Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

What Artworks Hide From Us


What follows is a guest post by Zee Perry. Zee is a Ph.D. candidate in her 5th year at NYU’s department of Philosophy. Zee sometimes says she likes the metaphysics of X for most Xs. She’s writing a dissertation about the metaphysics of physics, specifically the metaphysics of physical quantities, but she has a long standing professional and personal interest in the ontology of art. Her semi-professional website is here.

What I’d like to do with this post is present some half-baked ideas I’ve been not-quite-working on and see if the ensuing discussion can’t help bake them a bit further.

Consider what an artwork “puts before” its audience. Artworks, like paintings, present features, like an arrangement of colors, textures, brushstrokes, etc, to their audiences to be seen and appreciated. Sometimes these features are presented via that artwork’s instances, like how a performance ofBeethoven’s Eroica presents sounds (and perhaps sights), which an audience is meant to listen, evaluate and appreciate. Artworks as public entities. It’s natural and tempting to say that an artwork’s “public” features, those features it puts before or presents to its audience, are of particular importance to that work’s value and identity.

I want to ask what possible role features of an artwork that are NOT put before the audience, features which are inaccessible to an audience member qua audience member, could have.

To do this properly, we need to have a better idea of how an artwork presents its features to an audience.

The proper way to engage with an artwork (or one of its instances), as an audience member, can vary greatly from work to work. One engages with instances of films, plays, symphonies or operas by (usually!) sitting in one seat and quietly looking and/or listening to what’s going on in front of you. Installation or sculpture, on the other hand, is often engaged by walking around the gallery floor, getting a look at the work from a variety of angles.

If Xis some art-object (‘art-object’ here meaning an art-instance that audiences are meant to engage with, regardless of whether that instance is identical to the artwork itself) with some property P, it isn’t enough that I, as an audience member, can come to know that X has P. What’s necessary is that it’s (in principle) possible for me to come to know X has Pby engaging with Xin the prescribed way.

Furthermore, there’s no need to restrict to what the audience actually picks up on, or even on what the actual audience could have picked up on. An art-object XpresentsP to its audience just in case—holding fixed how Xactually is—(1) there could be an audience member, A, (2) properly engaged with X, (3) such that A could (in principle) come to know that Xhas P by being so engaged.

I’m not sure if this is the exact right way to think about presentation (I’m open to suggestions or amendments!), but its fine for our purposes.

There’s a thesis I’ve seen implicit in various positions in the philosophy of art. Roughly, it amounts to saying that no feature of a work can be constitutiveof that work unless it is (or is supposed to be) presented to that work’s audience (either directly or via its instances). Most folks I’ve talked to about this thesis claim to be at least somewhat sympathetic to it. I’d like to put some pressure on it here.

Before I do that, let me say a very little bit about what’s constitutive of a work of art. Here are three marks that a feature of a work is constitutive: (1) A work’s constitutive features are appreciation-relevant. (2) If a work has instances, its constitutive features are the ones possession of which determine whether and to what extent a potential instance is a correct instance of that work. (3) To appreciate a work with multiple instances, we identify and appreciate the features of the instance which are constitutive of the work it’s an instance of (e.g., we appreciate that a symphony is moving because we recognize that the performance we’re attending is moving).

I’ve said the above thesis is implicit in a good deal of our thinking in the philosophy of art. D. Davies (2010), for example, writes “An instance of a work is something that makes manifest to receivers certain properties that bear experientially upon the appreciation of the work.” Receivers here are audience members, and an instance “makes manifest” to them properties which “bear experientially”[my emphasis] on appreciation of the work. That is to say: the properties of an instance which bear correctly on appreciation of that work (the properties constitutive of that work), are presented (“made manifest”) to the audience—which is why it’s appropriate to say they “bear experientially” on appreciation.

A less straightforward example comes from a popular style of account of fictional truth or fictionality. Accounts of the sort I’m talking about are couched in terms of invitations to imagine, e.g. P is true according to a given work of fiction if the author of that work invites her audience to imagine that P (see Currie (1990) p.31-49 and Lamarque and Olsen (1994) p.45).

What’s important is that an author invites her audience to imagine P by presenting her audience with the work. The way you engage, as an audience member, with a work of fiction is by identifying what you’re invited to imagine and then imagining it. So you are only invited to imagine if it’s in principle possible for you to identify that you’re so invited by engaging with the work in the right way.

Both of these positions involve something close to the spirit of the thesis that what’s constitutive of a work must be presented to its audience. What I’m interested in doing here is looking at a few cases that put pressure on this position. Once I’ve presented these cases, I’ll largely leave the hard part—sorting out what’s going wrong and determining what course of action to take next—to you, the reader, to work out in the ensuing discussion.

