Art and Agency -Gell


Several points that came to mind as I read Art and Agency:


  • According to Gell, the prevailing ‘aesthetic attitude’ is a Western generated and propagated historical outcome that bears no influence upon peoples who have not participated in the revelry.  He believes that the West has, “neutralized our idols by reclassifying them as art.” (Gell, 97)  He finds that the socio-cultural value that the West places on representational art can be explicated using the same theory he uses to explore idol worship in non-Western societies.  Here he equates the act of contemplating artworks museums as a form of idol-worship that he finds citations for in far-flung areas of the world, but I thought he was trying to get away from this trap of comparing ‘us’ to ‘them’, ‘high art’ and ‘primitive art.’  Further, this dichotomous trajectory is presented in an unbalanced and incomplete way as it avoids contemplating the ways in which people in different societies conceptualize what he considers ‘art’.  His account also totally obscures the role that aesthetic values play in the lives of art objects as social agents. 


  • Gell distinguishes between the two types of idols (aniconic and iconic) that perform by assuming either ambassadorial roles or gaining authority via resemblance.  The idol/art object becomes operational through a magic process that feeds off of intention and desire to act either via mimetic faculty or a contagion.  As an example, he cites volt sorcery where an image works to affect a being.  The object and the being are interconnected in an intimate way whereby manipulating the object will have an analogous effect upon the subject.  However, I have also witnessed this phenomenon in the opposite direction.  Every time I visit my father in New Mexico, he gives me holy dirt from the floor of an adobe monastery where Indians were have said to have been massacred.  This dirt is believed possess the most potent healing properties, one need only touch it to the afflicted area and it will be restored. 


  • Gell seems to draw a parallel between religion and art.  The object to him is more than itself and this in turn harkens religiosity.  I have read (and indeed myself experienced) that Rothko’s paintings are cited as an example of art that evokes intense emotive responses amongst its viewers.  But is that really a parallel to the religious experience?  Religion is a powerful answer, it is a promise, and an authority.  A work of art that makes you cry strikes me more as a question rather than an answer, a destabilizer, and a disempowering visual affront.  The shock and awe that certain works of art can cause can be related to the awesome quality that religious texts and rites can display.  Even the way in which art is displayed references the temple both in design and in way the observers gather and gaze.  Gell speaks of the capacity of art objects to captivate, that they ensnare us in a liminal state where indecipherability and wonder bind us. 


  • Art is being distributed in a similar way that Gell explains the distributed person as being.  I believe it to be distributed by things such as pop culture, events, celebrity, internet/technology…  Its likeness is reproduced and truth is not figured into the equation.  Just as the distributed person is exposed to sorcery because parts and images of you are scattered about, art is exposed in a parallel way.  “Vulnerability stems from the bare possibility of representation, which cannot be avoided.” (Gell, 103)  The questions begs, can we control our own representation?  Can art?  If it cannot be avoided, as Gell intuits, who or what has power over these representations?  Whether I like it or not, my image is used in a multiplicity of ways and the connotations and implications are far ranging (whether I know it or not).  Likewise an artistic act, like the theatrical re-enactment I mentioned last class of an attack on student protestors by the Thai military, can be used by the perpetrators (the military) against the victims (the students) to authorize further violence by construing images of the artistic attack and by channeling it through its state-controlled media outlets.  The victims did not realize that once an image is released, it is no longer exclusively in their control, and it can be used in unimaginable ways. (See Alan Klima’s, Funeral Casino for more details)


  • There is also a circuitous aspect to this sorcery, where the injured party gets injured because of what makes them who they are.  The victim is a necessary participant and becomes an objectified subject of attack.  So is the victim responsible for her own victimization?  Just because she buys into the belief system which is acting upon her?  I wonder if, for in the case of art, whether it can disentangle (and disenchant) itself with the forces responsible for its ‘distribution’ in order to protect its integrity.  And perhaps if art can truly transcend representation, its vulnerability will be hugely diminished.


  • When the agency of art changes, where does truth lie?  For Gell, agency is referred back to the subject.  He is redistributing power, pulling it from within and forcing it without.  What is the fall-out?  Does he consider where the subject starts and where the object ends?




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