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Anthropology of Art

Anthropology of art is an academic discipline seeking to examine art within the context of historic social and cultural development. Art forms as artifact records for anthropological investigation have the capacity to reveal a significant range and depth of expression, belief and interpretation, much of it is subjective and communicated on a subliminal level. It is precisely these qualities that render art more suitable to the anthropological field study approach, rather than the more impersonal or quantitative methods of other social sciences.

According to the late anthropologist Alfred Gell the "anthropological theory of visual art," is traditionally understood as an anthropological study using visual art works that are mainly constrained in the "primitive art," as well as the colonial and post colonial epochs. This is so because spectacular examples of visual art blossomed in these periods, but also because art anthropologists have focused excessively on these periods. Gell regards visual art from other epochs including the contemporary age to be equally worthy of study. He also cautions against essentialist attitudes toward primitive or "ethnographic," art that in his view should be held against the same aesthetic standards as Western art examples.

The first concern when applying the anthropological method for the study of art in Gell's view is the identification of the "art object." He argues that traditionally applied criteria for art objects as either "sign-vehicles, conveying ‘meaning', or objects made in order to provoke a culturally endorsed aesthetic response, or both of these simultaneously," is too narrow. Instead he proposes a more inclusive definition that can be used by anthropologists studying art. In his words "…anything whatsoever could, conceivably, be an art object from the anthropological point of view, including living persons, because the anthropological theory of art (which we can roughly define as the ‘social relations in the vicinity of objects mediating social agency') merges seamlessly with the social anthropology of persons and their bodies."

Alfred Gell also makes an academic distinction between what he considers "sociology of art" and true "anthropology of art." He claims that "concerns itself precisely with the institutional parameters of art production, reception, and circulation," and is primarily Western-oriented. On the other hand, art anthropology in his opinion should be "at least provisionally separated from the study of art institutions or the ‘art world'."

One way that Gell considers this can be achieved is to use a singularly anthropological technique, namely to "consider art objects as persons". Thus, anthropology's "depth of focus," and "biographical," approach can in his view provide a more contextual and contemporary analysis of the "real process, or dialectic, unfolding in time," than "neighboring," sciences such as history, sociology and social psychology.

Anthropologist Evelyn Paine Hatcher offers another useful way to organize art anthropology studies in her introductory guide to the subject. Hatcher sums up the investigative approach as a series of questions to be answered regarding the context and purpose of the examined objects of art.

The first question she postulates is "where." Identification by geography is an important first step in understanding the object. However, as Hatcher reminds "neither styles nor cultures are as neatly bounded as students and scholars would like," so a more sophisticated differentiation has to be elaborated. She lists the defining art and culture characteristics of numerous regions which shows that there as an intimate link between art and the natural environment and climactic conditions of the respective place.

The second question Hatcher methodically asks is "how." The technological methods means and craftsmanship techniques by which art is born are significant aspects that can reveal much about the art form and the underlying culture. The choice of material and technique are important for the aesthetic, purpose and message the objects convey.

Also important in Hatcher's perspective is the question "who," or more precisely "by whom," and "for whom." Whether art objects were created by "folk artists," or skilled artisans, and whose possessions and narratives they were meant to consist of is no simple query. Creativity according to Hatcher is not universally aspired to and appreciated. The identity and personal traits of the artist can tell much about the broader cultural context.

The last question anthropologists following Hatcher's approach should concern themselves with is "why." There may be different reasons for creating art; Hatcher argues that not infrequently it is what "holds society together." Even the often mundane intended uses of the artifacts are contextual clues to much more important psychological and social functions, as well as symbolic significance.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Art as Culture: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Art
Evelyn Payne Hatcher.
Bergin & Garvey, 1999 (2nd edition)
Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory
Alfred Gell.
Clarendon Press, 1998
To Hell with Culture, and Other Essays on Art and Society
Herbert Read.
Schocken Books, 1963
Structural Anthropology
Claude Lévi-Strauss; Claire Jacobson; Brooke Grundfest Schoepf.
Basic Books, 1963
Librarian’s tip: Part Four "Art"
The Artistic Animal: An Inquiry into the Biological Roots of Art
Alexander Alland.
Anchor Books, 1977
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Art and Society"
Art History in Africa: An Introduction to Method
J. Vansina.
Longman, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Three "Society, The Mother of Art"
Art and Agency: A Reassessment
Layton, Robert.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 9, No. 3, September 2003
Anthropology, by Comparison
Andre Gingrich; Richard G. Fox.
Routledge, 2002
Librarian’s tip: "Regional Comparison in the Anthropology of Art" begins on p. 208
Art, Artists and Society: Origins of a Modern Dilemma ; Painting in England and France, 1750-1850
Geraldine Pelles.
Prentice-Hall, 1963
The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society
Linda Nochlin.
Harper & Row, 1989
The Art of China: Spirit and Society
Werner Speiser.
Crown Publishers, 1960
Beyond Aesthetics: Art and the Technologies of Enchantment
Christopher Pinney; Nicholas Thomas.
Berg, 2001
The Material Culture Reader
Victor Buchli.
Berg, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Anthropology of Art"
Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology
Tim Ingold.
Routledge, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 23 "The Anthropology of Art"
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