).


Dewey’s philosophy radically sustains and insistently confirms the necessity of contingency. As he puts it in Experience and Nature, “If all things came to us in the way our esthetic objects do, none of them would be a source of esthetic delight” (1925/2008a, p. 58). He then goes on to argue that if we agree that “need and desire are exponents of natural being, they are, if we use Aristotelian phraseology, actualizations of its contingencies and incompletenesses.” This is because “as such nature itself is wistful and pathetic, turbulent and passionate,” to which he adds that “were it not, the existence of wants would be a miracle” (p. 58, emphasis added).

Necessity of Contingency

The Horse and the Cart

Dewey challenges the Aristotelian approach, which he regards as being metaphysical in that what is deemed necessary is meant to anticipate, logically speaking, the physical outcomes that would follow suit. To get my head around this, I use the analogy of the cart and the horse, and how we describe their relational positioning from the perspective of the horse as a source of energy and the agent on the cart that drives it.

It would seem that here we have a problem with how we relate the physics of the horse with the metaphysics of the cart (i.e. what drives it and makes it go from a to b), and the agency driving both the cart and horse. The physical force of the horse is preceded by what the person on the cart is intent on doing and where he or she is going—which, in an idealistic sense, would be construed as the metaphysical side of this relationship. The latter is construed as an agency that always drives the circumstances in a predetermined direction. Yet the positioning looks odd because what is driven is at the front, and thereby anticipates those who drive it. To read this from a Deweyan perspective, we have to challenge the Aristotelian assumption that somehow the person on the cart is realizing the force of the horse’s physicality into the reality of being subservient to the cart (and those on it, including the agent). While in an Aristotelian sense this implies that metaphysically, the cart comes before the horse, in a pragmatic sense we would argue the opposite: that the physical circumstances, in their raw and unpredictable force (which are embodied by the full force of the horse) always come before the agency even when it claims to domesticate the horse’s contingent physicality on a metaphysical pretext of realizing its potentials.

In philosophical jargon, the contingent is necessary to us in order to claim to drive it and not the other way round. What is deemed contingent is not there to serve a primary agent of necessity, as this would amount to an external agency that controls nature’s existence. Failing such an external reality, we can only negotiate and engage with the contingency of nature as we understand its predictability. However, we need to be careful not to snap back onto an Aristotelian grid (which remains at the root of our schooled dispositions): to understand predictability does not imply that we present it as being necessarily predetermined.

Dewey (1934/2008b) insists that “necessity implies the precarious and contingent. A world that was all necessity would not be a world of necessity; it would just be” (p. 59, emphasis added). To just be implies inaction, where something is deemed to be there and presumed to have nothing to be done or said about it. Just being is not conducive to anything but to assume, metaphysically, that the world is all necessity whose case for us would be everything and nothing at the same time. This is especially so when what concerns us emerged from a relationship between art and experience, a concern which is never necessary especially when everything is just there.

When Dewey says that we get no aesthetic delight by what our aesthetic objects come to us, I hear him saying that nothing predetermines our sense of delight. To do so would eliminate the contingent value of the sense of the aesthetic. For example, if an art object is preordained in certain ways, it would fail to capture the contingency that gives a work of art its aesthetic value. To make something complete, and “correct” it along necessitarian lines, is to proscribe any aesthetic sense of unpredictability and accidentality.

In this case, the metaphysical denotes that which begins to eliminate the accidentality of the physical, and thus preordain and presume to run everything by what is expected to be complete before we even start to engage with the incomplete and the partial. This is where Dewey takes metaphysics to task. In its attempt to preordain what is existent by some perfect sense of “reality,” for a metaphysical approach, reality itself becomes stale, as it would just be and by implication, it stops itself from moving or going anywhere. In this case neither the cart nor the horse would have any use or meaning.

Having a (Verified or Anticipated) Last Word

Upon reading Dewey’s (1925/2008a) long and often taxing first chapter of Experience and Nature, we are not simply asked to follow experience as that which confirms theory, but where theory assumes a value that no one could reverse simply on one’s account of experience:

The phenomena observed in the eclipse tested and, as far as they went, confirmed Einstein’s theory of deflection of light by mass. But that is far from being the whole story…. even if they had been noticed, they would have been dismissed as of no importance, just as we daily drop from attention hundreds of perceived details for which we have no intellectual use. But approached by means of theory these lines of slight deflection take on a significance as large as that of the revolutionary theory that lead to their being experienced. (pp. 15–16)

Before I am accused of abusing the genteel demeanor of my Deweyan friends and leave them no option but to pour scorn on my heretical reading of the great man’s work, I need to explain myself. Rather than twisting, let alone misconstruing, Dewey’s take on the relationship between theory and experience, here I want to suggest that if we simply read this as an argument for the primacy of verification by force of a narrow understanding of the empirical method, we will be missing the whole point of Dewey’s take on experience and its relationship with theory, and for that matter on anything else including (and especially) art. Therefore, I am basing this on a pragmatic approach; which is to say that I regard Dewey’s choice of emphasis as being open to interpretation through the perspectival practice that this entails (and without which, we would have no space for a pragmatic take on the matter at hand).

