Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 1st ed., 1958; 2d ed., 1981.

2. The Ontology of Art

Another fundamental problem that I treated only partially and provisionally in the first edition has been much clarified and explored in recent years -- although disagreement persists and difficulties remain. It concerns the ontological status of artworks: what kind or kinds of entities are they, metaphysically speaking? Some, like sculptures, seem to belong to the class of objects, in a narrow sense; others, like improvised dances, to the class of events; but this remark is only a beginning, and even this may need revision. My earlier idea was to try to say enough for the purpose of delimiting the range of aesthetic objects and of critical statements under discussion. By now, however, some very important proposals have been worked out with care and philosophical sophistication, and they should be acknowledged here.

In Chapter 1, I classified aesthetic objects as "perceptual objects" (in the broad sense including events -- that is, entities some of whose properties at least are sensuously perceivable -- and I implied that the same holds true of artworks in general. More recent developments in visual art, notably the advent of so-called "conceptual art," may well be thought to invalidate this ontological proposal. Timothy Binkley has argued (in "Piece: Contra Aesthetics") that (1) even when the artwork is a perceptual object (say, a postcard sent by On Kawara stating at what time he got up today), its perceptual properties are not its interesting or important ones, qua artwork; and (2) the real artwork may be nothing more than an idea or a possibility. The first claim is interesting, but does not affect my proposal. As for the second, it seems to be conceded by Binkley that the "idea" (whatever the idea conveyed by On Kawara's postcards might be) can only be an artwork in virtue of its documentation: there has to be a postcard, or some other inscription, that is a perceptual object. And whatever may be the proper focus of the recipient's attention, I see no good reason not to say that the artwork, if there is one, simply is the postcard, or series of postcards -- just as we can, I believe, say that a poem is a text, although the perceptual properties of that text may be of no interest for their own sakes. When the conceptual work of art is exhibited or sold or loaned, it is the document that is so treated, after all, not its "idea," and not any events or states of affairs it refers to (for example, On Kawara's actual risings).

In working out some distinctions between productions, performances, presentations of aesthetic objects, and so forth (see Section 4 of Chapter 1), I was drawn into proposing a form of phenomenalism, as some critics have noted and commented: I suggested, though without much argument, that critical statements about artworks might be translatable into statements about their presentations, i.e., their appearances to particular persons at particular times. In an excellent critical essay, Bruce Morton ("Beardsley's Conception of the Aesthetic Object") has shown that this cannot be carried out, and I have come to realize that phenomenalism, as a general theory of perception, is unworkable. I have moved steadily in the direction of some form of nonreductive materialism, of seeing how far it is possible to "go in treating artworks as physical objects (in a spirit quite similar to that of Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art).

Consider, for example, a painting. It is a physical object, in possessing physical properties, such as location and weight. It is also a perceptual object, in possessing sensible qualities, such as pinkness and roundness. When we refer to it as an artwork, we may have in mind certain of its properties; when we refer to it as a piece of canvas with paint on it, we have in mind other properties. But I see no bar to saving that it is the same individual entity that has both sets ot properties. This identification has been forcefully rejected by Joseph Margolis ("Works of Art as Physically Embodied and Culturally Emergent Entities" and "The Ontological Peculiarity of Works of Art"). The central issue, it seems to me, concerns the status of certain qualities of peculiar aesthetic importance (see Section 3 below), such as liveliness and visual balance. According to Margolis, a visual artwork (or its design) can be lively, but not a physical object: therefore the artwork is not numerically identical to the physical object. He insists that we have three distinct things here: the physical object, the artwork which it "embodies," and the "type" (an abstract particular) of which the artwork is a token. Richard Wollheim (Art and Its Object, pp. 1-63) notes many things we want to say about some artworks that cannot truly be said about such physical objects as musical scores and copies of books. He also argues, like Margolis, that there is an "incompatibility of property between works of art and physical objects" (p. 10), although this is not established, and a long argument that starts out with the suggestion that physical objects (unlike artworks) cannot represent or express seems to end up conceding that there is no incompatibility here (see Sections 4 and 5 below). Wollheim's own proposal, that artworks are "types," and physical objects their tokens (pp. 64-72), is sketched in an interesting way, but it seems open to the same sorts of simple counterexample he brought against the physical-object theory: can a type be hung on a wall, transported, destroyed?

It is no doubt true, as Margolis stresses, that a sculpture is a cultural object, and acquires its aesthetically interesting properties through an artist's labors; but once the stone has been worked on and transformed, there seems no error in saying that it now has those properties. An artwork is more than a physical object; it is a physical object with something added: new shapes and qualities (see "Is Art Essentially Institutional?"). Richard Sclafani ("The Logical Primitiveness of the Concept of a Work of Art") has given a good defense of a very similar view, on the analogy with P. F. Strawson's concept of a person.

