Ong begins his exploration of the topic by listing a number of "footholds" on the art object to which the personalist approach can attach itself, including autobiographical elements in fiction and the ease of grouping literary and artistic works together by author rather than by larger categories, such as historical periods. While these footholds provide convenient points of attachment for the personalist approach, there is something even more profound in a work of art that encourages the desire to know about the artist: the inspiration for art nearly always comes from human relationships, and that inspiration is symbolized by the human Muses.
When people look at a work of art, Ong argues, their contemplation of that object can be satisfying only to a certain degree, precisely because the work of art is only an object and not a person. To really love something, people need their love to be returned, so a work of art cannot, as a mere object, fulfill desire the way another person can; hence, the "threat," as Ong refers to it, of a personalist approach to art. Still, even when a personalist approach to art is applied, the obstacles of time and context between the viewer and the artist prevent the viewer from being fully satisfied.
Ong further shows how in earlier cultures, people personalized natural objects instead of art objects, as people do in the twentieth century. This shift from personalizing nature to personalizing art, Ong believes, began during the Renaissance and has been exacerbated by three developments: the development of rhetorical and aesthetic theory (we can now talk about art in a more complex manner), the idea of the artist as "martyr" (which has "blurred" the distinctions between artists and their works), and the development of current aesthetic theory which focuses on the work itself (the work now "bears the weight" of religion, making the attention paid a work of art much more serious than it once was).
In essence, Ong says, people now treat the work as though it is a person, to the point that we convince ourselves that the work can cut itself off from the rest of the world, just as a person can. If we convince ourselves of that, Ong concludes, we can simultaneously look at the object and look for other people's responses to the object, and then the "jinnee" will stay safely inside the "well-wrought urn."
This article, it should be noted, returns to Ong's discussion of art criticism begun in "Imitation and the Object of Art" and literary criticism in "The Meaning of the 'New Criticism.'" In both articles, Ong places emphasis on how criticism cannot replace the "poetic experience," the experience of hearing a poem or seeing a work of art without the aid of criticism; then, in "Hopkins' Sprung Rhythm," he reiterates this point by stating that the best way to understand a poem, especially one written in sprung rhythm, is simply to listen to it.
While Ong upholds this idea of letting a work of art speak for itself in this article, he does acknowledge that people have the urge to know about the artist as well as the work, and we have seen that Ong himself often takes a biographical approach to works of art and literature: for example, in "J.S. Mill's Pariah Poet" and in "Finitude and Frustration: Considerations on Brod's Kafka." The latter article is especially linked to this article, for when Ong lists the three developments that have encouraged an emphasis on the work itself rather than on the artist, he cites Kafka as an example of the second development: the artist as martyr. In "Finitude and Frustration," the question Ong asks about Kafka--Did he believe in God?--reveals well the personalist impulse people carry when approaching art.
After "Jinnee in the Well-Wrought Urn" was published, R.F. Storch responded to Ong's argument, and this response and Ong's reply were published in Essays in Criticism. Storch criticized Ong for taking a "metaphysical excursion" in his article rather than presenting a well-defined issue and discussing that issue, which is the task more suited to the critic in Storch's opinion. Storch offers what he believed was a better way of organizing the essay. Storch also faults Ong for employing a writing style which is too "journalistic" and includes "metaphorical extravagances."
Ong's reply to Storch addresses both
criticisms. Ong explains that he assumed readers would have knowledge
of the issue of the human-based origin of art before reading the article
(since it is an issue that has been thoroughly treated previously); and
therefore, he believed that it was not necessary to define the issue as
explicitly as Storch thinks is necessary. To Storch's second criticism,
Ong acknowledges the "journalistic" element in writing, but he does not
see the relationship between criticism and journalism negatively, as Storch