John Dewey is one of the great thinkers of educational and philosophical theories. He was born October 20, 1859 and grew up to become an educator, first in a high school setting and then in a college setting. John Dewey is a pioneer of many ideas but one of the most important was his idea regarding aesthetics. He believed that art is a major part of any culture. Dewey proposed that one must move past the material object of art and move towards actually having an experience when interacting with art. This experience must have an impact on human life. Further, he believed that as the artist interacted with the viewers and the culture a sense of community could be developed around the art. “Works of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living. Civilization is uncivil because human beings are divided into non-communicating sects, races, nations, classes and cliques” (Dewey, 1934, 336). Art as Experience is a highly regarded piece of written work by John Dewey that can be analyzed in support of this quote and the idea that art is an experience rather than an object.
Art is generally referred to as an object that can be viewed and/or touched. However, according to John Dewey in order for something to be considered art it must also be experienced (Dewey, 1934, 1). In addition, Dewey states that it is possible to enjoy art without knowing anything about it but to truly experience art, one must have a clear understanding of it as well (Dewey, 1934, 2). Finally, Dewey felt that it is just as important to enjoy the journey that leads to an understanding of art as it is to enjoy the final product (Dewey, 1934, 4). These are all interesting and important theories about how human beings experience art. It seems fair to say that truly experiencing art is more imporant than simply looking at it or touching it. After all, anyone can go to an art museum and look at the paintings and sculptures, but it takes true experience to leave the museum appreciating what was seen. This experience can look different for different people, but in agreement with John Dewey an experience is necessary to truly understand and internalize art. Further, Dewey felt that the interaction of a human being with art is essential to the actual act of living (Dewey, 1934, 4).
John Dewey uses an example of flowers to make his second point that one can enjoy art without knowing anything about it. A human can enjoy the beauty and color of blooming flowers but to truly experience them one must also have an understanding of how they grow (Dewey, 1934, 2). It may make viewing flowers more amazing if one understands the delicate process seeds go through in becoming flowers, but it may not be necessary in order to consider them a work of art. A young child can spend a great deal of time smelling flowers as well as picking them but they don’t usually understand the growth process. However, they can experience the flowers just as well as an adult who knows where they came from. In fact, the child who simply enjoys flowers for their beauty and smell may actually be experiencing the interaction with flowers more than a person who knows all the scientific details of how they grow.
John Dewey also emphasizes how important the journey to understanding art is in addition to gaining an understanding of a piece of art. For example, a human who plants flower seeds and watches them grow will enjoy the final flower blooms more than someone who has not invested as much time in the eventual beauty of blooming flowers. Sometimes, the process of creating art is just as important as the final product. This is certainly true. When one works hard at achieving an artisitic goal part of the reward is seeing all that hard work produce a masterpiece. This journey leads to experiencing art as it is created. Additionally, John Dewey emphasizes that art can be more than what is on display at the art museum (Dewey, 1934, 4). Humans can find art everywhere and this is part of why it so important to experience the art and gain an appreciation for it, either by gaining an understanding of the art or by simply enjoying its beauty for what it is.
John Dewey felt that true experience is rooted in history (Dewey, 1934, 25). Human beings remember artisitic aspects of their lives because they were truly able to experience them. One can recall a meal from many years ago because the experience of trying new foods or new tastes was real enough to build long term memory. Similarly, one can remember the exact feeling of seeing a loved one after a long time apart or the feeling of losing a loved one. These experiences can be considered art and must be experienced to be remembered. John Dewey would also find it important to find meaning in each of these experiences but meaning isn’t as important as experience. One doesn’t necessarily need to know how a much loved meal was prepared or what ingredients were used to remember it. One also doesn’t need to know the mechanics of joy or sadness to truly experience them.
Another key aspect of John Dewey’s aesthetic theory is the importance of utilizing the senses when interacting with art. He goes on to stress that in current society, humans aren’t making sensory connections with the art around them. They see art without feeling it; they hear only second hand reports of events without witnessing them; they touch but without using other senses (Dewey, 1934, 21). These five senses are essential for human survival. When one sense doesn’t work, humans must make up what is lacking by allowing the working senses to pick up the slack. Therefore, human beings must use their senses to truly experience a work of art. “Experience is the result, the sign, and the reward of the interaction of organism and environment which, when it is carried to the full, is a transformation of interaction into participation and communication” (Dewey, 1934, 22).
The senses are what allows human beings to achieve the reward that leads to participation and communication when veiwing art. It is true that one can look at a piece of art and quickly forget what was seen. In order to experience what is being seen, the viewer must uses his or her senses to find meaning in what is being seen, or at the very least find enjoyment in what they are looking at. As stated earlier, one doesn’t necessarily need to have a complete understanding of the piece of art, but in order to truly experience it one does need to find enjoyment and beauty in what they are looking at. This beauty and enjoyment may be all that is needed to experience the piece of art. Others may desire to gain a more well rounding understanding of the artist or medium and this is important if it is what leads to truly experiencing the art. Art is all around but so often humans go about their lives without really seeing, hearing, touching, smelling or tasting true works of art.
