thoughts on aesthetics (4) : experience

I’m now going to move on in this series of blog posts on “aesthetics” to take a brief look at John Dewey’s 1934 work, Art as Experience.

Dewey opposes Kant’s model of the rational mind (see my previous post), and takes experience as a basis for aesthetic theory. Experience for Dewey involves a stepping out of the self, and interaction with the world:

“Instead of signifying being shut up within one’s own private feelings and sensations, it signifies active and alert commerce with the world.”

He sees perception not as passive, but as a creative act:

“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…..”

Thinking about aesthetics from the point of view of experience allows Dewey to reject the division between consciousness and world. Dewey describes mind as ‘a verb’ and not ‘a substance’, and criticises philosophies that separate and elevate the mind over the body. He says that

“in making mind purely immaterial (isolated from the organ of doing and undergoing), the body ceases to be living and becomes a dead lump”

For Dewey, the work of art is a heightened form of experience, and he says that because of this, aesthetic experience can inform philosophy:

“For the uniquely distinguishing feature of esthetic experience is exactly the fact that no such distinction between self and object exists in it, since it is esthetic in the degree in which organism and environment coöperate to institute an experience in which the two are so fully integrated that each disappears.”

Let us have a look at Mary Lloyd Jones’s 2001 work The Colour of Saying, and see how it can help us to understand Dewey, and vice versa.

Ten painted fabrics were hung through the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. The material for the work was land and language; the poetry and mythology of Wales. Visitors were invited to walk among vertically structured canvases, painted on both sides and hung parallel to and behind each other, as ‘layers’. The structure made it impossible to see the whole work from one position, only partial views.

The formal element of the placement of the visitor within Jones’ work, and his or her mobility in and through it is important. Through this movement and discovery, the work becomes a tangible example of Dewey’s assertion that perception is a “going-out” of the self in experience.

Mary Lloyd Jones (2001) : Works fromThe Colour of Saying – these are not hung in original exhibition layout though!
[my own photograph, taken in August 2016, The Old College, Aberystwyth]

In her work Women Making Art, Meskimmon analyses the experience of a similarly structured work, and points out that:

“visitors are located within the piece and therefore become participants instead of viewers / spectators in the physical encounter with the work….the installation cannot be perceived as an object but is experienced as a series of partial, located encounters in an immensely inviting physical space.”

Marsha Meskimmon, Women Making Art (2003): p.177)

We’ll go on, in my next post on aesthetics, to look at how pleasure could be relevant to Mary Lloyd Jones’ work, and to aesthetic discussions more generally.

Sources, & resources for further research and reading:

Culture Colony (2016) Mary Lloyd Jones. Available at:

Dewey, J. 1934. Art as Experience. London, Penguin.

Jones, M.L. (2001) The Colour of Saying [Paintings / Installation]. Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Aberystwyth University.

Meskimmon, M. (2003) Women Making Art: History, Subjectivity, Aesthetics. London: Routledge.

Ropek, E (ed.) The Colour of Saying: The Work of Mary Lloyd Jones. Llandysul: Gomer.

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