Here, my eye is on theory and its anticipatory role. Einstein (1947) engages in thought experiments, just as an artist engages in his interminable processes of experimental inquiry. As he puts it beautifully in his essay, “On the Problem of Space, Ether, and the Field in Physics”:

The theory of relativity is a fine example of the fundamental character of the modern development of theoretical science. The hypotheses with which it starts become steadily more abstract and remote from experience. On the other hand it gets nearer to the grand aim of all science, which is to cover the greatest possible number of empirical facts by logical deduction from the smallest possible number of hypotheses or axioms. (p. 477)

This does not diminish rigor, neither does it deny verification. Rather it puts both rigor and verification at the center of a procedure that is marked by the risk of experimentation. In his method of approach—indeed in his theorizing—Einstein (1947) is not simply setting out to claim the verifiable by a restricted interest in it, but he takes the delectable risk of his theory through the elegance of his mathematical procedures and with it scare the hell out of his contemporaries, some of whom saw his approach as being a direct challenge to their own presumed elegance of established structures.

The theorist has to set about this Herculean task in the clear consciousness that his efforts may only be destined to deal the death blow to his theory. The theorist who undertakes such a labor should not be carped as ‘fanciful’; on the contrary, he should be encouraged to give free reign [sic] to his fancy, for there is no other way to the goal. His is no idle daydreaming, but a search for the logically simplest possibilities and their consequences. (p. 477)

Dewey would not disagree as to where sensible experience comes in, as he is equally wary of those metaphysical temptations by which an absolute character of certainty is invoked when this concerns a mathematical procedure which, in terms of its claimed certitudes, would warrant the primacy of necessity. On this, Dewey appears to take Bertrand Russell to task:

When he adds that contemplation of such objects is the ‘chief means of overcoming the terrible sense of impotence, of weakness, of exile amid hostile power, which is too apt to result from acknowledging the all but omnipotence of alien forces,’ the presence of moral origin is explicit. (1925/2008a, p. 54)

Dewey accepts that it would be impossible to pigeonhole Russell into “the cabinet of conventional philosophic schools.” However, he argues that whether it is moral or philosophical, Russell’s “motivation is obvious in his metaphysics when he says that mathematics takes us ‘into the region of absolute necessity, to which not only the actual world but every possible world must conform’” (1925/2008a, p. 54).

Dewey’s choice of Einstein’s example cannot be coincidental. What Einstein’s theory stood for is far from reassuring or reasserting an order that is immutable. However, Einstein’s is not a theory of flux, as found in Henri Bergson’s philosophy, and Dewey makes sure we know this when he argues that “the philosophies of flux also indicate the intensity of the craving for the sure and fixed” (1925/2008a, p. 49).

Figure 3.2
Figure 3.2

Bostonian Colonnade [Enhanced iPhone photo]. (2017).

Dewey rejects all forms of desired assurances of fixedness. He questions the expectation of a last word, even on those occasions when theory appears to be sustained by an empirical expectation of certainty—as often, those who are afraid of risk, tend to do when challenged by the precarious relationship between theory and practice. He finds fault in the kind of imagination that works “under the influence of emotion to carry unification from an actual, objective and experimental enterprise” as this would mean that our understanding of the world is prompted (and abstracted) by a “wholesale movement which ends in an all-absorbing dream” (1925/2008a, p. 62).

Dewey’s choice of Einstein’s example puts the case for the relationship between experience and theory on a trajectory that moves beyond the idea of seeking to have a last word. In terms of how it is experienced, Einstein’s mathematically construed theory confirms that there isn’t a last word. If we take this further into Einstein’s approach to a theory of relativity, one could argue that his engagement with theory is experienced through the recognition of contingency, even when such recognition might be prompted by a necessitarian impulse to seek to explain (rather than resolve) a world that appears confused with itself and its other. As I will argue later in this essay, this has important implications on how we read the relationship between art and experience in Dewey’s choice of approach. The change of sequencing that occurs between a physical and metaphysical logic and the implications to theory and practice are crucial to how one begins to understand the relationship between art (especially as a form of doing and making) and the experiential implications by which one tries to define art, works of art and art’s objects.

The Einsteinian example is more akin to art than to theory. It lends itself to a parallelism that both scientists and artists often draw between their respective experimental methods, and where they engage in their pursuit of ideas, not simply as articulations of correspondence between theory and practice, but as processes that are implicit in finding, doing and making. This constitutes a diversity of forms of inquiry over which there is no lack of equivocation, especially when it is wrongly assumed that any legitimation or recognition in research comes from validation, which in art it is at the very best a moot issue, if not an outright irrelevance.

However, when it comes to the notion of flux and simultaneity, on which Dewey has his valid reservations, when it comes to art this takes a different sense. While in Modernism, the philosophy of flux and simultaneity has been a major influence on the development of artistic movements in the avant-garde (see Baldacchino, 2018), the case that Dewey makes against this philosophy comes from his fear of the “all-absorbing dream” of metaphysics. To use my previous analogy, the danger of abstracting and confusing the metaphysics of the cart with the physics of the horse and elusive their agency is a constant worry for Dewey. And yet, this is where I would argue that Dewey appears to succumb to a peculiar kind of metaphysics in his own assumption on the relationship between art and experience, and where, as I will argue in this chapter, as readers we find ourselves confronting Dewey with Dewey—that is, the Dewey of Art as Experience (1934/2008b) with the Dewey of Experience and Nature (1925/2008a).

