Art Theory

Paperback Art as Experience Book

Years ago when I was a raft guide during the summer, it occurred to me that a raft trip, for my paying customers, was not only a form of entertainment, but was, at its best, a kind of narrative. It wasn’t enough just to show customers a good time, but they wanted an adventure, and, though they couldn’t express this, they wanted it to be in a kind of narrative form: a build-up, a progression, a constant ratcheting up of tension, followed by short periods of relief, reflection. Then more of the same.

It was more than just entertainment; it needed to have a kind of structure to it. The river where I guided had some of the right elements, particularly: the First Big Test rapid, and the Big Climax at the End. Unfortunately, the Nantahala River in North Carolina, perhaps the most- or second most-rafted river in the United States, lacks much of the excitement (and frankly enough of the water) needed to provide the kind of narrative story arc most customers wanted, and we typically ended up having to kill quite a bit of time, either avoiding shallow rocks, or making small talk, in the middle stages. I remember a lot of customers feeling vaguely let down for long stretches of time.

But I always knew that there was something there. There was some element of a river trip, some kind of ideal, that was a whole lot similar to the ideal of a good plot in a book or movie, a good narrative arc with just the right elements of conflict, tension, and drama. You see the same parallels with good sporting events: it’s not just a straight-through cruise to victory that people really want, but a back-and-forth shooting match, with ejections and controversies, ended at the last second by heroic action that you will always remember (recall: the entire NFL playoffs this winter, particularly the Bills-Chiefs divisional playoff, the greatest game I’ve ever seen). It’s good entertainment, it’s classical drama, it’s sport-as-catharsis for the common man.

But there’s something even deeper than that, of course. I’ve never been quite content with the structural analysis of a river trip, or of a sports game; it doesn’t seem like there’s much there. Okay, you need a big rapid right at the start to sober everyone up, and you need a big climax at the end, but that’s kid’s stuff, just a basic analysis of what revs us up that any action movie director who can staple together some gun fights can tell you. I never found it to be particularly fertile ground for understanding what really calls to me about the meaningful experiences that I remember in my life. All of those elements still operate at the level of entertainment, of engrossing plot twists, or build ups of tension and conflict, and there’s some deeper question underneath it. There’s more to a good river trip deep into the heart of the wilderness than just some carefully constructed entertainment ride, some mathematical sort of formula for creating a ready-to-go thrill ride. When I think about the Green River Gorge in North Carolina, I don’t think about the structural order of the rapids; I think about the mystical quality of the slow drive down the winding switchbacks of the Green Cove road, of the look of the rhododendron on the long downhill walk to the put-in, the feel of the river as the gorge closes in at the head of the gorge. There’s more to a transformative reading experience or film-viewing experience than merely being entertained or appropriately thrilled via a well-constructed sense of tension. This is the problem, I always thought, with too many river trips that I took: they were too focused on the expert’s view of the river, the abstraction of an entire wilderness experience into a specialist’s challenge: this stroke placed her, this classification of rapid here. You lose the outer quality of the experience of the place itself, you remove yourself from place and time.

So in the end, there’s quite a bit more there than just narrative arc. It’s really the question about what really creates good entertainment versus what creates a meaningful experience — or even, you might say — were you John Dewey — what creates a meaningful work of art-as-experience?


I knew there was something there in Dewey that would help with all of this, that would explain more to me about what I like about art (as opposed to why certain things entertain me or draw me in). Dewey’s concept of experience, his philosophy of experience, is something I’ve written about on here many times, and I still find it fascinating, kind of fourth-dimensional. The whole idea — deceptively simple and yet endlessly rich — that the best way to prepare students for future experience is by preparing them to learn to best utilize present experience. It’s a fascinating way of isolating the skill of living in the moment: planning, projecting, setting “aims” (in Dewey’s term), refining them, checking one’s progress, deliberating. As always with Dewey, there’s a very naturalistic grounding to all of this: human beings elementally want and need to interact with their own environments.

And after I ran across a particularly striking passage about Dewey’s esthetics in Theodore Brameld’s work, I knew I had to delve into Dewey’s famous later work, *Art as Experience.* (That title alone!)

At one time, last year, I thought I’d learned how to “read” Dewey, but this recent work might have set me back a bit on that belief. It has been hard going, and I’m barely a third of the way through it. In the words of one of his contemporaries, his style is “damnable, even God-damnable.” I’m not sure I’ve come across a worse writer to attempt to read in the evening after a long day of teaching and parenting, but even still, I think I’ve managed to absorb the gist of what he’s saying, and along the way I’ve taken away some pretty interesting ideas. I’ll outline some below.


