In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ontology of Art

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Methodology

Philosophy Ontology of Art
Guy Rohrbaugh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0319


Ontological questions are questions about existence: Which things are truly existent? Into which fundamental categories do they fall? One seeks, not just an inventory of reality, but a map of it, one that could help to structure and navigate one’s other philosophical concerns. In the case of art ontology, we seek to understand where artworks fit into this wider organization of reality. We might wish to know, for example, whether they are just material things, or mental in some way, or even abstract entities of some sort. Such questions have a clear bearing on the epistemology of their appreciation, which is often our central aesthetic-philosophical concern. The category of art is, however, wildly heterogeneous. It includes paintings, musical theater, films, improvisations, earth-works, novels, poems, pottery, dance, videos, installations, conceptual art of various stripes, and much more besides. It appears that art is not itself an ontology category, but a status achieved by items from a variety of ontological categories. Definitions of “art” attempt to clarify this status, but are not a properly ontological investigation. The work left to ontologists involves characterizing those items that achieve this status, identifying commonalities and differences in the kinds of objects that form the media of different arts. There is interest both in finding whether all artworks belong to one, two, or more fundamental categories, and in identifying what makes the objects of the individual arts different from one another. The former, “fundamental” question has centered on the phenomenon of repeatability. While works in some arts, like painting, appear to be particular individuals, work in other arts, those like classical music, theater, and printmaking, involve multiple performances or prints or, more generally, occurrences. Since each occurrence cannot be the work, a real puzzle about the ontological character of the work itself emerges. Perhaps for idiosyncratic reasons, Western classic music has been the central case of this sort under discussion. Musical examples have also driven the latter, applied investigations, although here attention has often been drawn to musical practices that differ, in some important regard, from the classical cases so often found at the middle of disputes about the fundamental ontology.


Because it is a smaller and newer field, there are few collections of papers and none at all that attempt to survey the area as a whole or collect its central papers. Extant anthologies are loosely organized around narrower themes and combine papers on ontology with papers on the same theme that are not primarily concerned with ontological issues. Stock 2007 is organized around themes from the philosophy of music, as is Alperson 1998, though both contain a number of useful ontology papers. Mag Uidhir 2012 focuses squarely on the role of abstract objects within aesthetics. Stock and Thomson-Jones 2008 collects new papers from all across aesthetics at that time, including some in ontology. Lamarque and Olsen 2003 includes ontology amid its wider coverage across aesthetics.

  • Alperson, Philip, ed. Musical Worlds: New Directions in the Philosophy of Music. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

    A reprint of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52:1 (1994), a special issue devoted to the philosophy of music, with two additional papers.

  • Lamarque, P., and Stein Olsen, eds. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.

    An older but quite comprehensive anthology in aesthetics, with four basic papers about the ontology of art.

  • Mag Uidhir, Christy, ed. Art & Abstract Objects. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Thirteen original papers about abstracta in aesthetics. This collection is animated by an interest in the intersection of aesthetics and general metaphysics and draws its authorship from both sides of this line, including several who do not usually work in aesthetics.

  • Stock, Kathleen, ed. Philosophers on Music: Experience, Meaning, and Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Part I of this collection is focused on musical ontology and includes original papers on individuation of musical works, the connection between their creatability and value, and the role of versions.

  • Stock, Kathleen, and Katherine Thomson-Jones, eds. New Waves in Aesthetics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    A collection mostly held together by the idea of “new work,” this group of original papers gives a vivid snapshot of philosophical concerns and approaches at the time of its publication and contains a number of papers that remain important contributions to ontology or closely related issues.

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