If I recall correctly, Arthur Danto considers the example of an art deco bronze cat which is chained to the railing on a landing in the student center. This might, he says, be a recent artwork composed of a readymade bronze cat, a chain, and a pad lock. Perhaps a commentary on domestication. Nevertheless, the artwork is just the cat itself. Someone chained it to the railing when it was installed in the student center, so that nobody would walk off with it.
Similar examples arise in gallery contexts: It may be unclear whether two objects are one composition or two works simply installed near to one another. A toolbox might be left behind by a worker and a utility box may just be hardware that’s part of the gallery, or these things might be works or parts of works in the show.
I have seen these puzzles mostly raised in the context of ontology, to pose the question of what constitutes a work of art. Yet, it seems to me, there is an important issue in art appreciation.
Suppose, to return to the original example, that one finds it rewarding to consider the chain and cat together. They are visually interesting, let’s say, and one is lead to reflect in interesting ways on domestic animals and public spaces. It’s rewarding in just the kinds of ways that reflecting on an artworks is. Suppose furthermore that considering just the cat on its own is not especially rewarding. It is not an inspired sculpture, and it is of limited historical interest. One gets more out of considering the chained cat as if it were art than in considering the actual artwork.
What should we think about this? Several possibilities:
First, one might say that considering non-art as if it were art is perverse and confused. It is either a conceptual or moral failure. I find this implausible.
Second, one might say that the rewards of reflecting on the chained cat show that it must be art after all. We are supposing that nobody explicitly meant it to be art. We could say that the staff member who chained the sculpture had an unconscious intention to make art. Or we could say that one makes it art just by engaging in the rewarding as-if art experience of it.
Third, one might give up the idea that artworks are especially important to art appreciation. What matters are objects which can be encountered and interpreted in as-if art ways, regardless of whether they are actually art.