- Modality, Individuation, and the Ontology of Art1
In 1988, Michael Nyman composed the score for Peter Greenaway’s film Drowning by Numbers (or did something that we would ordinarily think of as composing that score). We can think of Nyman’s compositional activity as a ‘generative performance’ and of the sound structure that [End Page 491] Nyman indicated (or of some other abstract object that is appropriately related to that sound structure) as the product generated by that performance (ix).2 According to one view, Nyman’s score for Drowning by Numbers — the musical work — is the product generated by Nyman’s compositional activity (namely, an abstract object) and, more generally, artworks are identified with the products generated by compositional or other creative activities. Let’s call this view The Product Theory. By contrast, according to another view, Nyman’s score for Drowning by Numbers is the generative performance itself (namely, Nyman’s compositional activity) and, more generally, artworks are identified with generative performances themselves. Following David Davies in Art as Performance, let’s call this view The Performance Theory (80). In that book, Davies argues for The Performance Theory and against The Product Theory.
Different versions of The Product Theory provide different answers to the question of how artworks are individuated, and Davies argues against them separately. According to one version of The Product Theory, artworks are not individuated by the art-historical context in which they are produced. (Rather, they are individuated entirely by something else: their structural properties, say.) On this view, for example, if Nyman composed a musical work with a certain sound structure in 1988 and Mozart composed a musical work with the same sound structure in 1779, then Nyman and Mozart might have composed the same musical work.3 Let’s call this view The Decontextualized Product Theory. By contrast, according to another version of The Product Theory, artworks are individuated in part by the art-historical context in which they are produced. On this view, if Nyman composed a musical work in 1988 and Mozart composed a musical work in 1779, then — no matter how similar in sound structure the musical works might be — Nyman and Mozart did not compose the same musical work.4 Let’s call this view The Contextualized Product Theory. One of Davies’s main arguments against The Contextualized Product Theory, which he takes to be ‘the principal alternative’ to The Performance Theory (x), relies on modal intuitions [End Page 492] about artworks. In this paper, we criticize that argument. Although our immediate aim is to defend The Contextualized Product Theory and thereby undermine Davies’s case for The Performance Theory, our ultimate aim is to assess how modal considerations do (or rather do not) affect the individuation of artworks and hence the ontology of art. We begin, in the next section, by presenting Davies’s argument.
II. The Argument from Modal Intuitions
When Nyman composed the score for Drowning by Numbers in 1988, Mozart had already composed the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for Violin and Viola. Let’s say that Nyman composed the score for Drowning by Numbers in a Sinfonia-ish musico-historical context: namely, a musico-historical context in which someone (e.g. Mozart) had previously composed a Sinfonia Concertante-esque musical work (e.g. the Sinfonia Concertante) — a musical work, that is, with the sound structure that the Sinfonia Concertante actually has. Nyman intended the score to evoke the Sinfonia Concertante (111). One might have the intuition that Nyman’s score could not have been composed in a non-Sinfonia-ish musico-historical context (111). By contrast, consider the Prairie Variations, a hypothetical keyboard work — in the style of the Goldberg Variations, say — that was composed in 1988 by a naïve occasional composer living in the Midwest. The Prairie Variations was also composed in 1988; so, one might think, it too was composed in a Sinfonia-ish musico-historical context. The Midwest composer, let us suppose, did not intend the Prairie Variations to evoke the Sinfonia Concertante. One might have the intuition that the Prairie Variations could have been composed in a non...