A critique of Alfred Gell on Art and Agency.
Unlike Humphrey et al. I am not persuaded that this book justifies the praise they heap on it (see also Layton 2003). Like his other work the book is unquestionably written with literary panache and Gell presents his argument in a commendably forthright manner. Some might even be attracted to the fashionably difficult language. Instead of saying that viewers often draw inferences from artworks about the status, power and intentions of the people who create and display them Gell asserts that 'indexes' (i.e. artworks) 'motivate' (i.e. prompt) 'patients' (viewers) to make 'abductions' (inferences) about 'social agency'. The problem is that when the reader begins to dig beneath the surface to try to work out precisely what Gell is saying, it soon becomes apparent that all that glitters is not gold analytically, and that what he is arguing is either much less original than it first seems, ethnographically uninformed or simply incorrect. (I illustrate all of these points below.). (1)
This review is divided into two parts. In the first I summarise the main argument of each chapter in turn and comment on some of the author's more questionable assumptions and conclusions. In the second I step back from the individual chapters and comment on three of the more general issues the book raises.
'ANTHROPOLOGICAL' APPROACHES TO ART
Gell begins the book, as he did his 1992 article 'The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology', with a frontal attack on existing 'anthropological' studies of art. He argues that to the extent that earlier studies focussed on such issues as aesthetic values or the way artworks 'encode' culturally significant 'meanings', they are not so much wrong as inherently unanthropological. For Gell, an anthropological study by definition focuses on 'social relationships' (1998:4; see also p.7); in the case of anthropological studies of art this means the social contexts in which artworks are produced, circulated, and received (p.3). His particular interest in this book, he tells us, is in the way artworks mediate social agency (p.7), i.e. the way in which viewers make 'abductions' on the basis of them about the intentions of those who produce or display them. The significance of such objects in social life is that they give viewers access to other 'minds' (pp.16 etc.).
Two key terms in the analysis are 'agent' and 'patient', or 'social agent' and 'recipient' respectively. Gell presumably takes the first pair from traditional grammar where the 'agent' is the performer of an action and the 'patient' the person (or other entity) which 'suffers' or is the target of the action. An agent, Gell writes, is any 'thing' (e.g. an artwork or a person) 'who is seen as initiating causal sequences of a particular type, that is, events caused by acts of mind or will or intention.' (p. 16; see also pp.17 and 19). Again, 'Whenever an event is believed to happen because of an "intention" lodged in the person or thing which initiates the causal sequence, that is an instance of 'agency' ' (p.17). Persons are always the primary agents but artworks and other inanimate objects can be agents in a secondary or indirect sense, for although they themselves are not intentional beings they frequently act as the mediums through which people 'manifest and realize' their intentions (p.21). As such they are 'extensions' of the persons whose agency they express--part of their 'distributed' personhood (see especially Chapter 7). Agent and patient are relational concepts: for every agent there must be a patient, and vice versa (p.22).
THE ART NEXUS
Any social context in which an artwork mediates social agency constitutes what Gell calls an 'art nexus' (pp.12ff). In each nexus four 'terms' (p.27) need to be distinguished:
1. The 'index'--i.e. the artwork (or other material entity) which 'motivate[s] abductive inferences, cognitive interpretations, etc.'
2. The 'artist': the person (or other intentional being, such as a divinity) to whom is 'ascribed, by abduction, causal responsibility for the existence and characteristics of the index'
3. The patient or 'recipient': 'those in relation to whom, by abduction, indexes are considered to exert agency, or who [reciprocally] exert agency via the index' (see below); and
4. The 'prototypes': 'entities held, by abduction, to be represented in the index, often by virtue of visual resemblance, but not necessarily.'
Not unreasonably, Gell contends that any one of these 'terms' can, according to context, occupy the role of 'agent' or 'patient' in an art nexus (p.13), and the greater part of Chapters 2 to 4 is devoted to illustrating this. Here I cite one of his more straightforward illustrations, though the example is my own. In the cartoon illustrated in Fig. 1 a comfortably-off man is shown standing before a portrait and holding a glass of wine aloft, toasting the person depicted. Although the cartoon lacks a caption the fact that it appeared in the business section of a newspaper implies that the bearded look-alike in the portrait was the founder of a family business of which the spectator is a grateful beneficiary. In Gell's terms the viewer of the portrait is the patient, the painting the index, and the person depicted the prototype. In Chapter 3 Gell argues that when viewers of artworks respond primarily to what is depicted, as in the situation illustrated, rather than how it is depicted, the prototype exercises greater agency in relation to the patient than the producer of the prototype, i.e. the artist. But in situations where a viewer responds to an artwork primarily because of how it depicts something then the artist exercises greater agency than the prototype. As an example, Gell cites the well known case of Winston Churchill who so disliked the way the painter Graham Sutherland depicted him in a commissioned portrait he refused to have the painting in his house (p.34).
