Liberating Mimesis: Between Art and Anthropology

By Ragazzi, Rossella | Critical Arts, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Liberating Mimesis: Between Art and Anthropology


Ragazzi, Rossella, Critical Arts


The 26th to the 28th of September, 2003, stands as a seminal date for the dialogue between art and anthropology that has developed since then. At the Fieldworks conference, held at the Tate Modern, London, (somewhat) previously disparate voices were brought together in a common space--both physically and epistemologically. Though there had been previous initiatives to unite artists and anthropologists, this event is notable for the extent of the synergies that materialised between like-minded voices, eager to engage in the exploration of the intersection of art and anthropology.

The Fieldworks conference has led to several publications. Between art and anthropology, edited by Fieldworks conveners, Arnd Schneider and Chris Wright, is one such book. Schneider and Wright have since then assembled a large number of contributions reflecting on the use of anthropology and ethnographic methods by artists, and of artistic practices or investigations by anthropologists. Other important works include the previously published Contemporary art and anthropology (Schneider and Wright 2006) and, more recently, the extensive 'Anthropology and art' chapter in the Sage handbook of social anthropology (Schneider 2012). In addition to these publications, Connecting Art and Anthropology, a three-day event organised by Amanda Ravetz, that assembled curators, artists and anthropologists (many of them visual anthropologists) in Manchester, in January 2007, gave important momentum to art and anthropology, especially in its aims to explore and develop the possibilities of visual anthropology. Another example is Beyond the Text, a conference held at the University of Manchester in 2006.

Considering the strong presence of visual anthropologists in these fields, it is necessary to emphasise that anthropology has employed photography and film since their invention. Despite its specific contribution, the final page (p. 161) of Between art and anthropology discloses a discontent toward visual anthropology as it is today, problematising its obsolescence and its inability to properly institutionalise itself as a discipline. Therefore, it is imperative that we continue developing its possibilities and sensory ethnographic qualities, as they offer profound epistemological potentialities for the exploration of the human condition within these disciplines (MacDougall 2006: 3-9).

In Between art and anthropology, a notable chapter by George Marcus continues to explore the transdisciplinary potentialities of art and anthropology--a common theme he fostered in previous discussions and publications in this field. (1) Between art and anthropology, in fact, explores what can be described as the interplay between the ability of artists to produce 'an aesthetics of estrangement' from which anthropologists might learn something--if only they could temporarily suspend 'their usual practice of domesticating difference' (Taylor, p. 157). Conversely, anthropology's distinctive preoccupation and ability are to connect any individual practice to a wider social world.

Moreover, the ethical implications that anthropologists defend, and also use to legitimise their work, are not always a conditio sine qua non for artists. Art has always pushed the limits of what is acceptable in terms of moral and aesthetic values. I believe this terrain should be extensively explored. However, Between art and anthropology seems to neglect the topic of equality in terms of researcher-researched relations, although it is a consideration of immense importance in any collaborative process of knowledge production (Lassiter 2005: 46), where the aim should be the decentralisation of the ethnographic authority, toward an anthropology allowing for politics. I thus wonder whether it is an intentional tactic of the editors, as something that they thought could distract from other foci, or if it is because it is a political debate that risks accentuating difference instead of commonalities. …

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