The Personal and The Shared

The Arrivals and Departures of Experience’s “Double-Barrelled” Traveling

Citing William James, Dewey refers to experience as being “‘double-barrelled’ [sic] in that it recognizes in its primary integrity no division between act and material, subject and object, but contains them both in an unanalyzed totality” (1925/2008a, p. 18). The context for James’s (1987) discussion is his essay “Does consciousness exist?” published in 1904, where he argues that

The dualism connoted by such double-barrelled [sic] terms as ‘experience,’ ‘phenomenon,’ ‘datum,’ ‘Vorfindung’—terms which, in philosophy at any rate, tend more and more to replace the single-barrelled [sic] terms of ‘thought’ and ‘thing’—that dualism, I say, is… reinterpreted, so that, instead of being mysterious and elusive, it becomes verifiable and concrete. (p. 1145)

James (1987) argues that experience itself is not dualistic, as this “is an affair of relations, it falls outside, not inside, the single experience considered, and can always be particularized and defined” (p. 1145). What he refers to as being double-barrelled [sic] is a point where experience crosses at a juncture where two facets (or indeed two aspects of) experience happen. To illustrate this, James gives the example of experiencing a room through literature, where one’s personal biography and the objective history of the room are different, and yet cross each other in one experience. This gives rise to two forms of experiential verification that converge. It also implies two points of travel—moving from a terminus a quo (as a point of departure) to reach a point of arrival (terminus ad quem) that becomes a point of departure in another sense of direction:

One of them is the reader’s personal biography; the other is the history of the house of which the room is part. The presentation, the experience, the that in short (for until we have decided what it is it must be a mere that) is the last term of a train of sensations, emotions, decisions, movements, classifications, expectations, etc., ending in the present, and the first term of a series of similar ‘inner’ operations extending into the future, on the reader’s part. On the other hand, the very same that is the terminus ad quem of a lot of previous physical operations, carpentering, papering, furnishing, warming, etc., and the terminus a quo of a lot of future ones, in which it will be concerned when undergoing the destiny of a physical room. (p. 1146)

Figure 3.3
Figure 3.3

Shakespearean Sketch II, fragment [Acrylic and pen on paper]. (2015).

Though James does not characterize this in terms of an artistic experience—even when the context involves reading—one cannot help noting that on the terms set out by an art form and more so a work of art, more than a single juncture would come across the travel of experience. This is because as facets of experience, the plurality that an artistic experience brings to the argument has something to do with what is being experienced and how.

Exploring this with regards to Dewey’s approach to art and experience, one would need to clarify how this presents us with a set of different possible approaches. This also means that the approach itself needs to be specified the more it becomes diversified. First off, as one dwells on the question of art making (rather than simply in audiencing–that is becoming an audience to—an artform in specific forms of arrival towards an art object or event from outside), the discussion of what art as experience means compounds itself and becomes complex. This applies to both (a) the direction of travel on the experiential route, and (b) the expectations by which a point of departure is prompted to reach a point of arrival that could fork out into new points of departures. Either way, we are dealing with a situation where we come to regard experience through perspectival facets where the discourse of art prompts us to add terms like “autonomy,” aporia and “immanence” to James’s double-barrelled [sic] terms like “experience,” “phenomenon,” “datum,” and Vorfindung (1987, p. 1145).

This also signals the need to point towards directions by which experiencing art takes many forms, often simultaneously converging on the object experienced but more so being confirmed by those who experience it. Is experiencing art the same as experiencing a work of art—as Dewey seems to indicate from the very start of his Art as Experience? And what does it mean to identify a work of art as an object (i.e. a thing) as distinct from a work of art, which though an object, is also traced from a series of events that have led it to be an object (see Wollheim, 1980; Baldacchino, 2019)? Isn’t there a myriad situation where art is experienced differently by the artists that make it, the audience that see, hear, participate or engage with it? And isn’t there a plurality of circumstantial aspects by which we begin to identify an experience as being artistic, let alone aesthetic and perspectival? To which, one would ask pragmatically, whether a juncture of experiences can only be assumed as moments or places where experiences cross, but never occasion one single moment by which one could verify anything other than the plurality of those perspectives. I would suspect that for an empirical position to sustain itself, an argument would need to be had over the indissoluble reality of the work of art itself—which is where (as I will argue shortly), we are thrown into a challenging context when it comes to engage with Dewey’s approach to the work of art in his Art as Experience.

Inhabiting James’s Room

Before we get to Dewey’s canonical text, I would briefly refer back to James’s analogy of the reader’s experience of the room. Though not making any reference to James’s analogy of the experienced room, elsewhere I have argued that taking on the analogy of a room comes akin to discussing the signification of a work of art, and by consequence, the act of experiencing it (see Baldacchino, 2019, pp. 101ff).

