Week 4: The Art Nexus


(Apologies for the late posting. My 5-year-old iBook decided to die on me this afternoon and took with it all of my careful reading-notes. As with Gell’s hypothetical Toyota-breakdown, “this is an act of gross treachery for which I hold [my computer] personally and morally culpable” (p. 19).)

Working through Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency (1998) this past week has left me with a wonderful sense of excitement and possibility. This is no doubt in part due to the relative novelty for me of reading rigorous anthropological theory. (I’m trained in literary studies.) But it is also that I find in Gell an amazing theoretical model for the subtle push and pull that operates within the relational networks surrounding the work of art—itself a locus for the complex interactions between (in Gell’s terms) the artist, the work’s recipients, and the prototypes it “represents.” Whatever criticisms we might level against the nuts-and-bolts of Gell’s theoretical framework, it is clear that his work poses a formidable challenge to anthropologists and art historians alike. By focusing on the agency of art objects (indexes) within networks of culturally specific social relations, Gell creates a space for explorative research that is no longer limited by institutional definitions of what art is (and is not) and generations of Western art theory focused on questions of representation and meaning—which, when applied to so-called “ethnographic” art, are at best artificial impositions. Asking not what art ‘means’ but what it ‘does’ in a substantive social context is a truly exciting project.

With such a complex and substantial work on our hands, I am having a bit of trouble formulating any productive ideas or critiques for our in-class discussion. So instead maybe I’ll just pose a question. Perhaps it is due to my specific academic training, but I was distracted throughout Gell’s work by his apparent lack of historicization. The art-objects he uses as examples range wildly across historical periods (in addition to the obvious diversity of cultural contexts). And while it is perhaps unfair to demand historical specificity in a clearly abstract theoretical work that claims a certain broad applicability, I would like to ask how we might understand the historical dimension of the ‘theory of the art nexus’: both in terms of (1) how Gell’s theory responds to clear historical changes in art production, reception, and circulation, and (2) the historically situated intervention of Gell’s theory itself within academic debates of the 1980s and 90s. The second part of the question goes back to our introductory readings and is something I hope to get a better grasp of over the course of the semester. The first part is something we might think about when going into the details of Gell’s book in class.

Perhaps one preliminary way of answering this question is that Gell’s theory of art leaves open a space for historical contingency. Instead of defining art in aesthetic or semiotic terms, he writes: “The art object is whatever is inserted into the ‘slot’ provided for art objects in the system of terms and relations envisaged in the theory. Nothing is decidable in advance about the nature of this object, because the theory is premised on the idea that the nature of the art object is a function of the social-relational matrix in which it is embedded” (p. 7). Implicit in this statement is that we cannot simply insert some arbitrary object into Gell’s theory, but that built-in selection criteria determine which objects are substantially related to the “social-relational matrix” of the art nexus. The historical dimension of Gell’s theory would then be that different types of objects become more strongly enmeshed in social relations at different historical moments. And that these objects are the most rewarding and productive to study through Gell’s theoretical framework. An important point, I think, for ‘thing theorists’ looking for ‘things’ to study.


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