The work of art

Der Brief / The letter (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Der Brief / The letter (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Paul Ziff casts a penetrating eye over the term ‘work of art.’ Rather than trying to define it, he considers why we find it so difficult to define, and why we end up having irresolvable disputes over what is and isn’t art (Ziff 1967: 21). He offers two grounds for variation. Probably most significantly, he argues that art itself is not eternal, that it is historically situated, that it is ever changing. Besides this, the term ‘work of art’ is used in many different ways in our actual parlance, and not incorrectly. There is the tricky fact that the term ‘work of art’ encompasses different kinds of art, such as music and literature and poetry, and thus applies in different senses to very different works—across a whole spectrum of objects and non-objects.


Ziff (1967: 23), like Wittgenstein, by whom he was influenced, is ever keen to observe and describe how we actually do use words, and finds that ‘there are many uses of the phrase “work of art.”’ However, this does not mean that the word should be used more narrowly, or that we are being indiscriminate to use it so broadly. To illustrate, Ziff sets up a list of characteristics which would establish a painting by Poussin to be a clear-cut, characteristic case of a work of art, in the same way we might be able to present someone with a clear-cut, characteristic case of a table, in order to define the term ‘table.’ These characteristics include ‘it is a painting,’ and ‘it was made … deliberately and self-consciously with obvious skill and care, by Nicolas Poussin.’

Ziff (1967: 27) is at pains to make clear that these characteristics do no more than ‘provide us with a set of sufficient conditions for something’s being a work of art.’ But something that possesses only some of the characteristics might still be a work of art—for this is not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. For a start, many works of art are not paintings at all. Ziff (1967: 32) suggests that we might establish many such adequate sets of characteristics, and that each ‘is analogous in composition to every other set’—the sets applying to poems, novels, musical compositions and the like. We have to accept that we mean this term in many different senses.

It is possible that there is something common to all works of art—some necessary condition—which is exactly where Richard Wollheim begins his investigations in aesthetics. ‘For are we not overlooking the possibility,’ surmises Wollheim (1996: 2), ‘that the various particular answers to the questions What is a poem?, a painting?, etc., may, when they come, turn out to have something or even a great deal in common, in that the things they define or describe (i.e. works of art in their kinds) have many shared properties?’ But for now, let’s be content with the idea that there are different kinds of works of art, and our term is malleable enough to bridge our manifold use of it, which is one difficulty in drawing up a definition.

Circle hats

More interestingly for painting, and echoing Ernst Gombrich, Ziff points to the changing nature of works of art themselves throughout history. Even those hostile to the seismic shifts of the twentieth century are likely positively disposed towards the idea of innovation, of technical breakthroughs—of discoveries like linear perspective, of contributing something to the body of knowledge of painting. These ‘movements in history,’ as Gombrich (1996: 434-5) refers to them, whether we like to think of them as progress or not, are difficult for the artist to ignore or go back on: even ‘a slight improvement … makes earlier methods look first old-fashioned and soon ridiculous.’ But in a more guarded way, we might say that each time a painter made an influential and lasting discovery, ‘the tradition was … extended,’ and, clarifies Ziff (1967: 36), ‘this is merely another way of saying that there was some shift in the notion of a work of art.’

So the things that artists produce—works of art—vary over time: Ziff categorises these changes as changes of both ends and means. And the ends and means are correlated, he continues, and feed into each other. ‘With the development of new means there will be new ends that can be served, and with the appearance of new ends, new means will have to be developed to serve them’ (Ziff 1967: 45). Our term ‘work of art’ also has to cope with the varying nature of art.

The ends that Ziff brings to our attention are the purposes and aims of art, its functions in society, its role. It is this that, as Gombrich (1972) explicates in the buoyant and lively Story of Art, varies through history. ‘As the character of the society changes, the role of art in the society may also change’ (Ziff 1967: 39). But not only has the role varied: by extension, ‘the social consequences and implications of something’s being a work of art have varied in time, and no doubt they will continue to do so’ (Ziff 1967: 39).

Rubens ladies

And here we arrive at the disagreements over the ‘work of art’ between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ critics. Of course, Ziff grants, the two camps disagreed about the characteristics of a work of art. But Ziff (1967: 40, 42) asserts that the major disagreements between them arose from the role or roles of a work of art—what these roles are or ought to be. And this, as we have considered, is not easy to settle. The ends, purposes, roles, have been shifting since the dawn of art.

But interestingly, the traditional and the modern critics ‘agreed both in their desires and in their expectations with regard to the characteristic social consequences and implications of something’s being considered a work of art’ (Ziff 1967: 40). This mainly involves them being displayed in galleries, discussed, having books written and read about them. What was (and is) contested is rather which works of art should or do fulfill these social consequences.