Unlike James, I begin by qualifying the room—or rather, have the experience qualify itself by the state in which the room is found in relation with the expectations (and therefore the intentionality towards it) by which a space would qualify as a room. This does not oppose or contest the premises of James’s example, though the intentionality by which a room is approached would, in this case, qualify the notion of experiencing the room further as a space that is defined as a room.

This raises the question: What does it mean to assume that the room is empty? Bearing in mind that this question is not just dealing with an experience, but with how it signifies itself and where does it direct its intention to, its state of emptiness is key to its being a space that holds room. Approaching a room in this way would imply that more than just expecting something or someone to be in a room, I want to understand what a room is, what signifies it other than itself, and what it would mean to me beyond its being a space that I happen to come across. My expectation of this space’s roominess is its capacity for habitation or that of rooming stuff in it. However, this also hazards to guess what the designation of a room claims to show; in that its habitation assumes a current, prior or future presence. This runs on a set of expectations, which on someone’s behalf would stipulate that (a) for this to be a room it has to be inhabited; and that (b) emptiness is a temporary condition.

Figure 3.4
Figure 3.4

Experiencing the Room [Illustration]. A. G. Rud, Patricia Maarhuis, & John Baldacchino in dialogue. (2019).

This reveals an intentionality towards a space as a room, which is sought by what I expect from it. Should I therefore imagine the room per se as being inhabited by things or human beings? Does being experienced as a room presume objects and persons in it? More so, should one wait for one’s expectation of a room qua room to be verified by experiencing it? (In which case my expectation of experiencing a room is based on my inhabiting it, or to link this to James’s room, a personal approach to what a room is for me).

Space thus becomes something more than a void in which to roam about…. It becomes a comprehensive and enclosed scene within which are ordered the multiplicity of doings and undergoings in which man engages. Time ceases to be either the endless and uniform flow or the succession of instantaneous points. (Dewey, 1934/2008b, p. 29)

Does my imagination of a room (which admittedly is made up of other forms of experience of other rooms) express a desire to make sense of this space in a certain way—where, unless I am of Einstein’s disposition, is not expected to be other than a space that follows the expected rules which I have learnt to regard as a foundation for how I understand (if not experience) the notion of space and time here on Earth?

Qualities of Experience

It would be questionable to assume that inhabiting a room is equivalent to experiencing a work of art. Nonetheless, drawing analogies from the questions that arise from the intentionality prescinded from the act of defining by inhabiting a space would attract one into a direction that is not alien to a process of signification through immersion as an artistic experience (even when not all forms of immersion and habitation are either artistic or aesthetic).

Two examples of artistic immersion that come to mind would be (a) a physical or virtual installation where the artform is invested in how both an immersive and participatory experience would make the art object; and (b) a theatrical or performative space within which specific art forms also signify an immersive experience that is partly created by the space itself. While in the latter, a physical space is constructed to let those who inhabit it (performers and audience) make and partake of an artform, in the case of installation and participatory art forms we are presented with a space within a space. This also needs further qualification in that whereas a stage in a theatre is a space within a wider space, unless regarded as a situated work of art, its function is different from that of installations which they themselves are the art form, and where the participants immerse themselves in it, as different from the audience in a theatre which immerses itself together with the performers who have their own artistic space delineated by the stage. Be that as it may, in both cases, the spaces involved directly choreograph the participation, and with it the immersive quality of an artistic experience whose aim is to gain aesthetic value in terms of the multiplicity of artistic experiences at play (Dewey, 1925/2008a):

The material of the fine arts consists of qualities; that of experience having intellectual conclusion are signs or symbols having no intrinsic quality of their own, but standing for things that may in another experience be qualitatively experienced. The difference is enormous. (p. 45)

Here Dewey makes a distinction between what he deems to be intellectual art and other art, where the “strictly intellectual art will never be popular as music is popular” (1934/2008b, p. 45). From a contemporary approach to art, this begins to create problems, particularly for those engaged in forms of art making where such a presumed distinction is regarded as symptomatic of a form of hierarchy that is unexpected from a pragmatist approach. From another perspective, one could argue that Dewey is here revealing his Hegelian credentials, especially in his approach to aesthetics, which I would argue, is more than just a residue of his youth. However, Dewey (1934/2008b) is never easily trapped, given that his pragmatist approach, founded as it were, in a dialectical method, tends to expose a much wider lay of the land. This would explain how he then qualifies his previous argument by stating:

Nevertheless, the experience itself has a satisfying emotional quality because it possesses internal integration and fulfillment reached through ordered and organized movement. This artistic structure may be immediately felt. In so far [sic], it is esthetic. What is even more important is that not only is this quality a significant motive in undertaking intellectual inquiry and in keeping it honest, but that no intellectual activity is an integral event (is an experience), unless it is rounded out with this quality. Without it, thinking is inconclusive. In short, esthetic cannot be sharply marked off from intellectual experience since the latter must bear an esthetic stamp to be itself complete. (p. 45, emphasis added)

Figure 3.5
Figure 3.5

Time and Space Through Fife [Enhanced iPhone photo]. (2014).

