Framing and the Ontology of the Art Work: Kendall Walton and Jacques Derrida

In his 1977 paper “Categories of Art” Kendall Walton argues that aesthetic categories like “piano music” or “bust” determine how an audience ascribes aesthetic significance to the non-aesthetic properties of the work such as their shape, matter or sound. Walton calls the perceptible properties that determine whether it belongs to a given category of artwork “standard”. The work’s “variable properties” by contrast are irrelevant to categorical membership and can vary within a category. These fix its distinctive aesthetic or expressive characteristics. Contra-standard properties, finally, are properties possession of which tend to disqualify a work from a category (e.g. being a relief disqualifies a work as a painting, etc.) (339).


While standard properties may not directly fix the aesthetic properties of a work (what it expresses, resembles, evokes, etc.) they are not aesthetically neutral. They play an organising role in determining what is normal or to be expected of a work of the corresponding category. They inform our expectations and interpretations of the work; thus the way in which its nonaesthetic properties acquire aesthetic significance. We hear a melody in the Adagio Cantabile of Beethoven’s Pathetique as legato or “sung” if exhibits the standard marks of piano performance. A vocal performance played on a sampler with sonic envelope of piano note (sharp attack and quick decay) might be heard as strangely robotic even though the onset and decay of each sung note would be identical in speed (Walton 1977, 350). Aesthetic categories are thus like frames that encode what is expected of or proper to a work. If Walton is right, all art works must be “framed” in this sense. They must be composed of readable marks which allow us to hear/see, etc. the work as belonging to a relevant category.

Interestingly, Jacques Derrida also considered the role of frames and framing in Kant’s aesthetics in “Parergon”, an essay in The Truth in Painting. Kant thought that aesthetic judgement should not concern itself with irrelevant aspects of a work – an ostentatious gold leaf frame around a delicate watercolour, say. Such finery distracts us from the beautiful form of the work proper. Yet if, with Walton, we understand such parerga (outworks, supplements to the main work) as essential to the aesthetic effect of a work they cannot be simply outside the work. The effect of the work proper, depends on this supplement.

The parergon has an ambiguous position according to Derrida. It is necessary for the work to work; yet not part of the work considered as an immediate object of aesthetic judgement. It supplements the work but also supplants it by making its effect depend on something outside of it (See also Roden 2004).

Walton could reply here that most standard properties unambiguously belong to works but have a different function to their “variable properties”. So, one might think that the tension Derrida claims to isolate is not as worrisome as all that.

However, at least some of the properties Walton takes to be standard play a role in the expressive or aesthetic content of a work – the prominent brush strokes on a Cézanne portrait which marks it as a modern reaction to 19th Century academic painting, for example, or the specific timbre (sound quality) of Stan Getz’s tenor sax that gives his playing such a unique signature.

Other supposedly standard properties present the opposite problem, being in the social or institutional context of a “work”. They seem too distant from the work as normally conceived, rather than too close. This is evident in 20th Century avant-garde art. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and John Cage’s silent piece 4′ 33″ depend on the social staging of the gallery or concert hall respectively for their impact and existence. Much the same can be said of later site-specific art, as in the work of Daniel Buren or the Art and Language Collective.

It is misleading to describe such properties as ‘standard’, then, since their very readability means that they can be redeployed by critical operations, acquiring new functions and stabilities; and that they are generative of the new, as in Cézanne’s reconstructions of volume, colour and surface, or Duchamp’s innovations. Thus the work seems to operates as a productive event composed of nested frames or ‘framings’. Properties only appear standard when that potential becomes used and replicated widely enough to pass as a social code. Derrida would insist that this very repeatability instigates a virtual power of dehiscence, which can explode and derange anywhere, always capable of altering and deranging institutions and perceptions rather than stabilizing them.

So, is there a bundle of properties, form or object that is the objective artwork?  If Derrida’s argument goes through, the relationship of ergon (work) and parergon calls this ontology into question. Although aesthetics purports to think about works, it may run into paradoxes as soon as it tries to identify it by distinguishing ergon and paregon. This doesn’t doom us to a kind of subjective idealism. There might be other models of objectivity or even realism for aesthetic claims such as Kant’s which do not require that aesthetic judgements are correct so much as express our ‘disinterested interest’ in the object rather than a set of valid judgements about it. Or as Steven Shaviro puts it in a commentary on Kant’s aesthetics:

a judgment of taste involves an uncoerced response, on the part of the subject, to the object that is being judged beautiful. Aesthetic judgment is a kind of recognition: it’s an appreciation of how the object “adapts itself to the way we apprehend it,” even though, at the same time, it remains indifferent to us. (Shaviro 2012, 2)

So perhaps aesthetic judgements are not necessarily objective in the strong sense that Walton assumes, but remains in some way “object oriented”. If this were the case, then different categorical frames could reveal the same thing under different guises.

Derrida, J. 1987.The Truth in Painting. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McCleod. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Roden, D., 2004. “The Subject” in Reynolds J,  and J. Roffein Understanding Derrida, Bloomsbury, pp.93-102.

Shaviro, S., 2012. Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics. MIT press.

Walton, K. 1977. “Categories of Art”. The Philosophical Review, Vol. 79, No 3 (July. 1970). Pp. 334-367.

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