Case 1: Doubt.

This first case was described to me as fact on two different occasions by two unrelated sources (I haven’t been able to actually verify their story).

John Patrick Shanley wrote a play called Doubt (which was later made into a movie starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman) about a Catholic priest accused of assaulting a member of his parish. The audience is meant, in keeping with the play’s title, to be extremely uncertain about whether or not Father Flynn is guilty or innocent by the end of the show. What’s unique about Doubtis that Shanley has (allegedly) in fact made a decision about Father Flynn’s innocence. And for any authorized performance, Shanley shares this secret decision with that performance’s director and the actor playing Flynn.

We can respond to this in at least two ways:

(1) Shanley’s belief that P(where P is either “Flynn is guilty” or its negation, depending on what Shanley actually believes) is fictionally true in Doubtis really just a matter of Shanley having a favoriteinterpretation of his own play. His choice of interpretation makes no difference to anything constitutive of the play.

(2) Shanley’s belief that Pand the fact that he shares that with the director and actor playing Flynn is evidence that Preally is fictionally true in DoubtP influences the play’s direction and the performance of the actor playing Flynn.

Importantly, Doubt‘s audienceis not invited to imagine that P. The audience is explicitly intended to be remain in doubt as to whether Por ~P. The invitation to imagine P is patently not presented to the audience.

I’m not going to take a stand on whether (1) or (2) is right. I think there’s a good case for each. I do think that our art theory shouldn’t rule out either option before the discussion starts. Specifically, given that Shanley himself likely accepts something like (2), and that the gimmick of the play is that the audience is in doubt about something of which there’s a fact of the matter,our theory of fictional truth or fictionality shouldn’t automatically rule this option impossible.

Case 2: Conflict.

Consider another play called Conflict. The plot revolves around a character, Marjorie, getting an important letter. She won’t tell her various friends and family, only opening the letter in secret to read it.

Diagram of a theatre. The stage is in the middle with two sections of seats on the north and south side.

Suppose further that the play is performed in a variation of theatre-in-the-round (pictured), with the audience split between seats on the North and South sides of the stage. Marjorie reads her letter in secret standing by the bookshelf at point A and later crouched behind the couch at point B. At point A, which all of the North but none of the South sides of the audience can see, the letter she reveals is clearly bad news. At point B, which only the South side of the audience can see, the letter is clearly good news.

Both Marjorie getting good news and her getting bad news are presented to the audience, since, there exists a way of engaging with the work (namely, sitting on the north/south audience) for which each is presented. As such, there’s no problem in saying that either element of the play is a constitutive part of the work.

However, it’s extremely plausible that the fact that the North and South sides of the audience are given conflicting informationis constitutive of the work. It’s a feature of the performance that correctly bears on the appreciation of the play itself. However, it’s also clearly not presented to the audience. The suitable way to engage with a play like this is to stay in one’s seat and attend to what happens on stage. There is no way that this mode of engagement could give one epistemic access to the mismatch in what the two halves of the audience witness.

Case 3: Interactive Art.

This last case concerns an entire art form, interactive art. Thinking about what could be constitutive of an interactive artwork was what got me thinking about presentation in the first place.

What’s presented to the audience of an interactive artwork varies. Videogames present sounds and images on a screen. Interactive literature, like Nabokov’s Pale Fire (which can be read in a variety of different orders) or a Choose Your Own Adventure book (of which different portions are read depending on what decisions the reader has the protagonist make), present a series of words on pages in a particular order. Interactive theatre/installation like Sleep No More (explained) present elaborately dressed sets in various rooms each audience member can freely explore (some of which are occupied by actors or other audience members). For all interactive artworks, exactly which images or words or performances are presented needn’t be the same every time (and will be different if the audience interacts with the work differently).

What is the same every time is also what I think plausibly constitutes works like these. Each instance of these works has the same (or, in the case of the Sleep No More, relevantly similar) modal character—facts about what would happen ifthe audience were to press this or that button, or turn to this or that page according to the instructions, or walk into this or that room at a given point in time. Modal features, however, are notpresented to the audience. Proper engagement with a single instance simply can’t give an audience member enough information about what would happen had things gone differently.

Modal features are very good candidates for being constitutive of interactive artworks. We evaluate instances of interactive artworks based on more than what they actually present us on one encounter. These modal features of instances bear correctly on the appreciation of interactive works themselves; Sleep No More makes you feel like a voyeur by giving you absolute freedom because that’s what its performances do. Having the right modal character also matters to the correctness of instances; if a videogame would have suddenly exploded had you deviated at all from what you actually did while playing it, then it’s broken (regardless of what it actually presented to you).

