Experience as Medium: John Dewey and a Traditional Japanese Aesthetic

(Traditional Paper)


Abstract:   In Art as Experience, John Dewey argues that even the highest forms of art develop out of ordinary experience.  Contrary to his ideas, however, most aesthetic theory of Western origin holds that beauty should be studied apart from experience, in its ideal form.  To support Dewey’s claim, I will use the work of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki and Leonard Koren to describe how a different historical experience has led to a set of aesthetic ideals which oppose the western one.  I will also argue that some of these ideals can find support in many of Dewey’s ideas. They emphasize the role of experience in creating art and highlight the aspects of experience that Dewey stresses. I hope that my consideration of these thinkers will reinforce the primacy of experience over our intellectual account of reality, and illustrate how the application of Dewey’s ideas might bring deeper significance to our daily lives.


Experience as Medium: John Dewey and a Traditional Japanese Aesthetic

            In Art as Experience, John Dewey seeks to undermine the idea that art has a place above and distinct from ordinary human experience.[1]  Rather, all art originates in ordinary experience, and any adequate aesthetic theory must take this into account. The artists who create ‘classic’ works of art do so by finding, manipulating, and developing the aesthetics they experience in everyday life. Dewey writes, “Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one if its manifest operations.” [2] Unfortunately, however, most aesthetic theory concentrates on the art itself.  Art is thought to be beautiful not because of how it experienced, but because of its correspondence to an other-worldly ideal. For the purposes of this paper,  I will refer to this view as the Western view of aesthetics, realizing that this is a broad overgeneralization.

Dewey argues that experience involves more than our intellectual account of it.  Thus, the Western attempt to capture art entirely in theoretical knowledge is inherently problematic. The failure to realize this is damaging in several ways.  Having defined art and aesthetics as “the sort of thing that is in museums,” we dichotomize our experience into things aesthetic and things useful, cheapening our understanding and experience of both. We cut off one from the other not only in thought, but in the way we organize our environment.  We fail to observe or appreciate other kinds of aesthetic experiences that, if developed, could be far more relevant to our lives than the art in museums.   Furthermore, by focusing on ideals instead of experience, we diminish those experiences which we already consider aesthetic.

In this paper, I will discuss some traditional Japanese aesthetic conceptions, as articulated by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki[3] and Leonard Koren.[4]  I will describe how a different historical experience has led to a set of aesthetic ideas which oppose the Western one in several ways.  Like Dewey, they emphasize the importance of experience and everyday life.   I hope that my consideration of these thinkers might illustrate how the application of Dewey’s ideas might bring deeper significance to our “ordinary” experience.

            In the face of the uncertainty, mistakes, and ambiguity of experience, thinkers have sought refuge by claiming, in various ways, that there exists a reality apart from our experience. [5]  Our imperfect experience, therefore, is something less than real, to be disregarded upon the attainment of knowledge. In “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism,” Dewey argues that knowledge is simply one mode of experiencing. [6]  All experiences, even those that involve mistakes and ambiguity, are real experiences.  Dewey gives us the example of a person startled by what turns out to be simply a harmless breeze at the window.  He differentiates between two experiences: the “I-know-I-am-frightened,” and the “I-am-frightened.”  The initial fear he terms “cognitive;” only later, after it was reflected on, could it be “cognized, as a known object.”[7]  Both of these are real experiences.

            We must question the assumption that we have knowledge of everything we experience, and that everything we experience is expressible in terms of knowledge.  In Art as Experience, he writes, “the eye is not an imperfect telescope designed for intellectual reception of material to bring about knowledge of distant objects.”[8] Everything seen by the eye is real - not just the things later verified as true.  In fact, the “true” things depend on context for their label.  There is no strict separation between the “mistake” and the “correction:” our experiences do not exist as isolated events. The experience of correcting a mistake would not be possible without the mistake, nor would the mistake be realized as such without an experience of its correction. 

By focusing on our “knowledge” of what is occurring, we limit our engagement with our environment it to the things we “know.”  This imposes an artificial precision which presses us to identify facts in an experience of ambiguity when, in fact, there are none available.  It can divide time into discrete parts and moments, categorizing a full experience of a lighting strike in the darkness into the components of “lighting,”  “silence,” darkness.”[9]

In the same way, we put a work of art in a museum where it can be observed away from its context.  However, the experience is inseparable from the art: a podium in an art museum effects how one views a statue, as well as the long walk through the museum hall to view it, and certainly the busload of screaming children running out of the mummy exhibit.  Tanizaki gives us an example of the importance of context in understanding aesthetics.  An element of beauty had long escaped his notice. It was not until that he dined by candlelight in a traditional Japanese restaurant that he discovered it.  I quote him at length:

