Gell’s “captivation”


One aspect of Gell’s quest to define an “anthropology of art” that was interesting to me was his concept of captivation.  Captivation perhaps may be able to answer the heavy question of “what makes art, art?”  Gell’s argument stresses that objects must have some capacity to captivate a viewer, providing “the primordial kind of artistic agency” (69), otherwise people would not waste time looking at the object/artwork.   Captivation may come in the form of awe and admiration  (over work that the viewer could not replicate, such as Gell and his inferior “Seamstress” example), or in the form of fear-induced respect.  Captivation “ensues from the spectator becoming trapped within the index because the index embodies agency which is essentially indecipherable” (71).  The idea of captivation is seen literally in the maze and pattern examples.  Gell points out that patterns are ways of decorating objects, that “decorative patterns applied to artefacts attach people to things, and to the social projects those things entail” and thus that objects may have social agency because they are decorated (74).  The Iatmul lime-containers serve as Gell’s example, that “the decoration, which is distinctive, binds the lime-container to its owner in a most intimate fashion; it is less a possession than a prosthesis, a bodily organ acquired via manufacture and exchange rather than by biological growth” (74).  Reading these sections makes me wish I had read Gell’s other work  further explaining his “technology of enchantment” theory.  I think Gell did a commendable job in trying to explain and work through why people just “like” things.  His use of captivation, I think, could work in most situations.  Even when people dislike a piece of artwork, it still has captivated them long enough to look at it and form an opinion.  An object that may not captivate one person, still may captivate another.  When objects are decorated in a fashion that captivates us, we may hold them in higher regard, allowing them greater agency.  I think Gell was on to something, but I’m still not convinced that he has found the answer of what is art and why we like some things over others.  Although he used examples from non-Western cultures, I’m still not convinced that he has examined the concept from all angles.   As an irrelevant aside, I was annoyed that Gell used the phrase “picture-restorers” when describing the conservation of the Rokeby Venus.  The correct term would be “painting conservators”.  Perhaps “picture-restorers” allowed for a better mental image when discussing the “restored Rokeby Venus”, but still…


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