Art as Experience

Ingimar Ólafsson Waage

The idea of Art as Experience, as coined by John Dewey in 1934, is an important premise for PIMDI.  Dewey (2005, pp. 1–19) discusses the notion that artworks are often seen as separate from human existence, promoting the need to bridge the perceived gap between refined artistic experiences and everyday life. Despite artworks becoming detached from human experiences due to their association with political, economic, and religious power and hierarchy, their essence remains rooted in shared human experiences that hold cultural significance. Furthermore, Dewey (2005, pp. 110–138) argues that the interaction between substance and form in any artwork shapes our aesthetic perception. The substance refers to the materials, qualities, and meanings that constitute the content of an artwork and includes not only physical attributes but also emotional, intellectual, and cultural elements. Dewey (2005) suggests that the audience has a significant role in connecting these constituents. Beholders‘ active engagement with the arts allow for a deeper understanding and appreciation. The relationship between imaginative circumstances provided by the arts and reality forms a comprehensive experience that creates a continuum of aesthetic encounters intertwined with cognitive processes. Within this unified experience, works of art serve as expressions of ideas concerning feelings and emotions while synthesizing the unity of our inner lives and personal identities.

Dewey’s concepts have been expanded upon by later scholars, such as Susanne Langer (1957), who further developed the notion that artworks can objectify subjective experiences. Langer suggests that art can make the invisible aspects of our inner lives visible through its expressive qualities, giving form to nameless components of our inner lives (p. 7). Also the American art educator Elliot Eisner (2002) emphasizes the essential role of artworks in communication and enhancing our understanding of others. Through artistic expression, individuals can connect on a deeper level and gain insights into the experiences of others.


A personal example from the PIMDI intensive week in Helsinki in October 2021 could be found in the way in which a dance performance by a group of students inspired me to reflect on the relationship between music, dance and personal experiences. The participants sat in a circle connected with colourful yarn, facing inwards. Inside the ring, professional dancers moved around gracefully, adding more threads or moving them, reminiscent of weaving, almost like they were creating an enclosure or safe space. Their movements seemed to transcend a spiritual realm. The music was familiar—a Finnish song I cherish, although the orchestration for strings and piano added a new dimension to the music. Suddenly I felt emotional, and upon reflection, I realized that this emotional response was born from encountering the familiar (the music) in an unfamiliar context (the dance performance), as I have always been indifferent to dance.

After the dance. PIMDI intensive week in Helsinki, October, 2021. Photo: Carry Rosenblatt Limpens

Relevance for PIMDI

The juxtaposition of the known and the unknown, through artistic experience, creates an unexpected dimension through which different aspects of life converge. Therefore, art bridges gaps and connects us to new perspectives and emotions beyond our usual boundaries. For PIMDI, this highlights how different kinds of art can bring together people with different backgrounds and experiences and create new experiences that invite us to make sense of the complexity of human existence and better appreciate its pluralistic value.


Dewey, J. (2005). Art as Experience. Penguin. (Originally published 1934)

Eisner, E. (2002). The Arts and the Creation of Mind. Yale University Press.Langer, S. K. (1957). Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures. Scribner’s.