Not surprisingly, Dewey believes that we create an artificial separation between “fine art” and popular art; not only is this distinction wrong, but it creates an incorrect understanding of what art itself really is. Rather than art being an otherworldly and timeless artifact handed down as if from a divine source on high, art for Dewey is a product of and a representation of experience. In fact, writes Dewey, the task of art is to “restore continuity” between “refined and intensified forms of experience” and “every day events” that contribute to experience.

Dewey begins with a very naturalistic description of the need for art — “broad outlines,” he calls them (12): He says that all human beings interact with their environments to get what’s needed, and tension is the natural state of this interaction. “At every moment, the living creature is exposed to dangers from its surroundings, and at every moment, it must draw upon something in its surroundings to satisfy its needs” (12). Again, this is characterized by a kind of “rhythm”: “Life itself consists of phrases in which the organism falls out of step with the march of surrounding things and then recovers unison with it” (12) — and for Dewey, in a “growing life,” this harmony is never exactly the same state that the organism was in prior. Growth itself involves this sort of disharmony: “Life grows when a temporary falling out is a transition to a more extensive balance of the energies of the organism with those of the conditions under which it lives” (13).

And it is these “biological commonplaces” that Dewey says “reach to the roots of the esthetic in experience.” The process of survival for an organism, through adaptation, contains elements of balance and harmony through rhythm; equilibrium is achieved out of tension.

As a result, Dewey says, it is as though human beings innately appreciate order, harmony, and all the rest of it — as a kind biological feeling that they can relate to. It creates “a response of harmonious feeling whenever it finds a congruous order about it” (13). Specifically, a feeling of harmony that is achieved after great periods of tension, a feeling that is inherently fleeting for a “live creature,” is a particularly sweet feeling for humans: “The moment of passage from disturbance into harmony is that of intensest life” (16). Dewey is arguing that art recreates or at least symbolizes or makes us feel the kinds of feelings that we naturally experience in our daily existence, both on a sort of biological level and, one presumes, socially and personally.

It’s an interesting claim he’s building — one of those “we can feel art in our bones” (or perhaps, in our DNA) arguments. He cites a well-known quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that characterizes a rapturous esthetic experience in nature (a fairly famous one — I remember if from high school — “I am glad to the point of fear”) in order to underscore his thesis that the esthetic is connected to the natural and elemental in man. Dewey writes:
“I do not see any way of accounting for the multiplicity of experiences of this (esthetic) kind . . . except on the basis that there are stirred into activity resonances of dispositions acquired in primitive relationships of the living being to its surroundings, and irrecoverable in distinct or intellectual consciousness” (29).

There’s something quite intuitive and appealing about this animalistic, biological explanation of what we relate to in art. The notion that our love of symmetry, of order, of harmony — not to mention our enjoyment of more complex, challenging art (novels, films, long pieces of music) that move from tension to resolution, which introduce parts that enter, disappear, and then return again — that somehow these not only mirror our own innate struggles, but remind us, deep in our bones, of our own real need for resolution amidst change, is on the surface trite, but on a deeper level, fascinating. It seems trite at first because any teenager with headphones knows that we use art to process our own experiences. But it’s interesting in that Dewey, he’s taking it further: not only do we relate to the content of the words of a song, or to the mood of the music, but we relate in an almost visceral way to the idea of resolution and harmony after a great period of tension — and even then, for only fleeting moments. He’s stretching it wide in a sense, saying that it’s not only romantic fulfilment we’re after, or personal acceptance, but a much broader sense of harmony with our own environments. I like that wider view, and that wider notion of harmony-from-tension, and the notion that there’s something in our nature that impels us toward it.

Dewey continues building his case by differentiating between experience and having *an* experience, which he believes is something within the general, “experiential stream” of life that stands out because it has a unified whole, a beginning, middle, and end — and also some sort of fulfilment or culmination. There is a kind of order to it. Events build off of each other and lead in one direction in an experience, as opposed to during general life, in which we drift along.

