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Artworks and Representational Properties

  • Sherri Irvin (a1)

A sustained challenge to the view that artworks are physical objects relates to the alleged inability of physical objects to possess representational properties, which some artworks clearly do possess. I argue that the challenge is subject to confusions about representational properties and aesthetic experience. I show that a challenge to artwork-object identity put forward by Danto is vulnerable to a similar criticism. I conclude by noting that the identity of artworks and physical objects is consistent with the insight that attending exclusively to the object's individual physical properties may prevent us from grasping the nature of the work.


Contre l' opinion voulant que les œuvres d'art soient des objets physiques, d'aucunsfont rigulièrement valoir la présumée incapacité des objets physiques à posséder des propriétés représentationnelles, propriétés que certaines œuvres d'art possèdent à l'évidence. Je fais valoir que cette remise en question est sujette à des confusions à propos des propriétés représentationnelles et de l'expérience esthétique. Je montre que de même, la remise en question par Danto de l'identité œuvre d'art objet prête le flanc à une critique similaire. Je conclus pour finir que l'identité entre œuvres d'art et objets physiques est compatible avec l'intuition voulant que prêter attention exclusivement aux propriétés physiques d'un certain objet peut nous empêcher de saisir la nature de l'œuvre.

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1 Levinson Jerrold, “The Work of Visual Art,” in The Pleasures of Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), pp. 129–37, esp. pp. 135–36.

2 Joseph Margolis holds that artworks are embodied in physical objects (Works of Art as Physically Embodied and Culturally Emergent Entities,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 14 [1974]: 187–96). Currie Gregory, though he holds that works of art are action types and not identical to physical objects, allows that visual artworks are “essentially embodied” (An Ontology of Art [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989], esp. pp. 125–27). Lynne Rudder Baker argues that artworks are constituted by, though not identical to, physical objects. See Why Constitution Is Not Identity,” The Journal of Philosophy, 94 (1997): 599621; and Persons and Bodies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), esp. pp. 2934.

3 Cf. Levinson's related discussion in “The Work of Visual Art.” As he puts it, “one has the work of art that is the etching in and through each individual authorized and properly executed impression” (p. 131).

4 Philosophers have introduced a variety of distinctions to account for the heterogeneity among artworks. Nicholas Wolterstorff distinguishes between performance-works (those artworks, such as musical and dance compositions, which we experience through performances) and object-works (which we experience through our encounters with physical objects) (Toward an Ontology of Artworks,” Noûs, 9 [1975]: 115–42). Nelson Goodman distinguished between ldquo;allographic” works, for which perfect adherence to a given notation is sufficient to make something an instance of the work, and “autographic” works, the replication of whose features would result not in a genuine instance of the work but in a forgery. As Goodman points out, paintings, etchings, and sculptures tend to be autographic, while works of music and literature tend to be allographic (Languages of Art [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968], pp. 113–22). Levinson defends the distinction between the multiple arts, in which “more than one … individual physical object does or can count as a genuine exemplar of the work in question,” and the singular arts, in which only one object can be an exemplar of the work (“The Work of Visual Art,” p. 131).

5 Wollheim Richard, Art and Its Objects, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 11. This is Wollheim's formulation, but not his objection; he introduces the notion of “seeing-as,” discussed below, to resolve the apparent conflict between representational and other properties.

6 Ziff Paul, “Art and the ‘Object of Art,’Mind, 60 (new series) (1951): 466–80.

7 Ibid., p. 478.

8 Ibid., p. 479 (emphasis in original). Ziff offers no extensive account of the conditions in which we are justified in seeing a description as belonging to one family of description rather than another. He relies largely on the intuitive appeal of certain examples, including that of the distinction between the crate builder's and the art critic's ways of seeing the work. One might criticize Ziff for leaving open the possibility of manipulating the meaning of a description through ad hoc assignment of it to a family of description. As this is not my primary concern with his view, I will leave this issue aside.

9 Danto Arthur makes a related point in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 147–48.

10 Hanke John, “Can Representational Works of Art Be Physical Objects?The Journal of Value Inquiry, 10 (1976): 209–19, esp. p. 209.

12 Ingarden Roman, Ontology of the Work of Art: The Musical Work, The Picture, The Architectural Work, The Film, translated by Meyer Raymond with Goldthwait John T. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1989), p. 203; emphasis in original.

13 Wollheim, Art and Its Objects, pp. 15–16. In a subsequent discussion of seeingin, a phenomenon similar to seeing-as, Wollheim points out that 4“I can see something in surfaces that neither are nor are believed by me to be representations” (Painting as an Art [London: Thames and Hudson, 1987], p. 47).

14 Hanke, “Can Representational Works,” p. 212.

15 Ingarden, Ontology of the Work of Art,-p. 160.

16 Ibid., p. 137.

17 Ibid., p. 206.

19 Note that my point assumes nothing about which conditions make the photograph a photograph of that person. Berys Gaut says that “the content of a photograph (what it is a photograph of) is determined not by any languagelike features of photographs, but by the non-conventional, non-intentional ausal relations in which the camera stood to its object” (Interpreting the Arts: The Patchwork Theory,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 51 [1993]: 597609, esp. p. 597). While I doubt that “the content of a photograph” is always equivalent to “what it is a photograph of,” I accept that the latter (at least) may be determined by some causal relation between the camera and a corner of the world. In any case, I think most would agree that there is at least usually a fact of the matter about what a photograph is of, regardless of what makes that fact true, and that apprehending what it is of will at least often be a requirement for adequate apprehension of the photograph itself.

20 See Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, p. 120. Danto's full account includes several other red square examples.

21 Ibid., p. 101.

22 Danto Arthur, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 26.

23 Following Danto, I speak loosely of physical indiscriminability here. Nothing in the discussion hinges on the assumption that there exist pairs of mediumsized physical objects that are perfectly indiscriminable with respect to their individual physical properties. And clearly indiscriminability with respect to relational properties is not at issue here; indeed, Danto's examples presuppose that the objects are readily distinguishable by their relational properties. See Andrew John Fisher's related discussion in “Is There a Problem of Indiscernible Counterparts?,” The Journal of Philosophy, 92 (1995): 467–84, esp. pp. 468–69.

24 See, for example, a variety of works in Danto and His Critics, edited by Rollins Mark (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), particularly Richard Wollheim's “Danto's Gallery of Indisceraibles,” pp. 2838.

25 Dilworth John, to give just one recent example, credits Danto with establishing this point (“A Representational Theory of Artworks and Artefacts,” The British Journal of Aesthetics, 41 [2001]: 353–70).

26 It might turn out that all properties supervene on the physical, in which case these relational properties would be physical properties. If the supervenience thesis fails—and it turns out that minds, say, are non-physical—then there will be non-physical relational properties: so a chair might have the non-physical relational property of being thought about by me at time t. But this would do nothing to undermine the chair's status as a physical object.

27 I am grateful to Martin Montminy and Alexander Nehamas, as well as an anonymous reviewer for this journal, for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
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