John Dewey Art as Experience 1934

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John Dewey Art as Experience 1934


  • “Experience occurs continuously because the interaction of the live creature and its environing conditions is involved in the very process of living.”

  • Under conditions of resistance and conflict aspects of the self qualify the experience with emotions and ideas, giving rise to conscious intent.

Often the experience is inchoate [meaningless].

  • It is not composed into an experience.

  • It is characterized by distraction and dispersion.

  • What we observe and what we think, desire and get, are at odds.

  • We start and stop, because of interruptions or laziness.

an experience

  • The material experienced runs its full course to fulfillment.

  • Only then is it integrated and demarcated from other experiences.

  • When a piece of work is finished satisfactorily its close is a consummation, not a cessation.

  • It is a whole, has its own individualizing quality, is self-sufficient, has its own beginning and end.

Allan Kaprow, Fluids, 1967, photo Dennis Hopper.

Allan Kaprow (1927- 2006)

- was an American painter, assemblagist and a pioneer in establishing the concepts of performance art.

- invented the term “Happening” in the 1950s.

- was an avid reader of Dewey.

Calling, Allan Kaprow, 1962
(This Happening took place unannounced in Grand Central Station, New York City)

Life is a thing of histories.

  • with its own plot

  • inception, movement, and close

  • rhythmic movement

  • pervading quality

"real experiences"

  • They include events that were tremendously important: e.g. a fight with a lover.

  • Or less important: the meal in a Paris restaurant that was an enduring memorial to food.

  • "that was an experience"

  • Or a storm which seemed to sum up what a storm could be.

Paris: Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée
Dinner For One: $231, from

William Turner. A Storm (Shipwreck). 1823. Watercolour on paper. British Museum,

Here, every successive part flows freely into what comes next.

  • But there is no sacrifice of the self-identity of parts.

  • The enduring whole has successive phases.

  • The flow is from something to something, as one part leads into another and carries what came before.

There are no holes or mechanical connecting points in an experience.

  • However, there are pauses that define the quality of movement, and sum up what has happened.

  • A work of art [provides us ideally with "an experience"].

  • Here, different acts and episodes melt into a unity without losing their character, like a friendly conversation.


An experience has a unity which gives it its name: "that storm."

  • This unity is constituted by a pervasive single quality.

  • It is neither emotional, practical, nor intellectual,

  • although in talking about it afterward we may find that one of these characterizes it as a whole.

El Greco “Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane” 1595

Henri Matisse, “Joie de Vivre,” 1905-6

Matisse's L'Odalisque, harmonie bleue (1937)

Seated Couple” by the Dogon peoples at the Barnes Foundation, Late 19th early 20th century

Wooden mask with antelope skin, Nigeria, wooden mask, Nigeria, date and artist unknown

African-American connections

  • Dewey was probably influenced by African-American Philosopher Alain Locke. “[Dewey] was also associated, mainly through [Albert] Barnes, with African-American culture. Barnes was invited to write a chapter for The New Negro edited by Alain Locke [in 1925] and one of the founding documents of the Harlem Renaissance. The students in Dewey's and Barnes' first experimental classes in art education were mainly from the black working class. Barnes collected African-American art and also encouraged African-American students to study at the Barnes Foundation.” Tom Leddy. “John Dewey’s Aesthetics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011.

Alain Leroy Locke (1885-1954)

  • “was an American writer, philosopher, educator, and patron of the arts. Distinguished as the first African American Rhodes Scholar in 1907, Locke was the philosophical architect—the acknowledged “Dean”—of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of cultural efflorescence connected with the “New Negro” movement from 1919–1934” Wikipedia

  • In 1927 Aaron Douglas and Gwendolyn Bennett (artist and writer) were the first African-Americans to receive a scholarship to the Barnes Foundation. Cheryl R. Rager. Plunging into the Very Depths of The Souls of our People: The Life of Aaron Douglas (ProQuest 2008) PhD. Thesis University of Kansas. books.

Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction, 1934.  Schomburg Center, New York Public Library.

Aaron Douglas, “Song of the Towers” 1934

Gwendolyn Bennett, poet, artist, 1902-1981

  • Gwendolyn Bennett
    “The Pipes of Pan”
    The Crisis
    March 1924

Gwendolyn Bennett, Untitled (River Landscape). Oil on canvas, 1931.