Darkness is an indispensable element in the beauty of lacquerware…Sometimes a superb piece of black lacquerware, decorated perhaps with flecks of silver and gold – a box or a desk or a set of shelves – will seem to me unsettlingly garish and altogether vulgar.  But render pitch black the void in which they stand, and light them not with the rays of the sun or electricity but rather a single lantern or candle:  suddenly those garish objects turn somber, refined, and dignified.  Artisans of old, when they finished their works in lacquer and decorated them in sparkling patterns, must surely have had in mind dark rooms and sought to turn to good effect what feeble light there was.[10]


Beauty, here, is not some quality present in the object in itself, or an abstract ideal which this object mimics.  Rather, it is the whole experience – the shadows, the subtle changing reflections, and even the inability of the perceiver to see the ‘true’ bowl – flooded with light, its details exposed. In this instance we find that the damnable realm of mediation - the “distorter” of perception, the impediment to experiencing truth - turns out to be essential to beauty.  The artist’s medium is not simply the objects he produced, but the dark rooms in which he worked.  His art was made with and for imperfect human senses. 

             Therefore, Dewey suggests, we must start at the ‘bottom:’ at the ordinary, “raw” aesthetic experiences in everyday life.[11]  We must consider “The sights that hold the crowd- the fire-engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in the air on girders, throwing and catching red-hot bolts.” [12]      Tanizaki provides us with an example of how an 'ordinary' experience came to be aesthetically enjoyed, and eventually an art form.  Another long quote from Tanizaki seems merited:

The quality we call beauty . . . must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadow, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends. . . and so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows – it has nothing else…Of course the Japanese room does have its picture alcove, and in it a hanging scroll and a flower arrangement.  But the scroll and the flowers serve not as ornament but rather to give depth to the shadows.  We value a scroll above all for the way it blends with the walls of the alcove, and thus we consider the mounting quite as important as the calligraphy or painting.  Even the greatest masterpiece will lose its worth as a scroll if it fails to blend with the alcove, while a work of no particular distinction may blend beautifully with the room and set off to unexpected advantage both itself and its surroundings.[13]


Our ideas are grounded in “low” experience. The cognitive capacity of man is what allows him to experience his environment with more meaning, and to manipulate the elements of experience with a increasing complexity. But before this manipulation can take place, experience must be felt at the “lower” levels of sense. The artist learns how things in his environment come to satisfaction; only after he has observed and interacted with them can he begin to manipulate them for purposes of art.  Thus, we must elevate and develop our senses. Dewey argues “any and every derogation of them, whether practical or theoretical, is at once effect and cause of a narrowed and dulled life-experience.”[14]  

Intelligence, Dewey writes, “converts the relations of cause and effect that are found in

nature into relations of means and consequence.”[15] Art is the idea of learning to manipulate the environment well, to a greater degree of satisfaction and meaning.  For humans, everything we do, from science to poetry to food, constitutes art.  It is fundamental, and much larger than “what is in museums.” Therefore, Dewey contends, the idea of art is “the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of humanity.”[16] Historically, this idea of art was applied to all activities of organization.  The Greeks thought of politics, architecture, and sculpture as arts.[17] All activities of life were included. 

In the West, however, there was made, at some point, a distinction of mutual exclusivity was made between the arts and the sciences, between the aesthetic and the useful.  After reality was identified with knowledge and not experience, we began to take our understanding of things - the meanings we assigned to them - as ultimate. A fork is a tool for eating; a house is to keep us warm; bright light to illuminate.  The West adopted a model in which every object exists for a sole purpose.  The aesthetic exists to be aesthetic, the useful to be useful.  As Alexander writes, this distinction “uncritically takes ends as arbitrarily given and forever immune to any critical evaluation.”[18]   

Subsequently, Western houses are designed to be useful rather than aesthetic.  Once technology allowed, candles were replaced with bright electric lights.  The aesthetic values which a Western room does have are later imported into it as decorations, made for the sole purpose of decorating, and flooded with light to expose the qualities within them.  Thus, unfortunately for us, the distinction is self-reinforcing.  Having extricated the aesthetic from many aspects of ordinary life, Dewey argues, we design and produce objects primarily according to the functions we have allotted them.   It is no wonder that those who arrive on the scene on this artificial world get the impression that the aesthetic and the useful are two inherently different things.[19]

Tanizaki gives us another example: he complains that the brightly lit, white Western Style bathrooms, are designed only with one function in mind: sterility.  A more traditional Japanese-style bathroom - darkly lit, wooden – is more to his liking. He writes,

Indeed, one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic.  Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature.”[20]


Here there is no strict distinction between aesthetic and useful; the toilet can be both.  According to Tanizaki, we are overlooking an aspect of everyday life which could be made much more pleasant.