Which is to say: it does no good to say that your rival is not making works of art, in order to achieve the generally desired social consequences of eternal glory and validation of having your own works hung in galleries and discussed and written and read about instead of theirs. Defining the ‘work of art’ once and for all will not put an end to disputes about which works deserve such recognition. For the task of defining a work of art is a devilishly difficult one that must account for two sliding scales: the fact that works of art are both manifold and varying. Ziff’s (1967: 46) best answer is that as ends and means tug at each other, we will have to adapt our definitions on the fly: ‘It may and most likely will be necessary to revise our definition of a work of art.’

Van Dyck


Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The Essential Gombrich: Selected Writings on Art and Culture. Edited by Richard Woodfield. London: Phaidon.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.

Wollheim, Richard. 1996. Art and Its Objects: With Six Supplementary Essays. Reprinted 2. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ziff, Paul. 1967. Philosophic Turnings: Essays in Conceptual Appreciation. 2.print. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UnivPress.


Scholars & Painters


At last I begin to pull the threads of my life together—to pare back the things that distract me, to braid my core pursuits together into one strong cord. Each sphere of my life centres around art in some manner: I have indeed run away to Europe to be a painter; I am deeply embedded in the sketch groups we have nurtured in Vienna, even extending my involvement to teaching drawing, and I am beginning to find my way in the University of Vienna as a philosophy doctoral candidate, wrapping my brain around some aesthetic ideas that have their roots in very old Germanic thought. And, of course, I have a circle of young and agile minds around me, constantly charging my head with new and difficult ideas. I couldn’t imagine a more practically, intellectually and socially demanding and satisfying way of life.

Universität Wien

Universität Wien

When I think of these circles, through which I move so fluidly, I realise that the divide between the scholarly and the artistic can be unexpectedly deep. I see the thinkers’ mistrust of painters’ visual ideas, and I see the painters’ discomfort at others intellectualising their field. At best, the intellectuals graciously entertain thought experiments, but perhaps fail to appreciate aspects best approached by doing, if not denying them entirely. The painters, meanwhile, either quickly become intimidated, boasting loudly about a non-academic book they’ve read or bowing to any thinker who uses big words, or shunning anything that reeks of intellectualism. This disconnect seems alarming at first.


(c) Sasa

But when a painter friend, confronted with an aesthetic idea, felt the need to defend himself, it became much clearer to me. ‘Painting is breathing,’ he said simply, his open hands revealing his sense of explanatory inadequacy. Painters presume that scholarship establishes some kind of framework, a justification for painting. Painters themselves usually don’t have a rigorous theoretical conception of painting, they are simply compelled to paint. And those that seek to find one sometimes spiral into impenetrable written treatises whose ability to improve, support or defend their practical work is deeply questionable. But perhaps this burden doesn’t really exist. No painter should feel threatened by a scholar of aesthetics, or feel that their work is incomplete without theory. Painters and scholars are simply not at all aiming at the same thing.

(c) Sasa

(c) Sasa

Hermann Weyl (1968: 631), the German mathematician, physicist and philosopher, makes an illuminating distinction between Erkenntnis and Besinnung:

‘Im geistigen Leben des Menschen sondern sich deutlich voneinander ein Bereich des Handelns, der Gestaltung, der Konstruktion auf der einen Seite, dem der tätige Künstler, Wissenschaftler, Techniker, Staatsmann hingegeben ist und der im Gebiete der Wissenschaft unter der Norm der Objektivität steht—und ein Bereich der Besinnung auf der andern Seite, die in Einsichten sich vollzieht und die, als Ringen um den Sinn unseres Handelns, als die eigentliche Domäne des Philosophen anzusehen ist.’

[‘In the human mental life there is rather—clearly distinguishable from one another—a region of actions, creation, construction on one side; that which is given to the active artist, scientist, technician, statesman and that which stands in the domain of science under the norm of objectivity—and a region of reflection on the other side, that takes place in insights and that, as rings around the sense of our actions, is to be seen as the actual domain of philosophers.’]

According to Weyl (and very sensibly, I would suggest), the activities of the philosopher, while posing questions which stem from art or any other human endeavour, are of an altogether different nature than the practical activities themselves. While it orbits around the practice of art, it does not so much support it as probe it, test it, inspect it, challenge it, ponder the nature of it. Philosophy of art as Besinnung, as a contemplative reflection on what art is and what role it plays, is a very different thing from the Erkenntnis, the technical knowledge, that painters cultivate. Philosophers unearth puzzles about the nature of beauty, of sensations, of the role of art, of its ethical import. They try to make sense of the commonalities among the arts, the significance of objects, what ‘style’ could mean, what types of meaning exist in paintings and whether the painting or the painter is self-reflexive. These endlessly fascinating puzzles emerge from the nature of painting, but to be a better painter, one must concentrate on how to mix paints and how to stick them to a surface.


