Mercury by Giambologna. Image: Tetraktys. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. The visual fine arts provide an intellectual, or spiritual experience, but if an artwork also serves some non-artistic purpose, its meaning can be confused and even undercut by that competing purpose. For instance, Giambologna’s sculpture of Mercury serves no other purpose than what we derive from our experience of the figure’s vital physique and free, open pose. (Pose is the configuration of the entire figure.) But if Mercury served as a weathervane, and it turned according to the direction of the wind, our experience of the figure would be consistent with encountering a being determined by some external force -- a conclusion opposed to Giambologna’s vision. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa offers an image of a certain kind of being in a certain kind of world. It depicts a woman who has a calm demeanor, intelligent expression, with a serene landscape behind her. But should the Mona Lisa appear on the fabric of a carpet that is used as a floor covering, our ability to contemplate what that vision means to us would be mixed with, and undercut by, Mona Lisa being walked on and marked by wear and tear. An image of a bird in flight carved on a panel enables us to appreciate the significance of a healthy, unfettered creature. That same image carved onto the handle of a soup ladle cannot offer us that same kind of experience -- the bird would be functioning as part of a utensil that serves soup, not seen in flight against an open sky.
Historically, the ways in which the arts have been made and used have often resulted in mixed cases of fine art and decorative art. Many sculptures and paintings have been attached to other objects: walls, altars, vessels, grave markers. For much of history, paintings were on interior walls (framed, stand-alone paintings are a relatively recent invention). Nevertheless, in most mixed cases it is possible to clearly distinguish the artwork from the object to which it is attached. The main criteria for distinguishing something as being a work of fine art in the mixed case are: the completeness of the representation (Does it depict an object, like an apple or human figure?) and the scope of its aesthetic meaning (Can it embody a profound theme such as “Life is good,” or is it merely a limited referent such as a pattern of flowers?). In most mixed cases the work of art is the primary focus and that from which the associated object gains a meaning that it would not otherwise have. An example of a mixed case of fine art used in a decorative way would be a painting or relief sculpture of a human figure on a door. Such an image decorates the door, but if it depicts the figure in a way that conveys a theme, it can also be an object of contemplation. Despite the mixed uses of a great deal of art, we can focus on the metaphysics of the artworks to the extent that each work allows -- meaning, we can consider what the artworks suggest about life and our world in general apart from any other use that the artworks may have had. For example, we could study Egyptian statues that were meant to be inhabited by spirits of the dead, but we can ask what those statues show us about the Egyptians’ view of life.