Dewey: art should remove prejudice

“the moral function of art . . . is to remove

prejudice, do away with the scales that keep

the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, perfect the power to perceive.” Art as Experience, 328

Philosophers and scientists can have an “experience” too. Although ultimately intellectual, such experiences are emotional too.

  • Thinkers need the reward of integral experiences that are intrinsically worthwhile.

  • Ideas form trains as phases of a developing underlying quality.

  • This is vs. Hume’s and John Locke's "ideas" and "impressions."

Conclusions in Thought

  • The conclusion of an experience of thinking is no separate thing, but a consummation of an integral experience.

  • The premises are not independent ready-made entities that give rise to a third.

  • They arise only as the conclusion becomes manifest.

An experience of thinking has its own esthetic quality.

  • Intellectual activity must bear an esthetic stamp to be complete.

  • But unlike fine art, its materials are signs with no intrinsic quality of their own.

  • This makes intellectual thinking less popular than music.

  • But it possesses an internal integration and fulfillment which is felt.

  • No intellectual activity is an experience unless it is rounded out with this quality.

The non-esthetic has two poles.

  • One pole is loose succession.

  • The other involves arrest and constriction where parts only have mechanical relations.

  • These are taken to be normal experiences, and the esthetic is given outside status.

  • But no experience is a unity unless it has esthetic quality.

  • Enemies of the esthetic are not the practical or the intellectual: they are the humdrum, slackness, and submission to convention.

Aristotle said the "mean proportional" distinguished both virtue and the esthetic.

  • The mathematical interpretation of this is wrong.

  • The proportional is a property belonging to an experience developing toward its own consummation.

A close or ending of an experience is the opposite of arrest or fixation.

  • It ceases when the energies in it have reached their proper end, which is maturation.

  • Struggle and conflict may be enjoyed, although painful, when experienced as means to this.

  • There is undergoing in every experience. This involves "taking in" what came before.

The esthetic quality is emotional.

  • We may think of emotions, e.g. joy and sorrow, as entities whose growth is irrelevant.

  • But emotions, when significant, are qualities of a complex experience that changes.

  • Otherwise they are just outbreaks of a disturbed child.

Emotions, continued.

  • They are qualifications of a drama, and change as the drama develops.

  • Although people speak of love at first sight, love is not a thing of an instant. It needs room for cherishing.

  • An emotion needs a plot, a stage, wherein to unfold.

  • There are no separate things called emotions in experience.

Emotions are not private: they are attached to events and objects.

  • They belong to a self concerned with movement of events towards culmination.

  • Fright and shame are just automatic reflexes: to be emotional they must become parts of an inclusive situation that involves concern for objects. Fright becomes, then, emotional fear.

  • Emotion gives qualitative unity to an experience.

Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943) British philosopher and historian.

Books Published

  • Religion and Philosophy (1916)

  • Roman Britain (1923, ed. 2, 1932)

  • Speculum Mentis; or The Map of Knowledge (1924)

  • Outlines of a Philosophy of Art (1925)

  • The Archaeology of Roman Britain (1930)

  • An Essay on Philosophic Method (1933, rev. ed. 2005).

  • Roman Britain and the English Settlements (with J.N.L. Myres) 1936, second edition 1937)

  • The Principles of Art (1938)

  • An Autobiography (1939)

  • The First Mate's Log (1940)

  • An Essay on Metaphysics (1940, revised edition 1998).

  • The New Leviathan (1942, rev. ed. 1992)

R. G. Collingwood "The Poetic Expression of Emotion." from The Principles of Art (1938)

  • The artist proper has something to do with emotion, but not to arouse it.

  • The most commonplace answer [based on what we habitually say], and the one we want here, is: he expresses them [emotions].

  • This is not a philosophical theory or definition of art but a fact [or a supposed one], which we can later theorize about.

  • We mean to identify what people are saying when they say “art expresses emotion.”

process of expressing an emotion

  • At first he [the expresser of emotion, i.e. the artist] is conscious of having an emotion, but is ignorant of it: conscious of a perturbation or excitement, a sense of oppression.

  • He then expresses himself (in language, by speaking).

  • He becomes conscious of the emotion.

  • The sense of oppression has vanished and the mind lightened.


  • This is like "catharsis" by which emotion is earthed, into make-believe [Aristotle never mentions the earthing of emotion: Collingwood means that, for Aristotle, the emotions of pity and fear disappear as when lightening disappears when it goes into the earth, is “earthed.”].

  • Anger is earthed by imagining oneself kicking someone downstairs: one is rid of it.