Last bit: Discussion.

So what should we say about these cases? I’m interested to learn what you think about them. Let me close with two (brief!!) points to clarify and direct the discussion here.

First, I think it’s not at all obvious that the same thing’s going wrong in each of these cases. Much of what’s wrong with Case 3 and (perhaps) Case 1 can be treated in terms of what would have been presented/invited had things gone differently. But there doesn’t seem to be any way of accurately framing Case 2 in this way. Similarly, there may be a way of dealing with Case 1 which gets our account of fictionality out of hot water but has nothing whatsoever to say about Cases 2 and 3.

Second, allowing that artworks can have constitutive features which are not presented to their audience may require us to reexamine the role of the audience in appreciate and evaluation. If being in the audience isn’t even in principle sufficient to evaluate and appreciate every (relevant) thing about a work, then what’s so special about engaging with art directly anyway?


Lamarque, Peter (1994). Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective. Oxford University Press.

D. Davies (2010). Multiple Instances and Multiple ‘Instances’. British Journal of Aesthetics 50 (4):411-426.

Gregory Currie (1990). The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge University Press.


  1. CHRISTY: The following comment is from James McGuiggan, who has had several comments of his inexplicably vanish into the ether. If anyone else is having trouble with the comments section, please let me know.


    “This is very interesting, I've never come across anything like it before, and I have very little to contribute. So thanks and sorry!

    “One or two things do occur to me: (1) Whenever I find myself up against what looks like a brick wall like this in my own philosophising, I think about what one would say in an analogous case in ordinary language, quotidian communication, whatever you want to call it. I often find it immediately illuminating. This time nothing obvious occurs to me, but I'd recommend giving it a go yourself anyway.

    “(2) It might help to make explicit that no artwork is exhausted by our experience of it, especially our first experience of it. The discussion and thought that follows from apprehending an artwork, and returns to the artwork, are hugely important to our understanding/appreciation/whatever of it. This is true of normal art, but is of course especially true in some of the cases you raise. An instance of how it is so in normal art: I go to the National Gallery every time I go to London, and I make a point of always going to my favourite paintings, whatever else I do. To my surprise, I found that after seeing a painting a couple of times, it began to seem less like a sharp rare jewel, and more like one's home, something gentler and more stable, that you don't only have a limited few minutes with. This new relationship, which of course amounted to seeing it in a different light, changed how I would artistically/aesthetically describe it. And this, I think, is not something I could, were I to be good enough, do on a first viewing. It comes from seeing it again after a break, and knowing you can see it again. (There could be an analogy here about friendship or love, about first love and meeting a love after a break – but I'm not sure how to make it.) An even easier example is in music: it's only through hearing Otto Klemperer's Beethoven that we can see how every note in a run is significant, this because he plays Beethoven slowly; but it's only through a faster recording that we can hear how his music can gallop.

    “I take it that it's easy enough to apply this point to some of your examples. Where it's hard to apply is where the audience ie never to know certain things – as may be the case for your 'Doubt' example.”

  2. James,

    Thanks for the comment!
    Re: (1). I don't really consider myself up against a wall so much as looking at the beginnings of an interesting research programme I have no time to pursue. I'm not sure what you're suggesting here. I would certainly be interested to know about analogues of this sort of phenomena in ordinary language cases. From where I'm standing, however, not clear the analogies would be very strong. Maybe I'm just not thinking about this right. Could you say more about what you have in mind?

    Re: (2). I wholeheartedly agree that no artwork is exhausted by any one experience of it. The question I think is relevant here is whether or not this is the case merely because of a limit in our perceptive/cognitive/attentive capacities. I think that, for most artworks, the reason really is just a matter of our limitations as audience members. However, certain artworks, like the ones in the cases I present, outstrip what any audience member does or can experience, and this is because of something about the artwork, rather than about us.

    It sounds like you're suggesting that, even in normal art cases, the explanation in terms of the limits in our relevant capacities isn't the whole story. Rather, there's something about how we engage with works after encounters and on repeat encounters that colors our experience of them in a way we couldn't, even in principle, experience on a first encounter. This is an interesting idea, but I'm not certain it applies to the phenomena I'm worried about.

    I acknowledge in my post that, it's not overly controversial that there might be some appreciation-relevant features, usually extrinsic ones, which aren't presented. Restricting my discussion to features “constitutive” of artworks was meant to screen out things like being unprecedented or being heavily derivative of an earlier work, which were appreciation-relevant but not presented to their audiences. I wanted to put such features aside since they are unpresented for different (and less interesting) reasons (e.g. b/c they are extrinsic to the work in question), than the cases I'm interested in.