The question still lingers on whether Dewey is solely focusing on an experience of the object, which raises the question of art as an experience of making. Thus, when Dewey comes to the actual work of art, and more specifically its making, he has an interesting way of aligning it with his argument for an aesthetic experience. He argues, rather categorically, that

[t]o be truly artistic, a work must also be esthetic—that is, framed for enjoyed receptive perception. Constant observation is, of course, necessary for the maker while he is producing. But if his perception is not also esthetic in nature, it is a colorless and cold recognition of what has been done, used as a stimulus to the next step in a process that is essentially mechanical. (1934/2008b, p. 54, emphasis added)

This approach seems to adopt a pretty curious way of unity, which not unlike James’s claim for the double-barrelled [sic] yet monistic (or rather, anti-dualistic) approach to experience, Dewey (1934/2008b) articulates as follows:

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. Because of elimination of all that does not contribute to mutual organization of the factors of both action and reception into one another, and because of selection of just the aspects and traits that contribute to their interpenetration of each other, the product is a work of esthetic art. (p. 54)

Doing and Making

The Artist as a Perceiver That Makes

While it often appears that Dewey veers away from a philosophical approach that regards the aesthetic and artistic experience as separate yet unified in a perspective of the perceiver and maker, there is a feeling that his method holds traces of an idealistic hierarchy in terms of what is the fulfilment of an aesthetic that is experienced in terms of making. To bring the making within this unified approach, Dewey (1925/2008a) attempts to be specific to the act of making art:

Man whittles, carves, sings, dances, gestures, molds, draws and paints. The doing or making is artistic when the perceived result is of such a nature that its qualities as perceived have controlled the question of production. The act of producing that is directed by intent to produce something that is enjoyed in the immediate experience of perceiving has qualities that a spontaneous or uncontrolled activity does not have. The artist embodies in himself the attitude of the perceiver while he works. (pp. 54–55, emphasis added)

I find a fundamental problem with the assumption that somehow, the perceiving (which one would regard as aesthetic) is poised over, almost as a guardian, of the artistic experience (that of working qua doing and making). It seems that, for Dewey, what makes a work of art is the aesthetic quality, which may well fit in certain long-held philosophical and theoretical traditions, but which would be difficult to reconcile with the way art has developed, especially since the arrival of Modernism via Mannerism and what emerged from it (which was not exactly alien to Dewey, who published Art as Experience in the middle of the 1930s).

Figure 3.6
Figure 3.6

Downtown [Enhanced iPhone photo]. (2016).

Considering the context of Western art’s historical evolution from Mannerism to Modernism and beyond (and here I am citing Western art because that is what Dewey’s context appears to remain), Dewey’s argument does not augur well. This is especially the case when, drawing an example for the sake of illustration, he presents his readers with “a finely wrought object, one whose texture and proportions are highly pleasing in perception, [which] has been believed to be a product of some primitive people.” He describes how this being considered as “an accidental natural product” it somehow becomes external to the aesthetic-artistic narrative, and “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” (1925/2008a, p. 55).

Leaving aside the fact that here, in confining himself to a specific artistic tradition, Dewey is limiting his take on art while seemingly claiming that there would still be a commonly held ultimate ground that is universally shared (which again, brings up many objections from all directions), one could argue that it is not clear whether Dewey is taking umbrage to this state of affairs or actually assuming it to be the case, especially when he states that the difference is “not one of just intellectual classification” but which resides in “appreciative perception and in a direct way.” Whatever the case may be, his conclusion comes down to a clear statement: “The esthetic experience—in its limited sense—is thus seen to be inherently connected with the experience of making” (1925/2008a, pp. 54–55, emphasis added).

Art’s Good Object

While one could demand why there appears to be a limitation set by Dewey’s approach to an aesthetic experience, it would be unfair as well as mistaken to leave it at that (especially in terms of reading his work in the entirety of its pragmatic trajectory). This is because the way by which Dewey places the artist in the context of having an experience is far richer and could be construed as even moving beyond the expected critiques to which I hinted above, including that of his being limited within a specific artistic historical tradition. By this I mean that to critique Dewey, one must also bear in mind that he does not leave any stone unturned—at least in terms of the comprehensiveness by which he offers his approach. So here we must cite two qualifying passages that establish what I am here calling Dewey’s take on the artist as a perceiver who makes.

In the first instance Dewey likens the artist with God who found his work “good.” This has more than a passing resonance with the idea of the Romantic’s approach to aesthetics from the standpoint of the beautiful and the good, better known as the concept of kalokagathia in whose Greek antecedents Dewey finds some discomfort (see 2000b, p. 46). However, beyond the “good” work that the artist is supposed to realize, one finds how the artist as perceiver is seen by Dewey as being crucial to his process of making art:

Until the artist is satisfied in perception with what he is doing, he continues shaping and reshaping. The making comes to an end when its result is experienced as good—and that experience comes not by mere intellectual and outside judgment but in direct perception. (1934/2008b, p. 56, emphasis added)

Figure 3.7
Figure 3.7

Apollo’s Revenge [Enhanced iPhone photo]. (2019).