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Gell uses complex, scientific-looking formulate to express the way in which the different terms in an art nexus can exercise greater or lesser agency according to context (e.g. pp.52-56). In the situation depicted in the cartoon, for instance, the greater agency of the prototype in contrast to the artist could be expressed in the formula reproduced below. The extensions '-A' and '-P' signify the agent and patient roles respectively played by different terms in this art nexus.
[[[Prototype-A] [right arrow] Artist-A] [right arrow] Index-A] [right arrow] Recipient-P
If the artist, in contrast, had exercised greater agency than the prototype, this could be expressed by reversing the positions of 'Artist' and 'Prototype' in the same formula. Gell also uses 'tree' diagrams to illustrate the way the different terms in an art nexus can exercise greater or lesser agency according to context (pp.54-65). Whether these, or formulae of the kind illustrated above, actually capture the social complexities of art nexuses is something I leave to others to decide. My own view is that they do not.
VISUAL COMPLEXITY AND ORIGIN STORIES
In Chapter 5 the argument shifts from art nexuses and agent-patient relationships in general to the first of three accounts of what it is about artworks that makes them effective mediators of social agency, i.e. what it is about them that 'motivates' viewers to make abductions of agency. Gell does not say so explicitly but he implies both in this chapter and the following two that the features that make artworks effective mediators of agency are also those that give them their value aesthetically, i.e. their value as art (as sculptures, as paintings, and so on). One major problem with the book analytically, however, is that the accounts he gives in these three chapters differ in a number of ways and are not necessarily compatible. Even more surprisingly he implies, without advancing any evidence to support the claim, that what people value about artworks as art is the same cross-culturally. Nothing in fact could be further from the truth, for even a cursory survey of the ethnographic evidence will reveal that radically different criteria are used in different societies to judge quality in art. I return to this topic below.
In Chapter 5, entitled 'The origination of the Index', Gell advances the view that the aspect of artworks that enables them to act as effective mediators of social agency crossculturally is their technical complexity (p.72). Technical complexity 'captivates' viewers, 'captivation' being both the 'primary form of artistic agency' (p.69) and the primary source of aesthetic enjoyment (see also pp.78-80). The particular feature that viewers find captivating is the fact that they are unable to explain how an artwork came into being technically. This includes an inability to reconstruct mentally the sequence of physical acts that led to its creation, and the viewer's inability easily to reproduce those sequences of acts--and hence create similar objects. As Gell puts it: 'Any object that one encounters in the world invites the question 'how did this thing get to be here?' 'Encounters with the most highly regarded artworks automatically involve 'playing out their origin-stories mentally, reconstructing their histories as a sequence of actions performed by another agent (the artist), or a multitude of agents, in the instance of collective works of art such as cathedrals' (p.67). Objects that are not mystifying technically, he claims, are never valued as art 'because nobody attends to their making as a particularly salient feature of their agency' (p.68).
Gell illustrates his argument in several ways. One is by reference to the fact that be, as a Sunday painter, repeatedly tried but failed to paint after the manner of Vermeer, and in particular failed to replicate the master's dazzling visual effects. Another (p.71) relates to the allegedly mystifying complexity of the bright polychrome designs on the prows of the oceangoing canoes used in southeast New Guinea in Kula exchanges, an example he also uses in the article 'The technology of enchantment ... ' referred to above (pp.69-71). The visual complexity and brilliance of these canoe prows, Gell argues, is designed 'to captivate' (p.68) their viewers both motivationally and aesthetically and induce them against their will to hand over much more valuable exchange goods than they initially intended to offer.
In the second part of this review I comment at length on the equation Gell makes in this chapter between aesthetic power and technological complexity. The only comment I wish to make here concerns the way he handles the ethnographic evidence. The brightly painted Kula canoe prow that plays such a pivotal role both in the argument in this chapter and in the earlier article referred to--the same canoe prow in both cases (see 1998:70 and 992:Colour Plate 1)--has clearly been freshly painted and decorated. It was probably also photographed at its home port before it had ventured anywhere--let alone out on to the open sea in the course of a Kula voyage. The prow, in other words, is in pristine condition and at its most impressive 'aesthetically'. I have never sailed off the southeast coast of New Guinea but I can imagine that Kula canoes on major inter-island trading voyages frequently encounter choppy seas. If this is the case, the force of the waves breaking over their prows would undoubtedly wash much of the earth pigment off their polychrome splash-boards, and probably damage many of the other ornaments. These canoes, in other words, would arrive at their various ports of call in far from pristine condition. Gell fails to mention this fact or to consider the possibility that it is not the decorations as such that induce trading partners to part with better quality valuables than they had intended to give up but other, more obvious, factors, such as the prestige and wealth of the visitors or the size and political power of the groups to which they belong. Given his argument this is a major oversight for it means that the claims he makes for the impact of these artworks on their owners' trading partners--and indeed for art in general in this chapter--is nothing more than an hypothesis for which no concrete evidence is provided.