    Your example with the painting, where the change in your appreciation came from “seeing it again after a break, and knowing you can see it again.” sounds like one of these cases. Nothing about what constitutes that painting depends on you being able to see it again. Your experience, but not the painting, would be very different if this was the last day the painting would ever be seen by anyone (before being destroyed, or locked away in storage, or whatever). This is evidence that the feature you're describing is not constitutive of the work, and so it should be less surprising that our initial experience couldn't include it.

    I think your Beethoven example is actually a different phenomena. I would explain that example in terms of (1) the distinctness of Klemperer's performance, which fails to present something constitutive of the work (its “galloping”) in order to more clearly present another constitutive feature (the importance of each note in a run); and (2) our own perceptive/cognitive/attentive limits, which prevent all but the most talented listeners from being able to hear the importance of each note when listening to the faster, galloping, performance.


    All of these are very interesting points and I thank you for making them. I hope my answers give you a clearer picture of what I have in mind.


    (P.S. Thanks also to Christy for rescuing James' comment from blog limbo)

  3. Hi Zee, thanks for getting back to me despite my own late response.


    You say: “The question I think is relevant here is whether or not this is the case merely because of a limit in our perceptive/cognitive/attentive capacities.”

    Precisely. What I'm suggesting is that it is NOT just because of such limits that we cannot fully understand an artwork on one viewing. We can see Monet's 'Snow Scene at Argenteuil' ( under so many different aspects: as about the couple, as about the colours, as about the weather, as charming or as bittersweet or as lonely; on another level, we can see it as, like I said above, a jewel or as one's home: something precious and fleeting which we have to suck everything out of quickly or something which we can let open up to us in its own time. (Incidentally: of course it is not constitutive of the work that we can or cannot see it again: but if we see it in a way conditioned by this belief, we will see different aspects of it, and we certainly can't rule out in advance whether these things can be constitutive of the work, or if they can be discovered when our appreciation is conditioned by something else.) Now of course you're right to resist that it's impossible to do all of this on one viewing, so let me say two things to strengthen the position. (1) We approach every work of art with prejudices and dispositions which can close us off to certain aspects of the work. With training we can overcome these – but overcome them ENTIRELY? That is as distant a possibility, if it is one at all, as the possibility that someone can understand the entirety of your Case B by virtue of a superhuman ability (echolocation plus lipreading?) to determine what's going on on the far side of the couch. (2) Even if we can see, on one viewing, the Monet as both about the light and content of the painting, we surely – I think this is my experience, but maybe I need to reflect more thoroughly – do this by switching between the two aspects: we don't see them utterly simultaneously. And this is perhaps analogous to switching from one side of the theatre to the other in your Case B.

    I obviously should have been clearer about the Beethoven too. (Well perhaps you need to listen to it yourself, but I'll try and be clear.) Your (1) is right, but I disagree with (2). It's not that you don't acknowledge, from lack of musical sensitivity or from underestimating Beethoven's genius, that every note is important, it's that you hear the music under a certain aspect, under which every note is heard AS significant. It's experiential/emotional rather than cognitive/intellectual, if you will. And I don't think it's controversial that full understanding of an artwork requires experience and emotion as well as intellectual awareness.

    It is hopefully clear now why I think that the Beethoven and Monet examples are about the same thing.

    I didn't say enough about something else in the above comment. It's not just a second viewing which will allow us to see something in a new light – this may be impossible, the artist may even contrive to make it impossible – but talking about the artwork. It's easy to see how this is necessary in standard cases: just the above, mutatis mutandis. Perhaps you cannot see the Monet as about light until someone tells you it's about light, to give a simple example. So in your Case B, people from one side of the stage will talk about the play to people who were seated at the far side. However, saying this, it occurs to me that you can concoct an example in which this is impossible: there's one performance and one audience member. I don't know what to say about this except that it's so bizarre that I doubt it can be stipulated to be unproblematic in every way except the one you want to focus on.


  4. […]

    Regarding the other basic point, about analogies in ordinary language: No, I don't have any specific thoughts here. It was just a general suggestion, that you could explore if you were stuck. But you say you're not, so perhaps disregard the suggestion.

    Incidentally, you say that being derivative or unprecedented are not constitutive of artworks. I don't see how your conditions rule this out, or why you'd want to say it in any case. You only have to read the first two pages of Danto's 'The Transfiguration of the Commonplace' to see why you shouldn't say it, if want to say it you do. But this is another debate.

    I hope this is helpful!

    P.S. Christy: I'm posting this on Firefox rather than on Chrome, which I was trying beforehand. If it works, maybe now we know why.