The painter, by contrast, busies herself with visual problems: problems of space and depth, of volume and design, of edges and atmosphere, of the translation of ideas into a physical substance. She grapples with the aesthetic experiences themselves: the intense sensations and emotions and how to record them, how to ignite them in others, how to use a humble physical medium to stir something less rational than the intellect.

These aims, however divorced, need not be antagonistic. Philosophy need not be inaccessible: aesthetic ideas can be expressed clearly and generously. And perhaps philosophical insights, while not justifying painting, or dictating the way in which it should go, can open new avenues for thoughtful painters, or help clarify the nebulous thoughts already hovering in their minds. I only hope that as a painter myself, my philosophical investigations will remain grounded and intelligible because of my honest contact with painting itself. But I seek not to justify painting—only to obsess over it in another manner.


Weyl, Hermann. 1968. ‘Erkenntnis Und Besinnung (Ein Lebensrückblick)’. In Gesmmelte Abhandlungen IV, 631–49. Berlin: Springer.


Painter virtues

Selbstbildnis als Philosophin / Self portrait as philosopher (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Selbstbildnis als Philosophin / Self portrait as philosopher (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Painter virtues stray a little from those of ordinary people. I have been devotedly following in the footsteps of a very dear painter who perhaps doesn’t realise how firmly astute he is, how perfectly disciplined he is, how resolutely he holds onto the very virtues that divorce him somewhat from the rest of the world, but that render him as sharp and penetrating as a painter may be. He leads by example, by folding me into his tranquil space, and I lose the impulse to write, and succumb to the all-consuming desire to paint.

And I paint slowly, as I always have. When I retreat into the realm of vision, I permit myself to tread carefully, sagaciously, deliberately. There are many pauses, there is much stepping back, sitting down, daydreaming. As an unobtrusive presence in Ryan’s studio, since the early days, I observed that there is at least as much idleness as activity involved in painting. One must devote a lot of time to looking and evaluating. There is a moment when you realise you are able to paint much faster than you normally do. And then you realise that the slowness is an integral part of your work, making room for ordered thoughts. Rilke observed the same unhurried attention in Rodin, in his beautiful little book on the sculptor. ‘‘Man muß sich nicht eilen’, sagte Rodin den wenigen Freunden, die um ihn waren, wenn sie ihn drängten. (Rilke 1942: 14). ‘‘One mustn’t hurry,’ said Rodin to the few friends who were around him, if they pressed him.’

da vinci

The breaks stretch out languidly as the afternoon sun yawns and stretches deep into my studio, and sometimes books steal my attention. And not even in a scholarly way, but in a guilty, indulgent way. This is the best kind of reading, and probably the deepest well of ideas. I think of Käthe Kollwitz with her Goethe, of both Delacroix and Rodin with their Dante. These writers who lodged deep inside the hearts of those painters and ever held the power to renew their weary minds and reinvigorate their work. It can hardly be surprising that Rilke, a poet, would apprentice himself to a sculptor, when that sculptor maintained a lifelong apprenticeship to a poet. Rilke (1942: 18-19) recounts of Rodin that ‘Er las viel. Man war gewohnt, ihn in Brüssels Straßen immer mit einem Buch in der Hand zu sehen, aber vielleicht war dieses Buch oft nur ein Vorwand für das Vertieftsein in sich selbst, in die ungeheuere Aufgabe, die ihm bevorstand.’ ‘He read a great deal. One was accustomed to seeing him in the streets of Brussels ever with a book in his hand, but perhaps this book was often only a front for being absorbed in himself, in the immense task hanging over him.’


Rilke suggests that all this reading enables the reader to inhabit the ideas well before one turns to clay or paint or copper plate. Books that really awaken the mind and animate personalities, archetypes, heroes and monsters, do much of the work in our idle, daydreamy hours before we begin to work. Rodin’s mind was fertilised by Dante and Baudelaire: ‘Seit jenen Tagen blieben diese beiden Dichter ihm immer nah, er dachte über sie hinaus und kehrte zu ihnen zurück. … Später, als er als Schaffender diese Stoffkreise wieder berührte, da stiegen ihre Gestalten wie Erinnerungen aus seinem eigenen Leben, weh und wirklich, in ihm auf und gingen in sein Werk wie in eine Heimat ein’ (Rilke 1942: 20) ‘Since those days, both these poets remained ever near him, he also thought about them and returned to them. … Later, when he touched on this subject matter again as creator, their forms rose like memories out of his own life, painfully and truly, out from inside him and entering into his work as if into a home.’


