Works of Art

Peter Lamarque

  • Art and Its Objects by Richard Wollheim
    Cambridge, 270 pp, £12.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 521 22898 0
  • Works and Worlds of Art by Nicholas Wolterstorff
    Oxford, 372 pp, £20.00, December 1980, ISBN 0 19 824419 3

Generalising across the arts is a tricky business. Can we really expect to find anything in common between, say, Ulysses, Der Rosenkavalier, the ‘Donna Velata’ and Donatello’s St George in virtue of which they are all works of art? As if that were not hard enough, try adding prints, films, dances and buildings and the problem becomes intractable. Yet traditionally the aim of aesthetics has been to undertake an abstraction from the properties of particular works of art, and of different forms of art, with precisely the hope of isolating just those general features which are supposed to characterise or define the nature of art itself. To discover defining, or even characteristic, properties of art, if such there be, presupposes an answer to even more basic, ontological, questions concerning what sorts of things or entities works of art are. Are they physical objects, ideas, universals, classes, or what?

There is perhaps no better guide to the dauntingly complex issues involved in these questions than Richard Wollheim’s Art and Its Objects. First published over twelve years ago, this concise, elegant and wide-ranging book has established itself as an indispensable text for undergraduate courses in aesthetics. The second edition leaves the original text unchanged but adds a helpful analytical contents, summarising the argument, as well as an extended and up-to-date bibliography and six Supplementary Essays on related topics.

The content of the original Art and Its Objects falls roughly into two parts. The first investigates ontological questions, examining as its starting-point the hypothesis that at least some works of art are physical objects; the second explores the implications of the ‘amorphousness’ of the concept of art, from which the central thesis emerges that art is a ‘form of life’. The sections on ontology are unsurpassed in their clarity and incisiveness and many of Wollheim’s conclusions have become the orthodoxy. He carefully takes us through the arguments against identifying, say, the novel Ulysses either with any one copy of it or with the class of all copies or even with Joyce’s manuscript. Literary and musical works of art are not physical objects, or even classes of such objects, but, on Wollheim’s thesis, are ‘types’. Each copy or each performance is a ‘token’ of the respective ‘type’. These are technical terms, easier to illustrate than to understand. So, for example, the sentence ‘The cat sat on the mat’ contains six word-tokens but only five word-types; there are two tokens of the type ‘the’. Types and tokens have some but not all properties in common. My copy of Ulysses might weigh 13 oz. but that is not a property of Ulysses itself; however, both token and type share the property of having been read by me.

In contrast to those works of art that are types, like novels, poems, ballets, operas and symphonies, there are others which Wollheim characterises as ‘individuals’, such as paintings and sculptures. But even with individuals it is an open question whether the works of art themselves, the ‘Donna Velata’ or the St George, are identical in all respects with some physical object, paint and canvass, marble or stone. In the text of Art and Its Objects Wollheim considers several objections that might be raised to making a complete identification between an individual work of art and a physical object. Are there not some properties, representational or expressive, for example, which are possessed by some individual works of art but could not be possessed by any physical object? And what about more radical theories, such as those of the Idealist school associated with Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood, which identify all works of art with some inner state of mind of the artist? Wollheim argues that there is nothing in these objections that forces us to conclude that no works of art can be physical objects. But likewise he is careful to stress that there is nothing that forces us the other way, making us identify even some works of art with physical objects.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in