    P.P.S. Sorry about the shouting ('ENTIRELY', etc.). I can't work the HTML somehow.

  5. James, thanks for these comments.

    I'm a bit confused by your response concerning the Monet. I'm certainly not committed to it being even in principle possible to recognize, appreciate, and respond to every aspect of the Monet in one viewing. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Regardless of whether they can be experienced together, the fact that each aspect of the painting can be experienced and recognized by some audiences, properly engaged, means that they satisfy my condition for being presented to Snow Scene at Argenteuil's audience.

    I'm worried I've lost the dialectic at this point. What are we disagreeing about, at this point? I thought original example was supposed to show that failing to present constitutive features of a work to its audience is much more widespread than I expected. I was open to this idea, but I took issue with the examples you chose (because the features you mentioned either didn't seem constitutive or seemed like they really were presented after all). That's where we ended up before your most recent pair of comments. I don't really see how much of what you say here lines up with that.

    Re: Beethoven. I think that someone without our perceptive/cognitive/attentive limits could hear each note as significant, in just the experiential/emotional way you describe. I have no problem saying that coming to know about or recognize the features of an artwork by engaging with it in the prescribed way will involve the sort of experiential/emotional reactions you're interested in.

    Concerning whether originality is constitutive. I'm totally happy with originality being essential to a work's identity and deeply relevant to its appreciation. On the sense of 'constitutive' I was interested in, and maybe I'm using the wrong word (I'm not wedded to it), originality would fail to be constitutive even in this case. Why? Because, (1) potential instances of an original work do not, themselves, need to be original in order to be correct instances of that work, and (2) we do not need to identify or recognize the originality of an instance in order to appreciate the originality of the work.

    I used the notion of a feature being constitutive of a work as a way to distinguish the properties for which failure to be presented to the audience is surprising and unexpected. If it turns out that this is the wrong metric to use, that's fine by me. I'm happy as long as there's some way to draw the distinction.

    One might think there's no distinction to be had, saying that the un-presented features in my cases 1-3 have no interesting characteristics that unite them or differentiate them from any other properties an artwork might have. But this just seems false. By way of example, here's one neat thing they have in common: they're all explicitly about what is or is not to be presented to the audience. This is the strongest in cases 2 and 3, where the un-presented features are (respectively) the mismatch in what the North and South audiences are presented with, and the character of what the audience would have been presented with had they interacted differently.

  6. Hi Zee,

    Just to let you know that I got suddenly saddled with a lot of work, and so can't respond just now. I should be done by this coming Friday and I'll give you a proper response then.

  7. Ok, back.

    Yes, you're absolutely right, I got sidetracked, and my elaboration of the examples is really not to the point. The Beethoven in fact is not relevant at all.

    Here's what I was trying to say about the Monet (or, perhaps, what I should have said): Certain aspects of a work might become available to us only upon reflection or conversation or more generally conditions that cannot obtain on anyone's initially apprehending it. The aspects of the Monet as seen as we see it when we see it every day might be an example of this. But I think it's pretty uncontroversial a possibility in the abstract: paintings have their narrative, and aspects of a painting that only reveal themselves when seen in their place in that narrative are hidden before that point in the narrative is worked through to.

    I want to say there's no relevant disanalogy between this sort of artistic hiding and the sort you're interested in, because in your case what is hidden will be revealed in the course of discussion and reflection, which is as essential to the apprehension of art as is seeing the painting in front of you.

    Of course, there might be a stronger example – and perhaps it's your 'Doubt' example – such that something is never revealed. I'm not sure what to say about that, but it seems so outlandish I'm reluctant to grant its possibility (which is probably foolish of me). But in the case of interactive art and in cases were different audience members see something – must see something – differently, these considerations make your examples look less unlike what artists do already.

    There're some obvious objections to this, but as far as I've been able to work them out, I don't think they work, so I'll just leave it here for now.

    Something just occurred to me: Do you know Shostakovich's Fifth? The finale is famous for sounding like a triumphant march to the Soviet authorities whom Shostakovich was having to impress because his Fourth was too avant-garde, whilst sounding like someone being forced to triumph to those who were suffering the pointier end of Stalinism. The brass runs through the standard fanfares of military joy – lovely stuff – but the wind and string sections are repeating like the gnashing of teeth the dominant note; this goes on for perhaps half the movement, four minutes or so. Very intense. Anyway, I wonder if you think this is much like your 'Conflict': the gnashing-teeth forced-rejoicing aspect of it is hidden from the authorities. This hiding is not as foolproof as hiding behind a couch, but I'm not sure this matters.

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