At this stage Dewey defines the artist “in comparison with his fellows” as someone “who is not only especially gifted in powers of execution but in unusual sensitivity to the qualities of things. This sensitivity also directs his doings and makings” (2008, p. 56).

In the second instance, after reiterating the state of the experiential completion of a work of art, stating that “[e]very work of art follows the plan of, and pattern of, a complete experience, rendering it more intensely and concentratedly felt” (p. 58), Dewey (1934/2008b) finds a further way of qualifying the relationship between the perceiver and maker, stating that:

It is not so easy in the case of the perceiver and appreciator to understand the intimate union of doing and undergoing as it is in the case of the maker. We are given to supposing that the former merely takes in what is there in finished form, instead of realizing that this taking in involves activities that are comparable to those of the creator. But receptivity is not passivity. It, too, is a process consisting of a series of responsive acts that accumulate toward objective fulfillment. (p. 58, emphasis added)

Dewey emphasizes that there will be no perception but only recognition. He insists that “[t]he difference between the two is immense. Recognition is perception arrested before it has a chance to develop freely. In recognition there is a beginning of an act of perception” (1934/2008b, p. 58). He explains this by claiming that with the exception of architects, artists that write, sculpt and paint, “can retrace, during the process of production, what they have previously done. When it is not satisfactory in the undergoing or perceptual phase of experience, they can to some degree start afresh” (1934/2008b, p. 58).

What follows is a fascinating discussion that would be better read at source and where I would only revisit the opportunity by which I would argue that, if we are to try to make sense of the trajectory that art took since Mannerism and the onset of Modernism, we must walk with Dewey in reverse. To understand this, I would invite the reader to bear with my close citation of Dewey’s words one last time.

In the course of explaining his take on the distinction between perception and recognition, Dewey insists that “perception replaces bare recognition.” This is because he regards recognition as a state in which “we fall back, as upon a stereotype, upon some previously formed scheme.” Recognition is:

too easy to arouse vivid consciousness. There is not enough resistance between new and old to secure consciousness of the experience that is had. Even a dog that barks and wags his tail joyously on seeing his master return is more fully alive in his reception of his friend than is a human being who is content with mere recognition. (1934/2008b, p. 59)

In contrast, perception “is an act of the going-out of energy in order to receive, not a withholding of energy. To steep ourselves in a subject-matter we have first to plunge into it.” Dewey sees this as an active approach, where “[t]he perceived object or scene is emotionally pervaded throughout.” Thereby

[t]he esthetic or undergoing phase of experience is receptive. It involves surrender. But adequate yielding of the self is possible only through a controlled activity that may well be intense. In much of our intercourse with our surroundings we withdraw; sometimes from fear, if only of expending unduly our store of energy; sometimes from preoccupation with other matters, as in the case of recognition. Perception is an act of the going-out of energy in order to receive, not a withholding of energy. (1934/2008b, pp. 60–61, emphasis added)

Here one begins to understand where Dewey would place the perception in art:

To steep ourselves in a subject-matter we have first to plunge into it. When we are only passive to a scene, it overwhelms us and, for lack of answering activity, we do not perceive that which bears us down. We must summon energy and pitch it at a responsive key in order to take in. (1934/2008b, p. 61)

Reading Dewey “In Reverse”

My suggestion that we should read Dewey’s Art as Experience “in reverse” comes from what I have identified as the challenge to confront this later development in Dewey’s work with the Dewey of Experience and Nature. The thought of a Dewey contra Dewey came to me after reading Chapter 5 of Art as Experience (“The Expressive Object,” 1934/2008b, pp. 88–110), where the direction of experience and the distinctions that Dewey insists upon, come to a focus when he states that art expresses the meanings that science states (1934/2008b, p. 90). It would be fair to add that Dewey tends to endear his readers by laying out several distinctions between the definition of meaning in its different contexts just as he goes at length on how between meaning could be an index of specificities which art takes on in different ways. I say endear because one gets the sense that Dewey approaches art with a sense of ingratiation, which could be construed negatively by those whose take on art is less to do with art’s “good” object and more with what it does as art. My only explanation for Dewey’s approach is that, contrary to Experience and Nature, Art as Experience is beholden by a preoccupation with metaphysics, in that its take on art verges on an idealistic approach that tends to conflate artistic with aesthetic experience.

This is why I am here suggesting that rather than focus on Dewey’s approach to the direction taken by experience in art, we pay more attention to what he has to say about the art object. Somehow, beyond Dewey’s own intention, the art object redeems the experience. Even when his approach to the art object remains ensconced in what he insists on calling expression, Dewey also begins to answer questions about the art object per se, which in many ways goes on to redeem his idealistic temptations. However, the frustration with reading Art as Experience comes from how Dewey tries to cover all eventualities, thus giving equal weight to aspects that come in the way of his own argument. As shown above, a good example would be his insistence on the “good” work. The problem with this is that while in delivering a “good” work, the artist realizes a wider world of possibilities through art making, this also comes to an interesting juncture which somehow keeps us hanging on what the work’s “goodness” is supposed to be promising or saying about it being “good”—which, the Dewey of Experience and Nature, would most probably denounce as a metaphysical snare.

