What is a work of art? This question, which has had multiple formulations and answers, cannot be raised today in the same conditions and with the same premises which supported it in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it became popular. On the one hand, because the question made full sense within the historically precise conditions of enlightened and romantic modernity. On the other hand, because the universe of artistic forms broadened throughout the nineteenth century to the point of its ontological, functional and economic characterization not being coincident with any brief description of the elements of the artistic world anymore.
In a way, we can say we no longer know how to define a work of art accurately. This difficulty will not be, however, entirely regrettable, as it is from here that many of the aesthetic ideas of our time redefine the relevance of artistic forms. In the first place, works have moved away from their canonical themes to immediately undergo successive crises of the artistic subject. There, the question of mimesis loses its urgency, given that the imitated world - in itself an inadequate place for the human - offered persistent resistance to the possibility of being fully replaced by a world of art. In that way, the work of art gradually abandoned the field of symbolic equivalence to the forms of the world. Or progressively built a systematic critique of those equivalences and their hierarchies. Finally, art was taken by the temptation of its own vanishing. This provided many twentieth century art movements with a status we could define as “perverse”, as it is based on the visibility of works that exhibit the very dissolution of the artistic.
One could ask, as many have already done, why we continue to need works of art. Among the many answers already given, the one which will be most useful to us is that which introduces the need of an instability of understanding as soon as the objects acquire some artistic status. In this sense, any relevant answer to that question drives us away from the work of art within History of Art and from what shelters in it as archeological or interpreted form. All relevant answer shall point to the very problem of the rising of the artistic. Walter Benjamin will clearly show that this rising, though rooted in magical understanding, is inevitably affected today by the visibility characteristic of modern technique. However, we can also adopt a reverse perspective: that visibility, although having eminently modern aspects, such as reproducibility, will not be, even today, alien to archaic techniques. Aby Warburg went very far in that exercice of reapproaching art and anthropology. He moved away from Wölfflin’s theses, in vogue at the time, centred on historical expertise and style filiation, opening a new cultural anthropology of art where the Quattrocento can appear side by side with Hopi masks and rock engravings.
That does not mean that there are no coherent and elegant arguments around the definition of works of art. Between the Renaissance and the eighteenth century, the ideas of «work of art» developed steadily, while the world was becoming a «Western» place. Some, at the turn of this century and during the nineteenth century, will seek to establish a universal reference in the relation with such unique objects. Although some of these efforts are important still today, one casts, from them, a kind of shadow which will not stabilize the perception of works but rather reveal them as incapable of embodying a remarkable artistic matter.
Today, and closing the circle of the history of the «work of art», that status depends, ever less, on a consensus around its universal relevance. Contemporary arts redefined their role from the destruction of such consensuses, defining, as fundamental feature of the artistic, the statement of multiple inadequacies which run across producers and artistic agents, institutions, publics. Nowadays, works of art tend to be networks of inadequacies and crossings, Ariadne’s thread without labyrinth. History of Art, which covers today all known cultures since the Paleolithic, provides a source of imagery which restores all that Hegelian historicism had defined as preterite. Thus, art will have been the first domain of modern experience liberating itself from history and its totalizing impositions.
Evidently, post-modernity came, in some way, to make this assertion common. Art was, in the last decades, crossed by the culture of advertising immediacy, an aspect anticipated in multiple ways by artistic practices. Art as happening, i. e. as artistic happening, diluting all substantial idea of works which would thus come to be defined as statement, had its cycle, also historical, headed by Marcel Duchamp and his ready-made.
The most important question the work of art can ask us today is not that which can be formulated in virtue of the effect of its aisthesis or of its critical reception, but rather the question motivated by the possibility of art continuing to show itself as work. The domain of this question, initially formulated by Heidegger, has widened due to a parallel question: the problem of technique.
Technique, in the precise sense which matters most here, is not so much what operates on a specific material, but what opens the spectrum of questions that, through that operation, are directed at us. As with technique, we can question whether art is transforming itself into a device of interactive issues. For example, today’s technological arts rarely aim at creating a figure which halts time and space, but rather seek to open a process of reconfiguration of time and space. There, the artistic process «opens a world», as Heidegger would say, meaning that a device is installed thereon, operating simultaneously on the concealing of internal processes and on the exhibition of a renewed visibility.
The place of the viewer of contemporary works is one of the essential aspects of these tendencies. As the artistic devices embody the electronic processing of information and sensors of many types, we can state that the viewer’s perceptive exclusiveness is diluted. Seeing and listening, or even feeling, have become attributes of aesthetic actors and non-human technicians. We find there the birth of different contemporary artistic tendencies, such as virtual arts or biotechnological art. The old metaphysical categories which determined life, consciousness and perception are today intensely scrutinized by contemporary arts.
Not everything is entirely new in this scenery. Overtaken the modernist paradigm of the avant-gardes, we face today the reellaboration of the archaic and its permanence in the present world through many artistic projects, namely in Portugal. One of the aesthetic lines which has come to affirm itself in the last years is, precisely, that which explores a non-historicity understood in phenomenological sense: everything is centred on the determination of the subject’s forms of participation in the world. Authors like Merleau-Ponty Dufrenneor Jean-Luc Marion opened different lines of that fundamental pathetic of the human presence in the world. We can then state that much of what today we still consider enigmatic in «pre-historic art» is absolutely contemporary.
BENJAMIN, Walter, (1972-89), Gesammelte Schrifien, Frankfort, Suhrkamp.
 WARBURG, Aby (1988), Schlangenritual, Berlin, Wadenbach.
 WÖLFFLIN, Heinrich (1915), Kunstgeschichliche Grundbegriffe: Das Problem der Stilentwicklung in der neueren Kunst, Berlin.
 HEIDEGGER, Martin (1950), Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks (A Origem da Obra de Arte, Lisboa, Edições 70, 1992).
 It is the case of Pedro Paiva and João Maria Gusmão.
 MERLEAU-PONTY, M. (1945), Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris, Gallimard, 1996
 DUFRENNE, Michel, Phénoménologie de l'expérience esthétique, Paris, PUF, 2002.
 MARION, Jean-Luc (1991), La croisée du visible, Paris, PUF, 1996.