John Dewey's notion of "experience" in Art and Experience cannot be equated with what some aestheticians, following Kant, refer to as "contemplation":
To define the emotional element of the process of perception merely as the pleasure taken in the action of contemplation, independent of what is excited by the matter contemplated, results. . .in a thoroughly anaemic conception of art. Carried to its logical conclusion, it would exclude from esthetic perception most of the subject-matter that is enjoyed in the case of architectural structures, the drama, and the novel, with all their attendent reverberations.
This last sentence would seem to suggest that Dewey believes there is something called "subject-matter" that exists apart from the formal qualities of art and that can properly be the point of the reader's "perception." However, it is the way in which "subject" contributes to aesthetic perception, subject as part of aesthetic perception, that is Dewey's focus, emphasizing a kind of perception that produces "reverberations," not conclusive "meaning."
Indeed, Dewey immediately adds that "Not absence of desire and thought [as would be the case with 'contemplation'] but their thorough incorporation into perceptual experience characterizes esthetic experience, in its distinction from experiences that are especially 'intellectual' and 'practical.'" Those who wish to "contemplate" a work of art want to avoid the projection of desire or the imposition of thought, but for Dewey a fully engaged aesthetic experience finds the subjective response of the "pericipient" satisfyingly integrated in all of its facets with both the matter and manner of the work: "The rhythm of expectancy and satisfaction is so internally complete that the reader is not aware of thought as a separate element, certainly not of it as a labor."
The percipient who settles for contemplation is unable to experience art in quite this active way, but neither is the one driven by the sheer desire for beauty, who is willing to sacrifice the particularity of the work for the abstractly sensual, nor the "investigator," who, in his/her preference for "data" or illustration can only be impatient with the "uniqueness of the object perceived." Both the sensualist and the investigator "want the object for the sake of something else," while anyone open to genuine aesthetic experience will find his/her thoughts and desires "fulfilled in the perception itself."
I myself have some sympathy for the sensualist, who properly seeks out art for its aesthetic value but has a undiscriminating conception of "beauty," but I don't at all comprehend why any "investigator" would show even a passing interest in art or literature--unless it is to deliberately devalue and dismiss the aesthetic as frivolous, not worth the "serious" critic's time. The investigator relegates the formal qualities of literature to the "merely literary," but then approaches works of imagination as if those formal qualities don't exist at all, don't have the effect of bending and conditioning meaning beyond any useful paraphrase. Why concern yourself in the first place with what a poem, story, or novel has to "say," the intellectual or practical "truth" it supposedly reveals, when such works are (at least at their best) so indirect and oblique in their ability to communicate anything?
In my view, Dewey's core notion that art is most valuable as an agent of heightened experience, that it is best appreciated as experience, undercuts all forms of critical investigation--moral criticism, political criticism, cultural criticism, etc.--at least to the extent that such approaches assume that "subject-matter" is easily detached from "perceptual experience." Subject matter exists, but it is the means by which the work of art comes into being, not its end.