Objecthood – Definition, Examples, History & More – Art Theory Glossary

I. What is Objecthood?

Objecthood refers to the state or quality of being an object, a tangible and physical entity that exists in the world. Objects can range from everyday items like a chair or a book to more abstract concepts like ideas or emotions. Objecthood is often associated with materiality, as objects are typically made of physical substances such as wood, metal, or plastic.

Objecthood is also linked to the idea of presence, as objects have a physical presence in the world that can be perceived through the senses. This presence gives objects a sense of reality and solidity that distinguishes them from more ephemeral or intangible entities.

In philosophy, objecthood is often contrasted with subjecthood, which refers to the state of being a subject, a conscious and thinking being that experiences the world. Objects are typically seen as external to the subject, existing independently of individual perceptions or interpretations.

II. Objecthood in Art History

In art history, objecthood has been a central concern for artists and theorists alike. The concept of the art object has evolved over time, from traditional notions of painting and sculpture as static and self-contained objects to more expansive definitions that include installation art, performance art, and other forms of contemporary practice.

Art objects are often seen as having a unique status within the art world, existing at the intersection of materiality, representation, and aesthetic value. The art object can be both a physical thing and a symbolic or conceptual entity, embodying ideas, emotions, and cultural meanings.

Artists have explored the boundaries of objecthood through various strategies, such as assemblage, ready-mades, and site-specific installations. These practices challenge traditional notions of art as a discrete and autonomous object, opening up new possibilities for engaging with the world and the viewer.

III. Objecthood in Contemporary Art

In contemporary art, objecthood continues to be a key theme for artists working across a range of media and disciplines. Many artists are interested in the materiality of objects, exploring how everyday materials can be transformed and recontextualized to create new meanings and experiences.

Contemporary artists often blur the boundaries between object and subject, inviting viewers to engage with artworks in more active and participatory ways. This shift towards a more relational and interactive mode of art-making challenges traditional hierarchies of authorship and spectatorship, emphasizing the role of the viewer in shaping the meaning and significance of the art object.

Some artists use objecthood as a means of critiquing consumer culture and the commodification of art, creating works that question the value and status of art objects in a capitalist society. By foregrounding the materiality and physicality of objects, these artists draw attention to the ways in which objects can be imbued with social, political, and economic significance.

IV. Objecthood in Relation to Subjecthood

Objecthood is often understood in relation to subjecthood, with objects and subjects existing in a dynamic and reciprocal relationship. While subjects are typically seen as active agents who perceive and interpret the world, objects are often seen as passive entities that are acted upon or manipulated by subjects.

However, this binary opposition between subject and object is not always clear-cut, as objects can also exert agency and influence over subjects. Objects can shape our perceptions, emotions, and behaviors in profound ways, influencing how we see ourselves and the world around us.

In contemporary philosophy and critical theory, object-oriented ontology (OOO) has emerged as a new approach to understanding the relationship between objects and subjects. OOO posits that objects have an independent existence and agency that is not dependent on human perception or interpretation, challenging anthropocentric views of the world.

V. Objecthood and Materiality

Materiality is a key aspect of objecthood, as objects are defined by their physical substance and properties. Materiality refers to the tangible and sensory qualities of objects, such as texture, weight, color, and form, that shape our perceptions and interactions with them.

Artists often explore the materiality of objects through processes of making and manipulation, experimenting with different materials and techniques to create new aesthetic effects and meanings. Materiality can also be a site of resistance and critique, as artists challenge dominant narratives and ideologies through their choice of materials and methods.

The materiality of objects can also evoke emotional and affective responses in viewers, triggering memories, associations, and sensations that go beyond the purely visual or intellectual. Objects have the capacity to evoke a sense of presence and immediacy that can be deeply felt and experienced on a bodily level.

VI. Objecthood and the Viewer’s Perception

The viewer plays a crucial role in shaping the meaning and significance of objects, as perception is a subjective and interpretive process that is influenced by individual experiences, beliefs, and biases. Objects are not static or fixed entities, but are constantly being reinterpreted and recontextualized through the act of viewing.

The viewer’s perception of objects is also shaped by cultural and historical contexts, as objects are imbued with layers of meaning and symbolism that reflect broader social and political dynamics. Objects can serve as markers of identity, power, and status, signaling particular values and ideologies to different audiences.

In contemporary art, artists often play with the viewer’s perception of objects, creating works that challenge conventional modes of looking and understanding. By disrupting familiar ways of seeing and interpreting, artists can provoke viewers to question their assumptions and engage with objects in new and unexpected ways.

In conclusion, objecthood is a complex and multifaceted concept that encompasses a range of ideas and practices in art and philosophy. Objects are not passive or inert entities, but are dynamic and relational entities that shape our perceptions, emotions, and interactions with the world. By exploring the materiality, agency, and presence of objects, we can gain a deeper understanding of how they mediate our experiences and relationships with the world around us.