            In order to develop aesthetic experiences and values, Dewey suggests, we must be receptive to new kinds of experiences.  The ancient Japanese artist could not have reasoned his way to the aesthetic qualities of shadow or lacquerware.  It was only by experiencing them, and being open to aesthetics he was not previously aware of, that more modern aesthetic ideas developed.  Consequently, by holding narrow conception of art, the Western thinker severely limits the possibility of experiencing shadows as aesthetic.  By paying attention to our senses, we can perhaps reclaim some of our experiences as aesthetic.  While the painting one is observing is a no doubt a great aesthetic wonder, this is no reason that he should not enjoy his visit to the museum bathroom as well.   

While receptivity to new experiences is very important, we must consider another aspect of experience: the attention cannot simply be open, or receptive.  It must be active as well.  Active participation is the difference between what Dewey terms “experience” and “an experience.”  Experience occurs all the time, but it does not constitute an experience unless the elements are brought together into a coherent whole in conscious intent. The elements must develop meaning in relation to each other.  They cannot simply occur one after the other, but must end in a common culmination. He writes, “An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship.[21]             

                This unity is essential to art, as well. Dewey writes, “In short, art, in its form, unites the very same relation of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, that makes an experience to be an experience.”[22] Thus, when an aesthetic theory considers a work of art in itself, outside of the time and space of our experience, it is leaving out ingredients vital for an aesthetic experience.  Dewey notes that the terms “artistic and “esthetic” have become distinct.  “Artistic” signifies the act of production, and “esthetic” the enjoyment of the product.  The West has long considered the art in museums something to be merely enjoyed.  Dewey writes, “When we are only passive to a scene, it overwhelms us and, for lack of answering activity, we do not perceive that which bears us down.  We must summon energy and pitch it at a responsive key in order to take it in.”[23] The observer must actively imagine the creation of the painting, taking the perspective of the artist, in order to perceive it as a work of art.[24]

            Koren caricatures the problem in his description of modernism: the movement which involves bright colors, straight lines, geometric shapes, and fully lit displays.  It leaves nothing to the imagination, perhaps trying to bypass the problems of imperfect experience.  In contrast, he describes the Japanese term wabi-sabi:  “Greatness consists in the overlooked details.”[25] Because wabi-sabi is not obvious, it demands the attention of the beholder. The beholder is forced to develop careful scrutiny – to search the art and participate in it imaginatively.  Koren writes, “Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes.”[26] In contrast to modernism's attempt to almost bypass the senses, wabi-sabi “solicits the expansion of sensory information.”[27]  Perhaps most characteristic of wabi-sabi is the tea ceremony, which calls for all participants to deeply engage in what they are doing and the environment that surrounds them.

While a modern work of art is a finished result, wabi-sabi is incomplete and imperfect. Because it is incomplete, we are forced to realize that it is a work in progress – not just a finished product for us to look at, but something which we can engage in ourselves.  Wabi-sabi art contains elements which point to the process.  Koren writes, “Corrosion and contamination make its expression richer.”[28]  Tanizaki expresses a similar sentiment: tarnish adds to an object the sense of its past.  He writes,

While we do sometimes indeed use silver for teakettles, decanters, or sake cups, we      prefer not to polish it.  On the contrary, we begin to enjoy it only when the luster has          worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina.  Almost every householder         has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently            waited for... this ‘sheen of antiquity...’ is in fact the glow of grime.  In both Chinese and Japanese the words denoting this glow describe a polish that comes of being touched over    and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long   years of handling – which is to say grime... I suppose I shall       sound terribly             defensive I say that Westerners attempt to expose every speck of grim and eradicate it,             while we Orientals carefully preserve and even idealize it. Yet for better or for worse we     do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and           the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.[29]


When we use these teakettles and cups, we contribute to the tarnish; we are shaping them artistically and enjoying them aesthetically.  In other words, we are engaging with the art – doing, and undergoing.  As Dewey writes,

            The form of the whole is therefore present in every member.  Fulfilling, consummating,   are continuous functions, not mere ends, located at one place only.  An engraver, painter,      or writer is in the process of completing at every stage of his work.  He must at each point    retain and sum up what has gone before as a whole and with reference to a whole to             come.[30]  


            This engagement with the medium, however, does not imply that we know exactly what we are doing.  Tanizaki describes an experience of eating soup out of a deep bowl in a dimly-lit restaurant.[31]  The ambiguity involved in not being able to see what one is about to eat next is incorporated into the experience.  Art can involve modes of experiencing that do not include knowledge.  Dewey cites Keats, who describes Shakespeare as having enormous “negative capacity” to capture the ambiguous aspects of experience.[32]

