Art works, ontology of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M012-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

Article Summary

In trying to decide what kinds of thing art works are, the most natural starting point is the hypothesis that they are physical objects. This is plausible only for certain works, such as paintings and sculptures; in such cases we say that the work is a certain marked canvas or piece of stone. Even for these apparently favourable cases, though, there is a metaphysical objection to this proposal: that works and the physical objects identified with them do not possess the same properties and so cannot be identical. There is also an aesthetic objection: that the plausibility of the thesis for painting and sculpture rests on the false view that the authentic object made by the artist possesses aesthetically relevant features which no copy could possibly exemplify. Once it is acknowledged that paintings and sculptures are, in principle, reproducible in the way that novels and musical scores are, the motivation for thinking of the authentic canvas or stone as the work itself collapses.

For literary and musical works, the standard view is that they are structures: structures of word-types in the literary case and of sound-types in the musical case. This structuralist view is opposed by contextualism, which asserts that the identity conditions for works must take into account historical features involving their origin and modes of production. Contextualists claim that works with the same structure might have different historical features and ought, therefore, to count as distinct works.

Nelson Goodman (1981) has proposed that we divide works into autographic and allographic kinds; for autographic works, such as paintings, genuineness is determined partly by history of production: for allographic works, such as novels, it is determined in some other way. Our examination of the hypothesis that certain works are physical objects and our discussion of the structuralist/contextualist controversy will indicate grounds for thinking that Goodman’s distinction does not provide an acceptable categorization of works.

A wholly successful ontology of art works would tell us what things are art works and what things are not; failing that, it would give us identity conditions for them, enabling us to say under what conditions this work and that are the same work. Since the complexity of the issues to be discussed quickly ramifies, it will be appropriate after a certain point to consider only the question of identity conditions. For simplicity, this entry concentrates on works of art that exemplify written literature, scored music and the plastic and pictorial arts.

    Citing this article:
    Currie, Gregory. Art works, ontology of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M012-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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