In Chapter 6, 'The Critique of the Index', the focus of the argument shifts to non-figurative or 'abstract' art, something which Gell equates, astonishingly naively, with non-representational art. Much non-figurative art is non-representational but in indigenous societies of the kind Gell is considering the great bulk of non-figurative art is representational. This consideration apart, Gell offers in this chapter a new argument in relation to what makes artworks effective mediators of social agency--and, by implication, valuable aesthetically. Here he argues that non-figurative motifs are effective mediators of agency not because viewers cannot reconstruct how they were made but because they form visual puzzles which cannot be deciphered easily or quickly (pp.73ff). Gell does not make the point explicitly but he appears to be implying that the more puzzling a design is visually the more highly valued it will be as art. Much of this chapter is devoted to a discussion of mazes and other complex optical forms, all of which Gell amusingly dubs 'mind-traps' (Gell 1998:80). Visually complex non-figurative forms, he argues, often also have apotropaic roles. For instance, in parts of India women place such motifs at the doors of their houses to prevent malign spirits from entering and harming the occupants. They serve as 'demon-traps' (pp.84-85) because the spirits stop at the threshold to try to decipher the designs. As interesting as the material in this chapter is ethnographically Gell fails totally to show how it is relevant to the study of art more generally. It throws no light on how people in different societies conceptualise what Gell and other analysts call 'art' or the criteria they use to judge quality in art.
In Chapter 7, 'The distributed person', the focus shifts to representational art (something which Gell naively equates with figurative imagery). Here he advances a third theory for why artworks serve as effective mediators of social agency--and, by implication, why they are valued aesthetically (e.g.p.97). For Gell, representational imagery serves as an effective mediator of social agency because the act of representation itself confers power over the entity represented (p.102)--even if this power is only imaginary. It does this by capturing part of the entity represented, notably its image or simulacrum--part of the entity's 'distributed' self--and 'binds' that part of its identity to the artwork (or other index of agency). By conferring (imaginary) power over the entity depicted the maker of the representation becomes entitled to benefits of various kinds from the entity depicted (see especially pp.102ff). Gell devotes the greater part of this chapter not to a discussion of what would normally be called 'art' but to two institutions which he believes operate according to the same representational logic. One is idol-worship, an institution which he says, with commendable candour, he would prefer to explain rather than rechristen for reasons of political correctness (p.96). The other is what he calls 'volt' sorcery. Gell defines idolatry as physical interaction with inanimate entities (such as sculptures) which represent divinities for the purpose of receiving the blessings those supernatural beings supposedly confer (p.135). In parts of South Asia, he reports, the act of making a representation of a divinity, in return for which the divinity is obliged to confer a blessing on the devotee, might consist of nothing more than forming a visual image of it, such as by laying eyes on an idol depicting it. Gell uses the term volt sorcery for the practice of harming victims from a distance by manipulating representations of them. The act of representing an intended victim 'binds' part of the target's distributed person to the index and thereby enables the sorcerer to injure or kill the victim (pp.96ff)--by inflicting injuries of the kind the sorcerer would like to see inflicted on the target of the sorcery on that part of his or her identity attached to the index.
Although Gell undertakes no analysis of the social role of art in modern Western societies he nevertheless feels able to assert that the cultural value placed on representational art in the West can be explained in the same way as idolatry (or volt sorcery). Indeed, for Gell the value that modern Westerners place on the act of contemplating artworks in galleries and museums is nothing more than a form of idol-worship strictly comparable to that found in, say, South Asia. Earlier in the book, for instance, he wrote, '[I]n the National Gallery [London], even if we do not commit full-blown idolatry, we do verge on it all the time' (p.62). In this chapter he asserts, 'We have neutralized our idols by reclassifying them as art; but we perform obeisances before them every bit as deep as those of the most committed idolater before his wooden god.' (p.97).
