Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory

Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory

Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory

Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory


Alfred Gell puts forward a new anthropological theory of visual art, seen as a form of instrumental action: the making of things as a means of influencing the thoughts and actions of others. He argues that existing anthropological and aesthetic theories take an overwhelmingly passive point of view, and questions the criteria that accord art status only to a certain class of objects and not to others. The anthropology of art is here reformulated as the anthropology of a category of action: Gell shows how art objects embody complex intentionalities and mediate social agency. He explores the psychology of patterns and perceptions, art and personhood, the control of knowledge, and the interpretation of meaning, drawing upon a diversity of artistic traditions--European, Indian, Polynesian, Melanesian, and Australian. Art and Agency was completed just before Alfred Gell's death at the age of 51 in January 1997. It embodies the intellectual bravura, lively wit, vigour, and erudition for which he was admired, and will stand as an enduring testament to one of the most gifted anthropologists of his generation.


Nicholas Thomas

Alfred Gell, who died in January 1997, was widely regarded as one of the most brilliant social anthropologists of his generation. His writing and thought were rigorously analytical, yet often also playful and provocative; he was equally deft in engaging the most general issues of social theory, and the most intricate elements of rituals, practices, and artefacts. These capacities are exemplified in this book, which may amount to the most radical rethinking of the anthropology of art since that field of inquiry emerged. The book certainly combines a good deal of abstract model-making with remarkably insightful discussions of particular art objects and art styles.

Yet, despite it being written in a lucid and direct way, it is not necessarily an easy book to grasp. It does need to be acknowledged here that, had the author lived longer, he would certainly have done further work; he indeed left notes toward revisions that he did not have the time to carry out. What we have is the full draft of a book, most of which was written over a period of only a month, not an absolutely refined version. It should be added, though, that Alfred Gell's essays and books did, for the most part, emerge well formed; he wrote with great intensity, but preferred to write when his ideas were clearly worked out, from start to finish. The book can therefore be said to approximate an intended final form, but it does lack polishing, and there are certainly forceful passages that would have been qualified, points that would have added or elaborated, and sections that would have been better integrated with the whole, had Gell had the opportunity.

What the book lacks, in particular, is a preface or introduction proper, that concisely foreshadows its overall argument. While I hesitate to summarize another scholar's book, and am frankly unsure of my capacity to do justice to the various dimensions of a complex and involved argument, I believe that this is what this foreword should attempt, in order to make the arguments that follow more accessible, particularly to readers unfamiliar with Alfred Gell's other work. This book builds on a number of essays, and anthropologists who have read 'The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology' (1992b), 'Vogel's Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps' (1996), or Gell's study of Polynesian tattooing, Wrapping in Images (1993), will anticipate the directions that it takes.

The essay on 'The Technology of Enchantment', in particular, foreshadows some of the larger arguments here. In that paper, Gell provocatively claimed that the anthropology of art had got virtually nowhere thus far, because it had failed to dissociate itself from projects of aesthetic appreciation, that are to art . . .

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