As I see it, in engaging with art as an expressive object, one cannot avoid the juncture across which the experience of making (as an artist) and beholding (as an audience) must be reckoned with how an object is experienced as an art object, through which we would in turn experience the world in specific ways (that pertain to art). Dewey attempts to make the case for art’s specificity by arguing that in the work of art there is no place for the “oppositions of individual and universal, of subjective and objective, of freedom and order, in which philosophers have reveled” (1934/2008b, p. 88). Yet as a philosopher he still revels in trying to make a philosophical argument counter this state of affairs. The problem is not about the argument being philosophical but with an argument about art which remains outside of art. I would argue that here Dewey’s philosophy claims a distance from art for the wrong reasons. In not engaging with doing philosophy from within art, the matter of art’s ability to inhere in form (qua form) by dint of the immanent character of its substance is totally missed. As far as I can see, Dewey stays away from doing so on the pretext that this would amount to metaphysics. Yet in not drawing such clear distinctions while recognizing the inherent domains within which we could speak of art as an immanent form of doing, we risk floating art (and our experience of and through it) into a metaphysical world.

The consequence of Dewey’s (1934/2008b) chosen position is evident in his disagreement with Roger Fry, when he states that Fry’s

inference that [in a work of art] there is no re-presentation of any meanings of any subject matter whatever, no presentation that is of a subject matter having a meaning of its own which clarifies and concentrates the diffused and dulled meanings of other experiences does not follow. (p. 96)

From an artistic point of view, Dewey makes the argument worse when he suggests that if we were to generalize Fry’s “contention regarding painting by extension to drama or poetry… the latter [would] cease to be” (1934/2008b, p. 96). On the contrary, taking an approach from the position of art making—especially in the specificities of drama and poetry—one finds even more support for Fry’s argument. Unlike Dewey, any artist would argue that by virtue of the object with which we come to express the world (the object being art itself) we have no choice but to claim art by the capacity and character of its own specificity. Thus, far from art’s ceasing to exist, Fry’s argument provides a platform that recognizes art’s ability to transcend the experiential here and now. This is done through art’s ability to reach and anticipate meanings that emerge from the very notion of art itself—as form qua form. This is lost in Dewey’s preoccupation with covering all possible experiential eventualities, where form is lost in an estranging expanse of experience.

I would hasten to add that from the perspective of art, one cannot simply argue that the art object as form merely holds some sort of being in itself. Neither could one argue that the art object is a moot outcome of experience. Here, one would go as far as agreeing with Dewey that the philosopher’s raveling over subject and object is irrelevant. However, it is because of art’s inherent philosophical argument (in terms of what its form portends) that art (that is us as humans that make and engage with art) could claim a degree of autonomy. Thus read, the art object, as it stands with us (or even as we immerse ourselves in it) becomes a signifier of a form of immanence by which we invest in it a sense of autonomy. This is not dissimilar with what Dewey wants to highlight in Art as Experience, which is also what Dewey argues in Experience and Nature, where experience is regarded as being distinctly anticipatory in nature—just as the mathematical elegance of Einstein’s theory of relativity represents an anticipation of the empirical experience that followed in testing its hypotheses.

I hazard to guess that Dewey would not object to this, at least in the sense that he regards anticipation as that which, together with accumulation “finally comes to completion,” viewing a ‘conclusion’ as being “no separate and independent thing” but as “the consummation of a movement” (1934/2008b, p. 45). This echoes his approach in Experience and Nature, in terms of how we differentiate processes, singling out those of “initiation, direction or intent, and consequence or import.” Beyond these traits per se, what he regards as being unique is awareness or perception. “Because of this property, the initial stage is capable of being judged in the light of its probable course and consequence. There is anticipation. Each successive event being a stage in a serial process is both expectant and commemorative” (1925/2008a, pp. 85–86). Intriguingly, here we begin to understand how perception is anticipatory, and to that effect, when Dewey speaks of it in the process of making a work of art in Art as Experience we could argue that the idea of anticipation in art is not that contradictory to his approach to aesthetic experience.

Recalling Einstein’s take on the theory of relativity as a risk that could have debunked the underpinnings of theory per se, I would say that to claim to trace the work of art through its object in reverse is not alien to Dewey’s pragmatic approach. In this context, to reverse would indicate a direction that anticipates the outcome through the means by which art is made. However, where I find myself disagreeing with Dewey’s characterization of art as experience, is in how the experiential argument often comes across in the other direction of the anticipatory nature. In other words, reading Dewey’s Art as Experience, I get the impression (even though this jars with Dewey’s own approach to experience) that he is not clear as to where the direction of experience goes when he labors on the distinctions that he makes between forms of experience such as artistic, aesthetic and other experiential events that emerge around art objects. It is also this puzzlement (which I do not get elsewhere in Dewey’s philosophy) that I am arguing for the need to engage in a reversed reading of Art as Experience by re-reading it against Experience and Nature.