            But where would we be without reason?  To reason we attribute our progress as a society, and we cannot overlook this.  It is only when we trust too much in reason's ability to explain things, without reference to experience, that we arrive at the stereotype of the “progressive westerner.” Tanizaki gives us a description:

We Orientals tend to seek satisfactions in whatever surroundings with things as they are;            and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable.  If light is            scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover      its own particular beauty.  But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better            his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gas light to electric light – his quest             for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even in the minutest   shadow. [33]


This sort of progress, Dewey might argue, is quite limited.  It sustains the problematic ideas underlying the compartmentalization of aesthetic and useful.  The Westerner who chooses utility over aesthetic value is perhaps making progress, but at quite a cost. 

             Dewey's treatment of Keats points us to an explanation.  He quotes an enigmatic line of Keats: “beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[34] Dewey notes that “In this tradition, “truth” never signifies correctness of intellectual statements about things, or truth as its meaning is now influenced by science. It denotes the wisdom by which men live, especially 'the lore of good and evil.'”[35] Progress involves all that allows us to bring meaning to our experience. Thus, Dewey writes, “no 'reasoning' as reasoning, that is, as excluding imagination and sense, can reach truth... 'Reason' at its height cannot attain complete grasp and a self contained assurance.  It must fall back upon imagination – upon the embodiment of ideas in eternally charged sense.”[36]

                 Dewey concludes the second chapter of Art as Experience by stating, “Ultimately there are but two philosophies.”[37]  One looks above experience to an ideal of knowledge that it can never find.  “Modernism” as considered here, is perhaps an attempt to create ideal forms in experience.  Perhaps the harsh and uncomfortable shapes, the consequences of our ideas of perfection, tell us something about what our ideas.  The other philosophy “accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities – to imagination and arts.  This is the philosophy of Shakespeare and Keats.”[38]  I think it is fair to say that it is also the philosophy of Tanizaki and Koren.















Alexander, Thomas M. “The Art of Life: Dewey's Aesthetics.” Reading Dewey. Ed. Larry A    Hickman. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998. 1-22.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience.  1934. New York: Perigee Books, 1980.

---.  “Philosophy's Search for the Immutable.” 1929.  The The Essential Dewey. Vol. 1. Ed. Larry       A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.     102-112.

---.  “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism.” 1905. The Essential Dewey. Vol. 1. Ed. Larry A.         Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998. 115-         120.

Koren, Leonard.  Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers.  Berkeley:  Stone        Bridge Press, 1994.

Tanizaki, Jun'ichiro. In Praise of Shadows.  Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, eds.                    Stone Creek, CT: Leete's Island Books, Inc., 1977.




[1]  Dewey, John. Art as Experience.  1934 (New York: Perigee Books, 1980). AE.

[2]  Ibid., 3.

[3]  Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. In Praise of Shadows. (Stone Creek, CT: Leete's Island Books, Inc., 1977).

[4]  Leonard Koren.  Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers.  (Berkeley:  Stone Bridge Press,              1994).

[5]  John Dewey.  “Philosophy's Search for the Immutable.” 1929.  The Essential Dewey. Vol. 2. (Indianapolis:   Indiana University Press, 1998) 102.

[6]   John Dewey.  “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism.” 1905. The Essential Dewey. Vol. 2. (Indianapolis:   Indiana University Press, 1998) 116. - “Postulate.”

[7]   Ibid., 117

[8]   AE, 21.

[9]   AE, 24.

[10]   Tanizaki, 13-14.

[11]    AE., 4.

[12]   Ibid., 5.

[13]    Tanizaki, 19.

[14]    AE., 24.

[15]    Ibid., 25.

[16]    Ibid, 25.

[17]    Ibid, 25.

[18]  Thomas M. Alexander. “The Art of Life: Dewey's Aesthetics.” Reading Dewey. Ed. Larry A Hickman. 

(Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.) 4.

[19]  AE., 27.

[20] Tanizaki, 3-4.

[21]    AE., 37.

[22]    Ibid., 48.

[23]    Ibid., 53.

[24]    Ibid., 54.

[25]    Koren, 50.

[26]    Ibid., 50.

[27]   Ibid., 12.

[28]    Ibid., 28.

[29]    Tanizaki, 10-11.

[30]    AE, 56.

[31]   Tanizaki, 15.

[32]   AE, 32-34.

[33]    Tanizaki, 31.

[34]    AE, 34.

[35]    Ibid., 34.

[36]    Ibid., 33.

[37]    Ibid., 34.

[38]    Ibid., 34.