Volume 6, Issue 13, Fall 2010
Art as Experience
A Deweyan Background to Charles Olson’s Esthetics
Charles Olson’s erudite poetry and prose have elicited discussions that emphasize sources he himself references or was known to consult. The present essay counters this trend by examining the importance of John Dewey’s concept of experience for understanding the largest stakes of Olson’s project. Although Olson is not known to have read Dewey or to have attended the lectures that became Art as Experience (1934), Dewey can be seen as the signal pragmatist precursor for Olson’s attempts to unite art and experience in a more holistic model of culture than the hierarchical and alienated one that prevailed after World War II. Like Dewey, Olson emphasizes the importance of direct experience over received knowledge, values the rough, unpolished quality of vernacular creation over the normative esthetics of cultural institutions, believes in the pedagogical effectiveness of both experience and art, and sees artistic form as arising out of fully engaged experience.