What is Art?


Philosophers for a long time have contemplated the question of “What sort of things are artworks?” In one one the recent attempts to respond to this fundamental question, Amie Thomasson in her article “Debates about the Ontology of Art: What Are We Doing Here?” revisits the ontological questions regarding works of art. In her inquiry, she wants to know what sort of thing is the artwork and what are the conditions of identity and conditions of persistence of the work of art?

To answer these questions, Thomasson’s makes a fundamental assumption, i.e., artworks are not content-specific. Philosophers have located artworks in a variety of categories, such as objects, events, actions, abstract objects, and so on. Which ontological view do we need to accept? Thomasson’s answer is that “the rules of use for sortal terms like “painting” and “symphony” establish what ontological sorts of thing we are referring to with those terms.” Consequently, to resolve the ontological debates about these sortal terms we need to employ a form of conceptual analysis.

Since artworks are not content-specifying entities; locating artworks in either of these possible categories would be misleading. Artworks can be physical or abstract objects, performances, or combinations of both. This quality of artworks makes the ontological status of art complex. The view that sees artworks as physical objects fails sees a piece of music, a novel, or poem as art. By the same token, the reductionist view that sees artworks as purely abstract objects excludes a wide range of artworks. However, a more comprehensive method will include physical and abstract objects.


Thomasson admit that some artworks are abstract, but she defines abstract in a new way. Abstract, despite what philosophers thought, she asserts, are not eternal and detached from human activities. They are created and are spatiotemporal.

She believes before answering questions like “When does a painting survive?” and “Must a novel be created?” we need to know what kind of ontological sort of things the terms “painting” and “novel” pick out. We can answer this latter question by an analysis of concepts of those who ground and reground the reference of the term. The grand question such as “what is the ontological status of artworks?” is not answerable, to Thomasson.

Thomasson replaces the question of ontological status of art with a linguistic question. For she believes that the question of ontology of art is not answerable. The category of art is like a gift, which encompasses a wide range of entities, including physical or abstract. Hence, she defends a pluralistic ontology of art, which its content is determined by the competent user. She maintains that her methodology can answer identity conditions and persistence conditions better than its rival theories. Furthermore, if we divide the question of ontology of art into smaller questions such as ontology of symphony or ontology of painting, the problem is that these inquiries will go beyond the limit of traditional philosophy and are more problematic.

The question that Thomasson’s approach raises is that how we can correct our ontological belief if we make defective judgments about either artworks or art kinds? Is there any other criterion, beside the artistic practice, to show us if we go wrong? If the ontology of art is determined by the rules of use, it is not clear how we can make judgment about the rules of use themselves, since the rules of use do not provide any criteria for determining the rules of use.


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