Gell's lengthy discussion of idol-worship in South Asia and the Pacific is certainly engaging. One of its more intriguing aspects is his account of the way representations of divinities are made to symbolise intentional beings through a contrast between their inner and outer parts, a metaphor,
in his view, for that between mind and body. But his claim that the cultural value that modern Westerners place on art, and the enjoyment they derive from contemplating it in galleries and museums, can be explained in the same way as idolatry or sorcery is not supported by any concrete evidence. If Gell seriously believed that an institution such as idol-worship provided an appropriate analytical framework for understanding the practice of gallery-going, and the value that modern Westerners place on art aesthetically, he would need to do a lot more than merely note that representational imagery is common to both institutional settings. Among other things, he would need to show that 'devotees' in both cases:
1. conceptualise the objects they contemplate, and value them culturally, in the same (or very similar) ways--i.e. that gallery-goers conceptualise 'art' in the same way as idolaters conceptualise 'idol'
2. conceptualise their emotional and other cognitive responses to representational imagery in the same way
3. conceptualise the prototypes represented by the objects they 'worship' in the same way
4. conceptualise the benefits conferred on the viewers of such objects in the same way, and
5. use the same criteria to judge the relative merits of the objects they contemplate (whatever these might be in the case of idols)
Needless to say, Gell does none of these things.
A second obvious problem with Gell's argument in this chapter is that it deals only with representational imagery. Much Western art is representational but much is not, especially the most recent. At best, therefore, his argument applies only to one form of Western art. Furthermore, his attempt to liken the practice of viewing art in Western galleries to idolatry (and sorcery) also suffers from the fact that many of the objects depicted in Western representational imagery are not animate, and hence differ radically from the sentient, intentional beings that figure in systems of idolatry and volt sorcery. Gell is faced with the problem, therefore, of explaining how inanimate entities depicted in Western art, such as landscapes and still-lifes, can be conceptualised as intentionally conferring benefits on viewers in ways that parallel the benefits that divinities confer on devotees as a consequence of being represented visually. There might be parallels between the act of contemplating an artwork in a Western gallery and idol-worship in South Asia or the Pacific, but if there are they are much too distant to be of any interest analytically.
At the conclusion of Chapter 7 Gell makes an astonishing admission and one that is actually very damaging for his argument as a whole. He states that the reason he has focused up to this point in his book exclusively on the transactional contexts in which artworks are found, and paid no attention to such topics as the meanings they might encode, is not because to do so would be unanthropological, which is what he initially argued, but because he has hitherto focussed on individual artworks, i.e. objects taken in isolation from each other ethnographically. When objects are taken in isolation, he says, the analyst 'is always going to emphasize the relational context at the expense of artistic or aesthetic form, the network of agent/patient relations 'in the vicinity' of the work of art' (p.153). But if sets of artworks become the subject of analysis, especially sets whose members are unified by a common style, other interpretive opportunities open up. One is that it allows for an investigation of the problematic concept of style. In the following chapter, accordingly, Gell turns to the problem of style. In that chapter he also addresses the question of whether the structural principles that underlie a particular art style operate in other areas of the same society, and whether art styles in this sense 'thematize and make cognitively salient' wider 'cultural parameters' (p.157; see also p.216).
Entitled 'Style and culture', Chapter 8 is divided into three parts. In the first Gell attempts to define 'style'. In the second he attempts to illustrate his understanding of this concept through an examination of Marquesan art. In the third he attempts to show that the principles that underlie the stylistic unity of Marquesan art also underlie the Marquesan status system, and that in the Marquesas, at least, the art does thematize 'essential' (p. 157) cultural parameters.
Regrettably, none of the ambitious goals that Gell sets himself in this chapter is achieved. In the first section he fails to provide a methodologically useful definition of style. The best that he can do is offer several high-level glosses of the term, such as by saying that style is the 'harmonic principle' that 'unites works of art into groups' (p.157). His failure to provide a useful definition is a consequence of the fact that he ignores virtually all of the genuinely valuable work on style that has been done in recent years by anthropologists, art historians and especially archaeologists (see, for example, the various essays in Conkey and Hastoff 1990). The only theoretical work on style he does discuss in detail is an anthropologically uninformed essay by the philosopher Wollheim (1979).
Even though he fails to provide a methodologically useful definition of style Gell nevertheless attempts to illustrate what he understands by the term in the second section through an examination of Marquesan art. The work he examines is not the entire corpus of Marquesan art (which, of course, is still being added to) but the limited set of motifs illustrated in Karl von den Steinen's three-volume The Marquesaners and their art, published in 1925. On the basis of these objects Gell contends that what gives Marquesan art its stylistic unity is the fact that each distinguishable motif (a notion he does not define) can be transformed into every other motif through one or more steps involving, at each stage, what he refers to as minimal visual changes. This process is based on what he calls the 'principle of least difference' (Gell 1998:218). More particularly, Gell argues that each motif can be transformed into every other through the application of one or more of four 'transformation' rules (p.170); these, he acknowledges, parallel those devised a generation earlier by proponents of the componential approach to the study of kinship terminologies (e.g. Lounsbury 1964).
In marked contrast to the transformation rules devised by proponents of the componential approach to kinship terminologies, which can at least be applied rigorously, Gell's rules are so vaguely formulated that there is no way of applying them consistently or in a testable way; Gell's own illustrations of how they allegedly operate are therefore ad hoc and arbitrary.