Emotions are just as important to the ability to experience art. Significant emotions are a vital part of having an experience (Dewey, 1934, 60). Emotions are complex and lead to true experience. One must go through a series of emotions in order to experience something. Emotions don’t happen in an instant but rather need time to change and grow as one has an experience. An initial emotion may quickly lead to another emotion and then another emotion throughout the journey. Returning to the previous example of a memorable meal, there are many emotions present during such an experience. The first emotion may be reluctance to try something new but can quickly turn to enjoyment as the first bite is taken. This enjoyment may turn to intense happiness as the meal progresses and different tastes and textures are enjoyed. What matters during an experience is that emotions become so ingrained in the experience that they become the experience. This idea can extend to public art as well as performance art. True experience results when one is able to display emotions that lead to true experience.
Many people think that to truly appreciate and understand art, one must find meaning in it. It is true that meaning is important to art, but one can use the senses without looking for meaning and still experience art. Again, small children don’t often understand terms such as light and texture and what they mean to art, but they are able to experience art just the same. In creating art, children find such joy in fingerpainting or working with clay. They are using their sense of touch and sight to create masterpieces while they are also experiencing the nature of creating something. The same can be said for many adults. There are some people who truly feel as if they have experienced art but cannot say what that art really means. What is important to remember when thinking about John Dewey’s theories is that the senses are important when experiencing art, but it can be said that finding meaning isn’t always the end result. Sometimes, the end result is simply an enjoyable experience associated with art.
John Dewey also believed that in order to truly experience art one must take all the pieces of art and make it into a whole (Dewey, 1934, 202). As one views a piece of art there are often focal points which draw the eye. These focal points must be blended to form a piece of artwork that is whole and can be experienced. Again, it is easy to simply look at a piece of art but as Dewey states, processing the little pieces of art into a coherent whole allows for true experience. Further, Dewey believed that in order to form this coherent whole, one must reflect on what is being experienced (Dewey, 1934, 202). Dewey meant this to mean that a viewer must find meaning in the art in order to form a coherent whole. However, art can be made coherent without really understanding it. For example, there are many works of art scattered about New York City both in museums and out and many of these works of art don’t have apparent meaning. It is possible to view any of these pieces of art and experience what they mean to the city and its citizens without having any additional information about them. Further, as John Dewey believed, anything can be art so a person living in New York can truly experience the Brooklyn Bridge by noticing its architecture, lines and color without knowing anything about its construction or its history.
Public art is of great importance to culture and John Dewey realized this. Dewey didn’t agree with others who believed that the art experience was designated for a select few. Instead, Dewey maintained that everyone had the potential and capability to experience art. This is why public art is so important. Providing various works of art in museums are in other public areas is important because it gives all humans access to art that they can experience. John Dewey firmly believed that a piece of art wasn’t complete until other humans had the opportunity to experience it. These interactions with veiwers of art, Dewey emphasized, were essential to the actual completion of art (Dewey, 1934, 255). To prove this point, Dewey said that a completed piece of art was just “art” until other humans gained an appreciation for it. This is when the “art” transformed into a “work of art” (Dewey, 1934, 255).
In the final chapter of Art as Experience, Dewey writes about art and civilization. Again, John Dewey truly believed that art was not finished until it was seen by other humans. This is certainly true for public art but for performance art as well. John Dewey believed that art is a product of culture. Therefore, art becomes a way for human beings to express their ideas, thoughts and hopes (Dewey, 1934, 341). There are many temporary art exhibits around New York City that show the different ideas, thoughts and hopes associated with current society. These pieces of art are important because they allow other humans to experience the ideas, thoughts and hopes through artistic expression. As John Dewey also says, many people will find meaning in these temporary art exhibits. This meaning can lead to further experiences in culture. However, others will not find meaning but will also have an experience when seeing the art because it will lead to new ideas, thoughts and hopes within them. Still others will simply look at the art and enjoy without ever thinking about it again. In contrast to John Dewey’s ideas, all of these experiences are important. Despite the fact that not all humans will find meaning in the art it far more important that it is accessible by the public and gives everyone equal opportunity to experience it in their own way.
Performance art was another aspect of the fine arts that John Dewey felt important to humans and culture. He writes about past civilizations that used performances to shape what is not considered fine art (Dewey, 1934, 341). Once again, Dewey believed that ancient performances held meaning far beyond the actual performance. For example, he felt that mourning dances expressed more than grief and feasts were more than a way to satisfy hunger (Dewey, 1934, 341). Instead, each of these performances meant more when other humans were able to experience them. Perhaps a mourning dance allowed others to grieve while also remembering their loved one. Again, Dewey stresses the importance of finding meaning in these performances if true experience is to occur. Once again, these can be debated. It is possible to experience a mourning dance simply by grieving for a loved one. The grieving process is different for every human and ancient mourning rituals could be experienced by all humans but in much different ways. However, finding a deeper meaning as to why one had to die isn’t always necessary in experiencing the mourning customs.