In my mind I see Ryan as a figure deeply absorbed in his sketchbook. I never knew another person to love drawing as deeply as he does; I’ve never witnessed such simple and honest devotion to drawing. One can talk about drawing forever; Ryan disappears wordlessly into his sketchbook and enters another universe. Should the sea turn to paper, I fear it wouldn’t satiate his urge to draw. I’ve come to learn that only the act of drawing proves my love of it. And I’ve come to realise what an indispensible support this act is. How steadying it is, how each hatched line helps sift a thought until my head grows clear again. Drawing is an act that restores balance; to think of it merely as a preparatory work is to undermine the pivotal position it plays in our lives. Everything turns on it. It loosens the mind and weaves it back together in an orderly way. A visible amble across the page; a scribed daydream.


Again and again I defend the use of my time: time spent reading, drawing, looking is never wasted. The painter can never apologise for her idleness. She needs, above all, a clear head, and that clarity is only reachable with ample time and space to follow every thought without the pressure to produce. Our practices are often compared to—or sometimes explicitly linked with—meditation, but I think this is a false connection. The painter’s focused and penetrating dissection of the world, grounded in observation, carried by a heightened alertness, inescapably chases after meaning and order, not the sort of egoless abandonment of thought prized by meditation. The painter rather invites a thousand times the stimuli of an ordinary person, and takes the time to sift them for gold, reviewing them one by one, delighting in them, arranging them in meaningful ways.


This delight cannot be overestimated. As I travel on long, winding roads through the Czech Republic, I indulge in the visual feast that unfolds—unfurling hills and forests and rivers melting in and out of each other, and the light that shifts in hue and angle as hours pile upon hours. I feel like I could explode when I see the blue-grey clouds against the golden sky in the mist of a light rain. I see that Ryan is equally absorbed in the neutral blue of the shadowy trees that back on to grass bathed in an unearthly yellow by the oblique evening sun. It’s then I realise what motivates us: we seek not to reproduce pleasant scenes, but to reproduce the staggering wonder at the visual relationships we stumble upon in the real world. Sometimes something as simple as the shocking harmony between two colours captivates us, and it is this delight that we are driven to transmit, more than anything else. ‘Look!’ we cry, stabbing our canvas with the brush, ‘Look how excellent the world is!’


These small visual treats furnish us with small tasks, and that is also enough. Rilke (1942: 17) writes of Rodin that ‘Seine Kunst baute sich nicht auf eine große Idee auf, sondern auf eine kleine gewissenhafte Verwirklichung, auf das Erreichbare, auf ein Können.’ ‘His art did not build itself on a grand idea, but rather on a small, diligent attainment, on the achievable, on a ‘can.’’ The grandeur grows out of the mastery of the small things; the big ideas emerge from the tumble of small delights rolling together and gathering momentum. Ryan’s comments, as he devours every mark of my painting, always lean towards the subtle treatments that most people overlook. ‘This is so subtle’ has come to resound as the highest praise as he deftly picks out the intricate decisions that most captivated me as I worked.


Our preoccupation with such small observations might make us feel we are getting left behind, that we are perpetual beginners, but this humility is the door to learning. Our inexpert trials and ill-conceived experiments, our genuine curiosity means many abortive paintings, some even dead-ends, as we try to instate order in our work. It can be lonely, and when people do speak with us, they miss the point of our efforts, they fail to see the driving impulse and the exploratory thread that weaves through our work. Rodin was rejected by the public for a long time, and when he emerged from his solitude, fully formed, he had already put himself through every test: ‘Jahre und Jahre ging Rodin auf den Wegen dieses Lebens als ein Lernender und Demütiger, der sich als Anfänger fühlte. Niemand wußte von seinen Versuchen, er hatte keinen Vertrauten und wenig Freunde’ (Rilke 1942: 18). ‘For years and years Rodin went along the roads of this life as a humble learner, as one who felt himself a beginner. No one knew of his attempts, he had no confidants and few friends.’ This is a double virtue: we can take our apprentice status and couple it with the sobering solitude that buys us more time to become. And the fruit of this lonely, self-testing time is an unshakeable confidence in ourselves, in our work, in every tiny detail of our approach. ‘Da, als man anfing, an ihm zu zweifeln, hatte er keinen Zweifel mehr an sich selbst. … In der Zeit, als er wurde, klang keine fremde Stimme zu ihm, kein Lob, das ihn hätte irre machen, kein Tadel, der ihn hätte verwirren können’ (Rilke 1942: 21). ‘Because, as one began to doubt him, he had no more doubt in himself. … In the time when he was becoming, no foreign voice sounded about him, no praise that would have led him into error, no reproach that could have confused him.’

We cannot forget the point of our painterly values, so at odds with the world of outcomes and products and services and profits and efficiency. As with any virtue ethics, we chase after excellence. Excellence as humans and excellence in our work. However we exist in the world and whatever we leave behind in it, let’s hope that everything glows with that unmistakeable sheen. I smile with satisfaction when I hear Ryan say again and again, ‘I’m sorry it’s not perfect.’ We will slow down and look and consider and try again until it is.



Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1942. Auguste Rodin. Leipzig: Insel.