Art as Experience

The Action Makes it Happen

Definitions and etymologies can sometimes trap you in fixed ideas. But in searching for a useful definition of ‘Experience’ my iMac dictionary gave me a one that fitted very well with what I want to promote through this site.


1. (noun) practical contact with and observation of facts or events,
– the knowledge or skill acquired by a period of practical experience of something,
– an event or occurrence which leaves an impression on someone
2. (verb) encounter or undergo (an event or occurrence)
– feel (an emotion or sensation)

This section develops the idea that learning through experience can occur in many settings that contain the above, and that includes art. The description of experience above is a core aspect of art making. Art making is experiential learning. But using ideas from the arts and performance can put an interesting slant on how we understand and experience experience.

Whilst it is useful to just make art, it also helps to have some knowledge of art theory if you are a visual artist, or have some understanding of music theory if you are a musician. Formal learning is important. But mostly when making art, you learn from experience. The learning is in the doing as well as the reading.

By making art, participants and practitioners not only learn from experience, but learn how to learn from experience. 

Barbara Bolt (1) talks about ‘Material Thinking’ saying ‘.. grounded in material practice.. The concept of material thinking offers us a way of considering the relations that take place within the very process or tissue of making.’ Engagement with the actual experience of making helps us to think experientially. 

With arts as with experiential learning, learning emerges from situation in which the learning is happening. In art the situation could be the use of acrylics, or the printing press. In experiential learning the situation could be the camp site or the tension in the group, or being tired, or not knowing what to do. 

Paul Carter (1) talks about ‘Invention’ as a core theme of art making saying ‘ The condition of invention – the state of being that allows a state of becoming to emerge… discloses other possibilities.’ We find out what to do within the experience. The answer to the question is within not without the experience, be it a paint brush or a paddle. 

This is a central theme in the idea of arts as research. The art made and the experience of art making becomes research as a way of understanding and examining experience.

Research from recercher meaning ‘seek out, search closely, go about, wander, traverse,’ sounds like experiential learning or adventure. Art making and the art made as experience, as adventure, tells us something about the experience because it is the experience. If we want research data about the experience of experiential, outdoor and adventure learning, making art as experience can provide that data if we see art making as a way of gaining knowledge, or art as knowledge. The art is the experience and the research about the experience.

This also links to ideas about performance. Richard Schechner (2) talks about the embodied performative.  Performative is an action that makes something happen. Usually associated with speech acts, Schechner suggests basically, that playing at doing the thing, or performing the thing, makes the thing happen. A classic example would be from Queer Theory. If being queer in public is taboo, being queer in public undermines the taboo. It is what Schechner calls ‘a twice behaved behaviour’. Performance studies suggets that all art is performance, and as such, it could be argued all experiential learning is performance.

In an outdoor learning context, the Mass Trespass of Kinder served the same purpose. It was forbidden to walk on Kinder unless you were the landowner. But playing or performing as if it was not forbidden changed the state of being forbidden. 

Even Schechner suggests this is a tricky idea but it is useful. I cover performance ideas and practices elsewhere as it is also a central theme in both the arts, research, and experiential learning.

(1) Practice as Research – Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. Edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt. I.B.Taurus Press

(2) Performance Studies – An Introduction. By Richard Schechner. Routledge.

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