- What sort of a thing is a work of art? When does a work of art come into existence, when is it damaged, when does it survive, and when is it destroyed? Which features are essential to it and which expendable? Is it the sort of thing that can be seen by people in Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Singapore at the same time, or do you have to travel to a unique location to see it?
- These are all questions regarding the ontology of the work of art. As I shall understand it here, the "ontological status" of a work of art is fundamentally fixed by its existence, identity, and persistence conditions; these fix what category of object it is. In fixing these, other facts may be fixed as well, including when and where a work is observable, what properties of the work are essential or accidental, what sorts of change interfere with its preservation, and so on.
- Many different answers have been proposed to the question 'What is the ontological status of the work of art?' These range from claims that a work of art is a physical object (which, perhaps, must be seen "in person" at a particular place and particular time and preserved with its visible properties intact to survive), to claims that it is not a physical object at all, but rather an action (of an artist) or a general type of action, to those who (with Sartre) think of works of art as imaginary objects distinct from any real objects or activities.
- Others have doubted that a single answer is available. It might seem that the answer may differ for a work of visual art (say, a painting, which we cannot all see "in the flesh" at the same time, if we are in different cities, and which may be burnt up in a fire or suffer other forms of physical degeneration) and a symphony (which we can all hear performed in different cities at the same time, which cannot burn up, which does not re quire restoration). Nonetheless, it might still seem that the answers are fairly easy to come by for these different branches of art – separating out, say, paintings from symphonies.
- But they become more difficult again when we look at more recent forms of art – for, even if we limit our interest to the visual arts, it seems that there is an ever more diverse range of answers to questions like those we began with. Some works, like Liz Magor's Time and Mrs. Tiber, were designed to be left to decay – its degenerative progression is part of the work (in a way it is not with traditional paintings, however destructible). Similarly, the cracks and chips that appear in Walead Beshty's Fed Ex Large Box during shipping do not damage the work but instead are integral to it. Others, like Sol Le Witt wall drawings, are permitted to be installed by different painters in different museums, with varying visual forms – so that again preserving surface features is inessential. For other works still, like Felix Gonzalez-Torres's Untitled, there is no continuous physical basis at all needed for the work to survive: the candies that make up the work are meant to be eaten by viewers, and may be replaced while the work persists.
- Considering cases like these can shake us out of our complacency in thinking that – at least if we limit our focus to particular branches of art, say, visual art – questions about the ontology of art have easy or obvious answers. They might instead push us back to ask the deeper question: what is it that determines what does, and does not, count as part of a work of art, when a work does and does not survive, what counts as damage, destruction, preservation, restoration?
- Elsewhere1 I have argued for the general view that the existence, identity, and persistence conditions of paintings, sculptures, symphonies, and other familiar kinds of art are, at bottom, established stipulatively by the beliefs and practices of those who ground and reground the reference of the relevant sortal terms. I will begin by giving a brief overview of the general kind of answer I've argued for. But the purpose of this article is to discuss an interesting consequence that falls out of that view, namely, that there is no set answer to the question of the ontological status of a work of art; instead, it may vary over place and time, and works of art of ontologically new kinds may be introduced. Showing how works of art of ontologically new kinds can be introduced is itself revealing, as it once again will give support to the general idea that such facts as there are about the ontological status of works of art are, at bottom, determined by human practices.
Footnote 1: See "Thomasson (Amie L.) - The Ontology of Art and Knowledge in Aesthetics".
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