As a consequence of this reversed reading, we have to regard art’s experience as being an anticipation of any other subsequent experience that takes place within oneself or with others in engaging with the same art object. This brings up the necessary risk to embark on an effort that may well be destined to deal the deathblow to the underpinnings of what one means by art. Nevertheless, it is also because of Dewey’s own approach to concepts like necessity and contingency (as we have argued in the opening section of this essay) that I find myself taking this route. In a way it is because of Dewey rather than in spite of Dewey that I am engaging in this possibility. After all, it was Dewey who argued that both contingency and necessity are

teleological in character—contingency referring to the separation of means from end, due to the fact that the end having been already reached the means have lost their value for us; necessity being the reference of means to an end which has still to be got. Necessary means needed; contingency means no longer required—because already enjoyed. (1893, p. 372, emphasis added)

This would not be such an unusual situation, given that in the course of art history and theory, not to mention that of the philosophy of art (which should never be simply equated with aesthetics), this risk underpins any attempt to match the various domains by which anything implied in or with art—within as variegated as realm as the economy, politics, education, religion or philosophy—comes with the territory of doing art from whichever perspective one chooses.

Discussion Questions and Resources

A Few Probing Questions

  1. When you think of art, what comes to mind? A work of art? Making art? Art’s role in your life?

  2. Avoiding quick answers, like “Art is good for us” or “Art allows us to express ourselves freely” why should art be central to our daily life experience?

  3. Is “good” art equivalent to a “good” experience? Apart from the meaning and value of “good” in both art and experience, what prompts us to keep art and experience coupled?

  4. Does experience need to justify art? Does anything need to justify art at all? In other words, is art worth anything in terms of our experience of it? Couldn’t one` just do art for no reason whatsoever? But is it possible to leave experience entirely decoupled from anything that we do, including art?

  5. Isn’t the claim to relate art with experience and subsequently with education a form of instrumentalizing art for something else?

To read Art as Experience in reverse is to reclaim Dewey’s pragmatic approach in works like Experience and Nature, while at the same time entering one’s philosophical and artistic understanding from the direction of art’s experience as a form of anticipation. In this respect, the notion that art is and is not a form of experience, becomes more of a question that opens possibilities than an assertion that forecloses all.

Reflecting Further on Other Possible Themes

As I have hinted in this essay, to simply couple art and experience could potentially expose both concepts to a degree of instrumentalization. This does not mean that we should not think of how Dewey’s approach to art could have relevance on experience or daily living, nor should we discard the very idea of art as experience from notions related to educational, social, political and other spheres. However, in the spirit of this essay, I would invite readers to interrogate the obvious ways by which we often think of putting such ideas in the contexts of institutionalized learning, or other forms of social agency. To elaborate on this would require a separate essay, though in terms of reflecting on possible themes that would emerge from this “reversed” reading of Dewey, I would suggest the following:

  1. Imagine experiencing art through a process of unlearning. What would that feel or look like?

  2. In a shared space, such as a classroom, or a studio, or a church, or a square, etc., explore how the validation of one’s experience through art is questioned and put to the test through forms of art that are known to put many out of their comfort zone. Discomfort is often caused when art depicts ugly, offensive, or even violent themes, which often create dissent but also question the expectations of one’s artistic experience.

  3. Challenge the use of personal space through art, where individuals have to ditch their notions of appropriating their own personal experience and instead have to share one large space and to work collaboratively through visual and performing arts.

Suggested Readings

  • Bachelard, G. (2014). The poetics of space. London, UK: Penguin.

  • Baldacchino, J. (2009). Education beyond education: Self and the imaginary in Maxine Greene’s philosophy. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

  • Baldacchino, J. (2014). John Dewey. Liberty and the pedagogy of disposition. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

  • Fry, R. (1996). A Roger Fry reader. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Greene, M. (2000). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • Greene, M. (2018). Variations on a blue guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute lectures on aesthetic education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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  • Jackson, P. W. (1998). John Dewey and the lessons of art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  • Read, H. (2002). To hell with culture. London, UK: Routledge.

  • Schutz, A. (1999). On phenomenology and social relations. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


  • Baldacchino, J. (2018). Easels of utopia. Art’s fact returned. Oxford, UK: Routledge.

  • Baldacchino, J. (2019). Art as unlearning. Towards a mannerist pedagogy. Oxford, UK: Routledge.

  • Dewey, J. (1893). The superstition of necessity. The Monist, 3(3), 362379.

  • Dewey, J. (2008a). Experience and nature. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The later works, 1925–1953 (Vol. 1). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. (Original work published 1925)

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  • Dewey, J. (2008b). Art as experience. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The later works, 1925–1953 (Vol. 10). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. (Original work published 1934)

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  • Einstein, A. (1947). The problem of space, ether, and the field of physics. In S. Commins & R. N. Linscott (Eds.), Man and the universe: The philosophers of science (pp. 471482). New York, NY: Random House.

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  • James, W. (1987). Does ‘consciousness’ exist? William James: Writings 1902–1910. New York, NY: The Library of America.

  • Wollheim, R. (1980). Art and its object: With six supplementary essays. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Imagining Dewey

Artful Works and Dialogue about Art as Experience



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