This can be illustrated with reference to what he refers to as 'rigid motions in the plane' (Gell 1998:170). Gell claims that the motif labelled A in Fig. 2 can be transformed into the one labelled B by rotating each of A's two lower limbs 90 degrees, clockwise in the case of the left leg (the figure's right) and counter-clockwise in the case of the other. These rotations illustrate what he means by minimal visual changes (p.172). But as anyone can see, motif A is not transformed into B simply by rotating its lower limbs, for (1) the two have quite different hands, (2) the features of the face are indicated differently and (3) the head in motif B has been detached from the figure's trunk. In the case of the hands, A's have no digits, but B's left hand (i.e. the figure's right) has three and the right has two separated by an unattached ovoid form. The differences in the hands also entail that the two motifs begin to take on quite different structures. A is characterised by vertical reflection symmetry--a common stylistic feature in Oceanic art--but B is not. A motif displays vertical reflection symmetry if a straight line can be drawn 'vertically' through it (i.e. parallel to its long axis) such that one half can be 'folded over' on to the other so that it coincides with it. Gell presumably considered these visual differences, other than those relating to the legs, to be irrelevant for his purpose, but he gives no reason for why they should be ignored. Such relatively minor differences, furthermore, can have a major impact on the overall style of a body of designs and can give rise to major differences between the art styles of different peoples, or of the same people at two different periods in their history. This example illustrates the way Gell tends to ignore everything that is inconvenient for his analysis and also points to the fact that his whole approach to style in this section is unsystematic and based on little more than guesswork.
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
The argument in the third section of the same chapter is no more convincing. There he claims that the principle of 'least difference' which provides the 'axis of coherence' in Marquesan art stylistically (pp.218-19) also underlies the Marquesan status system. Each person in this highly stratified society, he asserts, is separated in status from every other by one or more genealogical steps; these genealogical steps are the equivalent, in Gell's view, of the one or more minimal visual differences that distinguish different visual motifs. Because the art and the status system are structured according to the same principle, that of least difference, Marquesan art thematizes and makes cognitively salient wider cultural parameters (p. 157).
The problem with his analysis, however, is that Gell offers no coherent account of how the Marquesas status system is actually structured. What he does say, furthermore, shows that he fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between status based on genealogical position and political power. This becomes especially apparent when he tries to correlate aspects of the art with the status system. Like many others before him (e.g. Sahlins 1966; Oliver 1974; Weiner 1992) Gell mistakenly believes that political power in this and other Polynesian societies can be directly correlated with genealogical rank. In fact, social status throughout Polynesia had two quite distinct and separable aspects to it. One consisted of the ascribed status that genealogical position conferred (though this was relative and depended on group membership); the other consisted of the social prestige that people, and groups, acquired through outstanding achievements, such as success in intertribal warfare. In the Marquesas, as elsewhere in Polynesia, ascribed status based on rank and achieved prestige based on achievement were conceptualised in quite different ways: in terms of tapu, or 'contagious sacredness' as Gell himself glosses it, in the case of the former, and mana in the case of the latter. It was theoretically possible, furthermore, to have tapu (status) but no mana (prestige), and mana without tapu. Just as status and prestige were acquired in different ways they could also be lost in different ways. Prestige (mana), based on personal achievement, was lost through failure, or lack of continuing success. Status (tapu) could not be lost through lack of success in some endeavour, but it could through deliberate or accidental status-breaking of various kinds. For instance, being captured in war and made a slave stripped a man, even the highest ranking chief, of his tapu and status. A person of high status could also be 'polluted' through ritually unregulated contact with persons or objects of much lower status, especially cooked food which throughout Polynesia was regarded as the antithesis of tapu (see Bowden 1984). To protect their inherited, but vulnerable, status, therefore, people of rank, and especially men who were more tapu as a sex than women, observed numerous personal restrictions, including the manner in which they ate, where they sat, who they came into physical contact with, and how they were positioned in terms of height relative to those of lower rank (for an illustration see Smith 1989: 147). Throughout Polynesia effective political leadership was acquired and held exclusively on the basis of demonstrated personal skill in intergroup contexts, especially warfare, an activity from which women were excluded--except in the role of cheerleader or victim. Because political leadership was based on personal skill rather than rank, the most powerful political leaders--the men typically referred to as 'chiefs' (Sahlins 1966)--were not uncommonly men of low rank, even former slaves, who had risen to positions of great political power because of their ability as leaders in war. Leadership in all major ritual contexts, in contrast, was exclusively exercised by persons of high rank and tapu, the greatest authority in religious matters being held, regardless of personal ability or mana, by those at the top of the genealogical tree--provided they had not lost their status for some reason (Bowden 1979, 1984).
