Art and Agency: A Reassessment

By Layton, Robert | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Art and Agency: A Reassessment


Layton, Robert, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Resume

Dans son livre Art and Agency, Alfred Gell presente une theorie de l'art qui ne se base ni sur l'esthetique, ni sur la communication visuelle. Il definit l'art par sa fonction distinctive dans l'etablissement de relations sociales, par "l'abduction de l'intentionnalite (agency)". Les objets d'art sont des index de l'intentionnalite de l'artiste ou du modele. Le present article analyse l'utilisation par Gell de l'intentionnalite, notamment dans le cadre de l'art rituel qui constitue un axe central de son raisonnement. En se concentrant sur l'usage par Gell du terme "index" de Peirce (dans la trichotomie index, icone, symbole), l'auteur note que l'approche de Peirce prete moins d'attention a la signification qu'au lien entre les oeuvres d'art et les objets auxquels elles font reference. Il examine ce que Peirce entendait par "abduction" et en conclut que si Gell s'en tire bien sur l'intentionnalite des objets d'art, il n'explique pas de quelle maniere distinctive ceux-ci prolongent l'intentionnalite de leur createur ou de leur utilisateur. Gell n'a pas eu le temps d'apporter des revisions detaillees a son ouvrage avant publication, et l'auteur estime que s'il avait eu davantage de temps, il en aurait peut-etre remanie certaines parties.

It is now five years since the publication of Alfred Gell's highly original, posthumous book, Art and agency (1998). Gell set out to construct a theory of art based neither on aesthetics nor on visual communication. Gell acknowledges the importance of form, balance, and rhythm at various points in his analysis, but argues that they are not to be appreciated in the detached manner implied by the term 'aesthetics'. His rejection of semiotics is more radical. Drawing on Peirce's concepts of index, icon, and symbol, Gell argues that art objects may be icons or indexes, but never symbols. Indeed, he frequently treats icon and index as synonymous. The argument is dense and ingenious, and highlights many aspects of the social role of art objects that have previously been neglected. In the end, however, I consider Gell's argument to be unsustainable. His efforts to exclude Saussurian symbolism have also been criticized by some of the contributors to a recent volume evaluating Gell's achievement (Pinney & Thomas 2001). In this article I propose to recall what Peirce, Saussure, and Mounin wrote on index, icon, sign, and symbol. Peirce and Saussure employed the terms sign and symbol in very different ways, while Mounin (1970) elaborated a theory of visual communication that acknowledged the special qualities of icons and indexes. Armed with some basic definitions, I then critically re-examine Gell's argument in Art and agency. I argue that Gell was correct to reject a specifically linguistic model for visual communication, but that he was wrong to minimize the importance of cultural convention in shaping the reception or 'reading' of art objects.

Gell's approach to the anthropology of art

Gell sets out to provide an anthropological theory of art, rather than one derived from semiotics or art history. His theory is, specifically, a theory based on British social anthropology, that is, on the study of social relationships, rather than on culture (Gell 1998: 7). There are two differences, however, between Gell's anthropology and classic Radcliffe-Brownian structural functionalism. First, the unit of analysis is not status, reproduced as a position in a social structure. Gell's focus is on the agent, and the networks of social relationships constructed through his or her agency. Secondly, ritual is not misguided behaviour that inadvertently has the effect of sustaining the social order, but behaviour to be understood in terms of the participants' own theory of agency.

Art is defined by the distinctive role it plays in advancing social relationships constructed through agency. Not all objects function as art objects. 'Agency can be ascribed to "things" without this giving rise to anything particularly recalling the production and circulation of "art"' (1998: 23).

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