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Art works, ontology of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M012-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

In trying to decide what kinds of thing art works are, a natural starting point is the hypothesis that they are physical objects. This is plausible for certain works, such as paintings and sculptures; it is not plausible for music and literature. But if paintings and sculptures are physical objects, familiar arguments suggest that we cannot identify them with the material that constitutes them; we have to say that the statue and the material of the statue are co-located but distinct physical objects. A challenge to the physical object hypothesis for painting and sculpture arises when we question the widely held view that the authentic object made by the artist possesses relevant features which no copy could possibly exemplify. If it is acknowledged that paintings and sculptures are, in principle, reproducible in ways that fully preserve their appearances, the motivation for thinking of the painted or sculptural work itself as a physical particular is in doubt. But a defence of the physical object hypothesis is available if we accept a certain view about how reference is secured for kind terms.

For literary and musical works, the standard view is not that they are physical objects; rather, they are said to be abstract structures: structures of word-types in the literary case and of sound-types in the musical case. But arguments concerning the dependence of informed appreciation on a work’s historical context have made these relatively coarse-grained structuralist proposals seem inadequate; these arguments purport to show that works with the same structure might have different contextually determined features and ought, therefore, to count as distinct works. More fine-grained structuralist proposals have been developed.

As well as asking about the identity conditions for works, we can ask about the conditions for identity within a work: under what conditions is an object an instance of this work? Goodman has proposed that we divide works into autographic and allographic kinds: for autographic works, such as paintings, identity within a work is determined by history of production; for allographic works, such as novels, it is determined in some other way. But arguments can be given for the conclusion that even for novels and musical works, identity within the work is subject to historical constraints, though less onerous ones than Goodman claims to find for the autographic arts.

Consideration of the arts raises ontological questions of various kinds: about the status of fictional characters, about such problematic qualities as ‘depth’ in a painting, about the imaginary personas we may associate with the work’s expressive qualities. This entry ignores these issues and focuses exclusively on the nature of works of art themselves.

Citing this article:
Currie, Gregory. Art works, ontology of, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M012-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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