There’s an interesting distinction here that I often share with my students: the difference between one’s every day, usual life — whose dialogue and whose interactions surely no one else would be much interested in, were they televised — versus the kind of “heightened” dialogue, drama, and focused attention of most books, films, and songs. Art as experience, but intensified; the artist dramatizing life, or borrowing so deeply into the details of the mundane — how it feels to be in a particular place, for instance, what it sounds like, what it smells like — as to not only transport us, but to provide for us — in Dewey’s estimation — an experience. Art is not just a creation, it is, as Dewey describes it, an experience itself. This in turn teaches us to regard our own life with greater observation, to ultimately inspire us to make more significance of our own daily experiences: not so much to stop and smell the roses as to notice that we are smelling them already.

Art is not only an experience for Dewey, but an interaction between the creator and the consumer of art. To that end, I’ve always been open to more abstract forms of art because I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of a creator (or any of us) trying to capture something very abstract — a feeling, or an emotion through a medium other than words. It is the attempt to express something new and subtle and unique and almost inexpressible — the cold, lonely afternoon in the autumn, the smell of the fresh snow in winter, the ambiguity of a relationship with someone one has known only a short time, etc. — I always admire the attempt to convey not only emotion, but experience, that wonderful, wide concept that includes feelings both conscious and latent, our intellect, operating away in the background like a computer, analyzing and interpreting, and events from our past, sluicing back and forth into and out of our frame of reference, guiding our understanding of the goings-on of the present moment: this is what an “experience” is like, and I don’t mind it when an artist is either trying to convey this sense through whatever means necessary. And I am particularly intrigued when the artist uses abstraction in this process, because I find that so intellectually engaging. Part of this is that I appreciate artists taking chances. Part of this is that find it intellectually appealing. And part of it is that I think the idea of abstracting, of symbolizing, is ultimately fascinating, because it both makes our own lives seem more significant (as indicated above — the noticing and dwelling of an artist on some specific experience makes us appreciate our own all the more) and also makes our lives seem more understandable or explainable. To see that an artist has created an abstract representation of some experience makes us imagine that a similar kind of patterning, very much outside of our own usual way of understanding our lives, could be set upon our troubling or confusing experiences. It always makes me think about my life more widely, to imagine that there might be deeper layers of understanding I could be employing. I’m not doing well to explain it, but I find the whole idea of creatively interpreting one’s life — and then communicating this to others — very liberating and hopeful.

I am thinking here — I don’t know why — of an old Bill Evan’s song I loved. It’s just a little fragment at the end of a fairly accomplished album. But I always enjoyed the notion of this abstract and unfinished piece of art. Again, it seems to suggest that any of our own interpretations of our own lives, no matter how uncharitable, art at best only small fragments, and that we may continue to make other, further attempts, at understanding them, and that there is nothing wrong with this — no need to ever be “finished.”

The song is called Jade Visions, and its unfinished, fragmentary nature (it’s even called “Jade Visions, Take 2”) is underscored by the fact that its composer, the wunderkind bassist Scott LaFaro, died shortly after this recording.

This song, with its light, soft, understated piano notes, and its square, almost geometric rhythm and simple chords, almost feels as though Evans is holding himself back, trying purposefully to abstract whatever it is he or LeFaro or whoever is trying to communicate. This belief that we can apply this type of geometric pattern suggests that perhaps there is an underlying pattern, or that we too can interpret our own lives as beautifully.

Okay, I’ll stop.


I have to say, the “experience” reading John Dewey doesn’t get any easier with time, and there is so much more there — both in his book alone, and in the broader field of art philosophy, that right now at least is simply beyond me. Even now, as I look back into the chapters I’ve already read, I see so much more there making itself visible to me. All of this seems to underscore Dewey’s point: each encounter with a book is different, because we bring different selves to the reading; each time we look at the words again, we are at a different place in our experience, and our past understanding only deepens, enriches, and changes our experience of the present.

Stepping back even further, I’m starting to realize, for myself at least, that the key here to this whole thing is philosophy itself. Understanding philosophy better, understanding how to break down what’s going on, to question it, to understand it, to classify it, to understand what it’s going for, and to be conscious of what shapes one’s own appearance, doesn’t have to be at odds with “poetry” (loosely speaking) whatsoever. Dewey’s book clearly shows that. Even in just the first few chapters I’ve read, he — Mr. Scientific Inquiry, himself — has a great respect for and appreciation of the great poets and creators — even of the power of religious revelation. Philosophy doesn’t have to be some dry academic discussion that pulls the life out of whatever it touches, or some silly academic argument about semantics, or linguistic tricks and games. Properly done, as Dewey reminds us, philosophy, like art, should not be locked away in a university (or in the case of art, in a museum) — it should be intimately connected to both the problems — and, in this case, the enjoyments — of every day experience.