Gell's failure to understand that the Marquesas status system had two quite distinct parts to it is reflected in his inability to explain aspects of the art. He notes at one point (Gell 1998:202ff) that certain Marquesan utilitarian objects, such as fan handles, were ornamented with images of deities (etua) and that the elaborateness of the ornamentation varied directly with what he assumes was the political power of their owners. The most elaborately ornamented were owned by 'the most powerful chiefs and chiefesses' (p.202; my emphasis). He also notes that the motifs on these objects had apotropaic roles designed to protect their owners against status-degradation. Gell believes that the political power of the owners of these richly ornamented objects was directly correlated with the number of 'supporters" a person had. As he puts it, 'A chief's power was a function of how many supporters he had', and the 'multitudinous' images on the handles of the fans such a person owned referred 'symbolically to the salience of 'numbers' in Marquesan political life' (p.202). But the evidence does not support this interpretation. Gell himself notes that some of the most elaborately decorated fan-handles were owned by high ranking women. Following many other writers on Polynesia he refers to these women as 'chiefesses'. What Gell fails to realise, however, is that in Polynesia women formerly, whatever their rank, never exercised effective leadership in intergroup affairs and that they consequently never had 'followers' after the manner of military leaders. The women he refers to as 'chiefesses' were in fact not political or military leaders at all, but the highest ranking women genealogically in their communities, persons whose marriages were frequently of great significance in intergroup politics, and whose personal dignity and honour both reflected and redounded to the credit of the groups to which they belonged. Because Gell fails to distinguish between status based on rank and political power based on personal achievement, especially in warfare, his attempt to correlate the elaborateness with which fan handles and other utilitarian objects were decorated with apotropaic imagery and the size of a person's following in factional politics fails, for the owners of some of the most elaborately decorated of these objects never had 'followers' or led political factions.
Fortunately, a better explanation is available. On the basis of the evidence which Gell himself cites it is clear that the degree of ornamentation on such objects as fan-handles was directly correlated not with the political power of their owners but their rank genealogically defined, the most lavishly decorated being owned by the men and women of the highest rank (and status). Given that status could be lost (e.g. through enslavement) it is not surprising that the images on such objects were thought to have a protective role. Protection against the loss of status would be a matter of great concern to persons of high rank, and it would make sense for them to own such apotropaic devices. Loss of status, and hence the need for protection against it, would not have been of the same concern to people of lower rank. Not surprisingly, the utilitarian objects they owned were not as elaborately decorated with apotropaic imagery.
THE EXTENDED MIND
The concluding chapter is devoted to what Gell calls the 'extended mind'. Specifically, he argues that a collectivity of artworks unified by a common style, such as the Marquesan objects considered in the previous chapter, constitute an externalised or objectified part of their maker's mind or consciousness. 'The pith of my argument is that there is isomorphy of structure between the cognitive processes we know (from the inside) as "consciousness" and the spatio-temporal structures of distributed objects in the artefactual realm' (p.222)--such as the 'oeuvre' of a single artist or a stylistically unified body of work produced by different people from a single society.
Taking a cue from Husserl (see pp.232-42) Gell argues that subjectively experienced consciousness is composed, among other things, of 'retentions' or memories of the past, as well as 'protentions' relating to future events (p.236; the latter is misprinted in several places as 'portentions'). Retentions and protentions are not static or stable aspects of consciousness but unstable and dynamic, for they are continually being modified in the light of new experiences. Retentions are continually being modified as the events to which they relate are seen in the light of later experiences, and protentions are continually modified as the future events to which they relate become progressively nearer. Gell contends that the stylistic features that link artworks exhibiting the same style are analogous to those linking the different parts of subjectively experienced consciousness. Individual artworks, for instance, display complex retentions from (or resemblances to) earlier works composed in the same style, and equally complex protentions in relation to works created later. These complexes of stylistic inter-relationships 'recapitulate... the processes of [individual] cognition or consciousness' (p.254). Stylistically unified artworks, furthermore, constitute a 'single, coherent object distributed in space and time' and form an extended or objectified part of their creator's mind--or minds if they had multiple authors. Gell attempts to illustrate his argument through detailed discussions in turn of New Ireland malangan sculptures (pp.223-228), New Guinea Kula canoes (pp.228-32), Maori meeting houses (pp.251- 58), and the work of the 20th century French artist Marcel Duchamp (pp.242-51).