  • Expressing anger by putting it into bitter words is different: we remain angry but oppression disappears.

  • Unlike catharsis, the expressed emotion does not disappear: although there is a sense of alleviation in understanding the emotion, for example as anger. [Is this inconsistent with his view expressed later that in expressing an emotion we are not merely labeling it?]

No intention to arouse emotion.

  • Expression is not a matter of intending to arouse a like emotion in another, although the artist may intend to make the other understand how he/she feels.

  • The work is addressed primarily to the artist, and secondarily to anyone who can understand. [Yet later in the book he says that art is collaborative and that the artist is not just expressing a personal emotion.]

  • Unlike someone who seeks to arouse a certain emotion, the artist need not know the audience.

Wrong Terminology

  • There are two wrong ways to look at expression.

  • by using stimulus and response terminology [as was the case for psychologist B.F. Skinner in writings he began publishing in the same year, 1938]

  • by using means-and-ends terminology where the end is foreseen [as in craft, for example in making tables]

Expressing an emotion is not describing that emotion.

  • For example, the words in which anger is expressed should not use the term "anger."

  • Description, e.g. with epithets in poetry (a word like “dreadful” to express terror) makes the language frigid and unexpressive.

no need for a larger scientific language for emotions (from psychology) to improve poetic expression

  • Description generalizes and classifies, whereas expression individualizes: expresses e.g. the peculiar anger [i.e. the specific anger in this case].

  • Expression is becoming fully conscious of the emotion, expressing all its peculiarities. [compare to Plato on emotion] [This is like Sigmund Freud, a contemporary, who believed that in psychoanalysis one can come to understand one’s own emotions.]

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936) by Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí

Craft (vs. Art)

  • A craft (e.g. that of arousing emotions) has an end that is set out in general terms. There is always a "right way" to do things in craft. [Compare to Plato on the three beds.] [For Collingwood the craft of arousing emotions is one kind of craft, the craft of making tables is another.]

  • For example a table's specifications might in principle be shared by other tables, and a physician seeks to create the condition of recovering from a complaint which can be shared by others.

The so-called artist.

  • The "artist" [so-called: he doesn’t really believe such an individual is an artist, hence the scare-quotes] sets out to produce an emotion of a certain kind, requiring therefore means of a certain kind. This is a craft.

  • To produce psychological effects, for example those of magic or amusement, the work must be of a certain kind and no other.


  • This explains Aristotle who, in his Poetics, was concerned not with art proper but with representative art of a particular kind: the amusement literature of the 4th century, and with giving rules for its composition. [Was Oedipus Rex amusement literature? Nietzsche would disagree!]

  • Reynolds’ [the 18th century English painter’s] idea of generalization in the "grand style" is the same: to produce emotions of a particular type, you put before your audience typical features: i.e. make your kings very royal, etc.

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Portrait of King George III, oil on canvas, 1779

  • Next: George Augustus Eliott, 1st Baron Heathfield - by Joshua Reynolds, 1787

Art Proper

  • In art proper the artist wants to "get this clear," not a thing of a certain kind clear.

  • Literature should not be taken as psychology, as depicting e.g. the feelings of women [in general]: this is not art at all.

  • Expression of emotion is not the same as betraying it, showing symptoms of it: we say that stammering expresses fear, but this is an improper use of "expression" in the context of art.

The False Actress

  • It is false to think that it is a merit for an actress to weep real tears.

  • Even if the goal is to produce grief in the audience there may be other ways.

  • If it is art the actress uses expressions in speech and gesture to explore her own emotions, and allow the audience to make a similar discovery about themselves.

Corrupt Consciousness

  • "Art is not a luxury, and bad art is not a thing we can afford to tolerate. To know ourselves is the foundation of all life that develops beyond the mere psychical level of experience….Every utterance and every gesture that each one of us makes is a work of art. It is important to each one of us in making them, however much he deceives others, he should not deceive himself.

Self-deception the root of evil

  • If he deceives himself in this manner, he has sown in himself a seed which, unless he roots it up again, may grow into any kind of wickedness, any kind of mental disease, any kind of stupidity and folly and insanity. Bad art, the corrupt consciousness, is the true root of evil." 284-5

Art is the community’s medicine.

  • The artist, Collingwood says "undertakes his artistic labour not as a personal effort on his own private behalf, but as a public labour on behalf of the community to which he belongs…Art is the community's medicine for the worst disease of the mind, the corruption of consciousness" 314-316

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