What is a work of art ? 3 aspects that go far beyond the physical object


When we wonder about what is a work of art we reflect on aspects that go far beyond the physical object.

By: Yolanda Silva – Online course Analysing Art

Cover image: The Human Condition. René Magritte, 1933http://www.renemagritte.org/the-human-condition.jsp#prettyPhoto

« The small closed world of the artwork and its structure, which significantly binds the smallest detail to a higher set, this microcosm, was always an allegory of the meaning and structure of the world and must remain as so in our day.»

Walter Hess, Documents for the Understanding of Modern Painting

what is a work of art | allegory

When approaching the concept of beauty relating to aesthetics, the existence of an exchange of information between the work and the viewer is always present.

Thus we are presented with an exchange of senses and meanings, information that converts the artwork into a material testimony of an historical, social, cultural and / or religious context.

When analysing a work of art, certain elements present in it are emphasized so that the information contained in it is properly ‘deciphered’.

Thus the viewer will understand better the work and what the artist intended to convey.

Reading or interpreting any work of art becomes as important a step as the own artistic production, because only then we will understand and truly grasp the artist’s message.

As Heidegger says (in The Origin of the Work of Art):

«The work makes publicly known something other than itself, it manifests something other: it is an allegory. In the artwork something other is brought into conjunction with the thing that is made. (…) The work is a symbol. »

what is a work of art | far beyond “thing”


Thus, and following the reasoning of Heidegger, it is necessary to ‘read’ the work of art, unfold the thought of the artist at the time of its production.

This reading will remove the simple ‘thing’ character (das Dinghaft, or «the thingness of the thing», according to Heidegger) to turn it into something more.

The work is wood, stone, canvas,…; but not only. It has this ‘thingness’, but it is still something else because there is a meaning intrinsically linked to the ‘thing’; a meaning that was given by the artist when he worked the wood, carved the stone or painted the canvas.

Thus, we must seek the true essence reigning in the production of the work of art, analysing every detail of its production with care and

«ask the work what it is and how it is»


what is a work of art | analysis

In order to know what a work of art is, we have to carry out an analysis:


The analysis may be objective (or visual), which describes the elements as they are viewed.


Or subjective (or symbolic), which describes our feelings when viewing the work.


We can also analyze a work under a formal point of view (or aesthetic) that analyses all the visual syntax (composition), including historical context, theme, and organization of the elements – which involves a more comprehensive search.


Finally, we must conclude with an analysis of meanings (real or symbolic) of the piece in question.

At the end of the Analysing Art online course the participants will be able to read, analyze and interpret a work of art:

Distinguishing concepts of interpretation and description when reading a work of art.

Identifying and describing characters and scenarios in an objective and clear way.

Distinguishing objective reading of subjective reading.

Identifying and recognising the importance of literary and graphic sources for the interpretation of works of art.

Identifying the necessary elements for the description and interpretation of a work of art, according to its nature (painting, sculpture or architecture).

Learn more about art analysis and art history