Superficially, Gell's contention that the links between the members of a set of stylistically related artworks 'recapitulate' the processes of individual consciousness is plausible. Every art historian is accustomed to documenting the complex similarities and differences that connect earlier and later works by an individual artist or those from the same period in the history of a single society. But Gell jumps from this relatively innocuous fact to a conclusion which is not entailed by it and which is in fact incorrect. He infers that the features that connect a set of stylistically unified artworks, like the retentions and protensions of individual consciousness, are necessarily 'dynamic' and 'unstable' and that analyses of those stylistic interrelationships can therefore never be absolute but are at best provisional (p.256). In the case of the work of a single artist, for instance, 'we cannot totalize [the] oeuvre as a temporal object which can be regarded sub specie aeternitatis. All we can do is compile a 'file' of different temporal perspectives on the oeuvre as a whole' (pp.241-2).
Gell's argument would have some plausibility if it applied to the work of a living artist or a society where the set of objects under discussion was periodically being added to. Then it would make sense to say that the stylistic interrelationships between the members of the set were dynamic and unstable, for later works might be created which significantly modify the analyst's interpretation of the stylistic links between them and earlier works. But when a set of objects which is closed, as in the case of the work of a deceased artist, then absolute and not just provisional interpretations of the stylistic features that connect the members of the set are possible, for no new objects are being added to the set.
It is true, of course, that even in the case of a deceased artist, his or her work is not finite or bounded since hitherto unknown works by the same person could come to light, and these potentially could lead to a re-evaluation of the stylistic links that connect the works that were already known. But this is a relatively minor point. For there is no reason why an analyst should not take the works that are known, or even a small sub-set of them, such as those produced in what might be considered the artist's mature style, and on the basis of that bounded set offer an interpretation of their stylistic interrelationships in absolute terms. This, in fact, is precisely what Gell himself does in his analysis of the Marquesan art style in Chapter 8. In that chapter he bases his analysis of the Marquesan style not on all known works but on those illustrated in Steinen's book. Furthermore, Gell does not preface his analysis in that chapter by saying that the stylistic relations between the motifs he is considering are inherently dynamic and unstable and that his analysis therefore is provisional; on the contrary, he offers an analysis of what connects these motifs stylistically in absolute terms. It is perfectly true that any interpretation of a body of empirical data, whatever the academic discipline, is always provisional in the sense that a better (e.g. more consistent or simpler) interpretation of the same body of data can always in principle be advanced; but this is not what Gell is arguing.
Art and Agency raises many other issues on which I could comment on at length if space permitted. One is the fashionable but confused notion of the 'distributed person' which Gell discusses at length in chapters 7 and 9. In this concluding section, however, 1 restrict my comments to three more general issues.
'Anthropological' studies of art
As already noted, Gell begins his book with a no-holds-barred denunciation of earlier anthropological analyses of art which focus on what he calls 'aesthetic' systems and the cultural 'meanings' that artworks supposedly encode. He denounces these not because they are illegitimate intellectually but because they are inherently unanthropological. They are unanthropological because they do not focus on the transactional contexts in which artworks occur, and in particular on the way artworks mediate social agency. If studies of symbolism and 'aesthetics' are to be undertaken at all, Gell considers, they should be carried out by art historians and 'critics' (p.2). Gell partly withdraws from this position at the end of Chapter 7 but it nevertheless remains the basic position adopted throughout the book.
No serious anthropologist would deny that artworks typically, even universally, serve as indexes of social agency. In the Sepik River society in which the present writer conducted fieldwork the members of each clan deliberately and quite consciously decorate the ceremonial buildings they own in slightly different ways from all others precisely for the purpose of distinguishing themselves as members of a distinct social group (see Bowden 1992). Furthermore, the size of these buildings and the lavishness with which they are decorated with bark paintings and polychrome sculptures are universally interpreted as indexes of the size, political strength and depth of artistic skill of the clans that own them. Entirely legitimately, Gell explores similar issues in Chapter 9 in relation to the ceremonial architecture of 19th century Maori.
But as he does so often in this book Gell starts with a valid point and draws invalid conclusions from it. In this case, he infers from the fact that artworks frequently serve as mediators of social agency that this is the primary role of art cross-culturally (see Gell 1998:251) and even the only one that should be of interest to anthropologists. But restricting anthropological analyses of art to the way objects mediate agency has the effect of radically impoverishing both art as a cultural phenomenon and the anthropology of art as an intellectual discipline. It impoverishes the anthropology of art as an intellectual discipline since it prevents anthropologists as anthropologists from exploring a whole range of other issues relating to the social role of art. These include the way artworks of all kinds give expression to the genuinely shared beliefs and values on which different societies are based --such as beliefs about how societies are structured, how people should interact with others as individuals and as members of groups, what men and women can legitimately aspire to, and how humans relate to the physical environments in which they live: plant and animal. By insisting that anthropological studies should focus exclusively on agency Gell is also preventing the discipline from solving many of the most interesting problems in the study of art cross-culturally, such as how people understand intellectual creativity, and why there are no close parallels of the modern Western concept of 'art' in the indigenous languages of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas or Oceania (e.g. Appiah 1995; Kaeppler 1989). Tellingly, Gell does not even practice what he preaches. He denounces studies of symbolism as inherently unanthropological at the beginning of the book, yet in Chapter 8 undertakes what can only be described as a classic (if flawed) symbolic analysis of a body of art. There, as noted, he attempts to show that the formal principles that underlie the stylistic unity of Marquesan visual imagery also underlie the status system, and that the art as a consequence thematizes wider Marquesan cultural parameters (Gell 1998:157).