John Dewey goes on to discuss the idea that social values are experienced through the performance arts. Performances have a unique way of incorporation societal ideals into an experience (Dewey, 1934, 341). In this way, performance art becomes more than just art (Dewey, 1934, 341). It is certainly true that performances have the power to teach society different things. Religious performances can teach values and ideals associated with different religions. Poetic performances can express different opinions about the state of current society. Each performance has a unique ability to teach viewers something beyond what is being seen.
Another example of performance art that John Dewey uses is the Church. He writes that the Church had enormous power to instill a sense of community through regular attendance (Dewey, 1934, 342). Churches are places that incorporate all different styles of art. Many have statues of important religious figures or depict important events in stained glass. Paintings are also seen in many churches. Beyond visual works of art, churches also rely on musical offerings and sacred rituals (Dewey, 1934, 342). Attending church is certainly the chance to witness a performance but a different type of performance than plays or dramas. However, John Dewey feels that each performance is important in bringing society together. The people attending church together are united by more than just the simple works of art (Dewey, 1934, 342). Instead, churchgoers experience the art through song, the taking of communion and the beauty of physical art. All of these combined provides an artisitc experience of great importance in life. John Dewey also believed that in order to truly experience the church performance, one must find meaning. It is certainly true that many people long to find meaning by attending church. However, it is also true that many people experience church as a way of growing closer to their god and don’t need added meaning to do so.
The final chapter also discusses the reasons why John Dewey felt that art of any kind was so imporant to human culture. Humans are subjected to many unpleasant and boring things in life and Dewey believed that art was important because it allowed humans to experience things beyond their everyday existence (Dewey, 1934, 348). Once again, John Dewey strongly believes that experiencing art isn’t for the elite of society. Rather, the purpose of art is to allow all humans to experience it in order to build a sense of community. Dewey felt that art had a place in every aspect of life since art wasn’t just what was on display at museums. This is certainly true. Anyone can experience the artistic expression of a beautiful sunset or freshly mowed grass beneath bare feet. Public art furthers these experiences by making pieces of art accessible to all of society. A piece of art on display among the unpleasant aspects of living in a city like New York can contribute to an enjoyable society by breaking up the everyday and boring aspects of daily life in the city. New York City realizes the imporatance of public art and the sense of community it brings which is evident by its many temporary art exhibits. If John Dewey were still alive it is certain that he would be viewing these exhibits and attempting to find meaning to New York society through his experiences.
In agreement with John Dewey, art is meant to be experienced. However, in contrast to John Dewey’s ideas, meaning doesn’t have to be derived from art to truly experience it. Additionally, art is all around and the purpose of art is for an artist to interact with a culture through a piece of art in order to provide the necessary beginning of an experience. What is traditionally considered art can definitely be experienced but all aspects of culture can also be considered art. John Dewey never focuses on the issue of positive or negative experience. However, an experience always occurs when interacting with art. The numerous public displays of art around New York City provides a perfect example of this concept. Some of the art on display is truly hideous to some. However, just because one didn’t like the art doesn’t mean it wasn’t experienced. Similarly, one may not have derived any meaning from an unenjoyable piece of art but can still say it was experienced. Performance art is similar. There are many people who enjoy a good ballet while there are others who feel that watching a ballet is torture. Both persons experienced the ballet but in very different ways. It can be sure that the person who doesn’t enjoy a ballet can’t find meaning but can still experience the sensory images that make a ballet what it is. Similarly, one who loves the ballet may not understand the plot but may experience the grace and movement of the dancers.
In essence, John Dewey was correct in believing that art is all around and experiencing it is important to human life. However, he wasn’t correct is believing that finding meaning is necessary for true experience to occur. Art is present all the time – one just needs to look around to find it. A museum, temporary art exhibit or a performance can all be experienced as fine art. However, watching a storm light up the night sky or singing Christmas carols with children can also be considered artistic experiences. What matters when one is having an experience associated with art is that the sensory images present are being noticed and internalized. Enjoying these images isn’t necessary to having an experience. Simply noticing them is all that is really necessary for experiencing. However, just glancing at something cannot lead to real experience. Taking note of the various parts that make up the whole is necessary for real experience.
What can be considered art is different for different people. John Dewey was able to see art in simple things such as a blade of grass or a passing cloud. Not all humans would consider these things art. What is important to John Dewey’s aesthetic theories is that true experience is gained through what one deems as art. The purpose of art is to enhance the lives of humans through community within a culture. What a culture determines to be art is based on what types of experiences they have. One culture might find incredible meaning in the blade of grass or shape of clouds while another may focus more on the tangible efforts of actual artists. In addition, some people in society may find incredible worth in traveling art exhibits while others might find them an eyesore. Again, what is important is that people are experiencing the art (positively or negatively) and the experiences that result bring a community closer together. In the end what really matters is that people find art in their lives and are able to take time out of their busy lives to enjoy it. John Dewey would like nothing less.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. Perigree Books. 1995. Orginal publication 1934.