Even if such an account (here merely sketched) can work for what might be called "singular" artworks, such as paintings -- and perhaps particular improvised dances, as physical events with added qualities -- there are problems in applying it to what might be called "multiple" artworks, such as musicworks that may have many performances, etchings drawn from the same plate, or novels printed in millions of copies. Nicholas Wolterstorff ("Toward an Ontology of Art Works") has argued persuasively for a basic division of artworks into two ontological categories, and he has provided a carefully worked out account of the ontology of multiple artworks. He makes use of the concept of "kind": briefly, a musicwork is a kind of performance (even though it may lack actual performances). Kinds are not physical objects, although their instances are.

The subtlety and precision of this account cannot be captured, nor its power be exhibited, in a brief summary. For example, it allows for divergences between works and instances: a particular performance of the First Brandenburg Concerto will have many properties that are not among those properties that belong to the kind, First Brandenburg Concerto; and some performances (because of the performer's mistakes) may lack properties that do belong to the kind. The chief objection to the account (as brought, for example, by Joseph Margolis) is that kinds are abstract entities and thus, unlike artworks, are neither created nor destroyed. True, the account requires us to assign special interpretations to the terms "create" and "destroy": we might say, for example, that to create a multiple artwork is either to make or to give sufficient instructions for making an arrangement that is the first of a kind, and that to destroy a multiple artwork is to bring it about that there are no more instances of that kind and no way to make any further instances of that kind. When we consider the extraordinary variety of things we want to be able to say about one artwork or another -- that it is created, made, sold, quoted, restored, praised, forged, shipped to New York -- there seems to be no single ontological status we can assign to make all such statements straightfowardly true. But that need not trouble us if we can give reasonable interpretations of them in terms of our ontological account. For example, on Wolterstorff's account the statement "I have heard the First Brandenburg Concerto" is elliptical for "I have heard a performance of the First Brandenburg Concerto." On the whole, this account seems to me the best one now available (but for further refinements and proposed modifications see Jerrold Levinson, "What a Musical Work Is," and Kendall L. Walton, "The Presentation and Portrayal of Sound Patterns").

One further question might be considered, for we are left with a sharp division between artworks that are physical objects (with perceptual qualities) and those that are kinds of physical object. Here is a standing challenge to monistically inclined philosophers to do away with this dualism (in a fashion somewhat similar to one of Margolis's proposals) by extending Wolterstorff's account to singular artworks as well. According to a plausible view of art-creation such as that developed by Jack Glickman ("Creativity in the Arts"), what an artist creates is not a physical object (that he makes) but a kind of physical object. Even the Mona Lisa, then, should be thought of not as the physical painting but as a kind of painting, which has only one instance: when the restorer aims to bring back as well as he can the damaged or deteriorated work, he aims (and here follows the original artist, one might claim) to bring back the look of the painting, its special forms and qualities. One difficulty with this proposal, as many aestheticians would say, is that it seems to be not merely true, but necessarily true, that there is just one Mona Lisa, and any copy, however accurate, is spurious. If the Mona Lisa is a kind, rather than an individual physical object, it is hard to explain why there could not in principle be more than one instance of that kind, so perhaps we must accept as irreducible the difference between multiple and singular artworks. On the other hand, we might say that it is a mere historical and cultural oddity that we have come to attach such special importance, not to the Mona Lisa (considering this as kind), but to the first, the earliest, object of this kind; and that a forgery of the Mona Lisa, say, is not deceptive because it purports to be the only one of that kind, but because it purports to be the first one of that kind.


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"Is Art Essentially Institutional?" In Lars Aagaard-Mogensen, ed., Culture and Art. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1976.
Binkley, Timothy.
"Piece: Contra Aesthetics." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35 (1977).
Glickman, Jack.
"Creativity in the Arts." In Lars Aagaard-Mogensen, ed., Culture and Art. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1976.
Goodman, Nelson.
Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2d ed., 1976.
Levinson, Jerrold.
"What a Musical Work Is." Journal of Philosophy 77 (1980).
Margolis, Joseph. "The Ontological Peculiarity of Works of Art." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36 (1977).
"Works of Art as Physically Embodied and Culturally Emergent Entities." British Journal of Aesthetics 14 (1974).
Morton, Bruce.
"Beardsley's Conception of the Aesthetic Object." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 32 (1974).
Sclafani, Richard J.
"The Logical Primitiveness of the Concept of a Work of Art." British Journal of Aesthetics 15 (1975).
Walton, Kendall L.
"The Presentation and Portrayal of Sound Patterns." In Theory Only: Journal of the Michigan Music Theory Society 2 (1977).
Wollheim, Richard.
Art and its Objects. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas.
"Toward an Ontology of Art Works." Nous 9 (1975).