A second major problem with the book is that it provides no coherent account of aesthetic values, i.e. the criteria people use in any society to judge quality in art. The study of aesthetic values is not a trivial or secondary matter anthropologically, as Gell implies (p.6), but is central to the study of art cross-culturally, for how the members of a society judge quality in art reflects the way they conceptualise art as a cultural phenomenon, as well as how they understand artistic creativity. Gell does not directly address the issue of aesthetic value but he does allude to it. The problem, as already noted, is that what he says is both inconsistent and, at times, astonishingly uninformed. His primary argument, outlined in Chapter 5, is that what gives artworks their value aesthetically is their technical complexity--the same feature, in his view, that makes them effective as mediators of agency. He also implies, though without providing any evidence, that aesthetic values are the same cross-culturally. Gell advanced an identical argument in his well-known 1992 article 'The technology of Enchantment ...', and that article actually provides the most memorable statement of it. There he recalls how his parents took him as an eleven year old child on his first visit to Salisbury Cathedral. He recalls being utterly captivated not by the cathedral itself but by a matchstick model of it which the church authorities had on display to advertise their restoration appeal. He reports that his strongest impression when contemplating this miracle of model-making was his total inability to understand how its maker had constructed it. Indeed, this model, rather than the cathedral, epitomised for him as a boy 'dexterity in objectified form' (Gell 1992:47).
At one level I had perfect insight into the technical problems faced by the genius who had made the model, having myself often handled matches and glue, separately and in various combinations, while remaining utterly at a loss to imagine the degree of manipulative skill and sheer patience needed to complete the final work. From a small boy's point of view this was the ultimate work of art, much more entrancing in fact than the cathedral itself, and so too, I suspect, for a significant proportion of the adult visitors as well. Here the technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology come together. The matchstick model, functioning essentially as an advertisement [for the Cathedral's Fabric Fund], is part of a technology of enchantment, but it achieves its effect via the enchantment cast by its technical means, the manner of its coming into being... (1992:47).
The fact that Gell should give such prominence in his theory of art to a childhood experience (or at least to his memory of it) is highly revealing for it suggests that despite the much greater knowledge of art he acquired as an adult, and especially as an anthropologist, he never changed his views about what gave art its aesthetic power (and hence cultural significance) from those he held as a boy. More to the point, there are two major problems with Gell's approach to aesthetic values. First, and contrary to what he assumes, aesthetic values do vary cross-culturally, and vary radically. This means that the reasons a Marquesan or a Sepik River villager will give for valuing a sculpture as a sculpture, or a painting as a painting--such as the fact that it exactly replicates an ancestral prototype--will differ from and even contradict those offered in, say, a modern Western society. Gell seems to be unaware of this, and hence of the need to explain these differences anthropologically--as they can be.
Second, even if was conceded that the most admired artworks cross-culturally are invariably objects of great technical complexity (something that is not self-evidently true: of. Anderson 1979:9-12) it does not follow that technical complexity counts, in any society, as a reason for valuing something as art. Put slightly differently, technical complexity might be a necessary condition of something being highly valued as art but there is no evidence that it ever constitutes a sufficient condition. The fact that technical complexity is not directly related to the way objects are evaluated aesthetically, in any society, needs no detailed demonstration here. One illustration of the point, however, might be given. This derives from Western art and relates to an etching entitled Head of Christ on the Sudarium (1649) by the 17th century French artist Claude Mellan (Figs 3 and 4). This work, like the artist's etchings as a whole, is famous not because it is a masterpiece aesthetically--indeed it is not--but because of the astonishing technical virtuosity the artist has displayed in creating it. The entire figure of Christ has been formed from a single spiral line which begins at the tip of the nose (see Fig. 4). Mellan's technical virtuosity was such that he was even able to use this same swelling and tapering line, broken only at the borders of the plate, to form the lettering at the bottom of the figure (see also Lambert 2001:47). According to Gell's argument, the miraculous technical virtuosity embodied in this image ought to entail that the etching is a masterpiece of art. But historians rightly do not rate it particularly highly, for like Mellan's work as a whole it lacks other features which in modern Western societies are considered more important to the way artworks are judged aesthetically. The two most important of these, of which Gell makes no mention, are a work's conceptual originality and the way a work reveals in new and penetrating ways some aspect of the world, either the physical or social world, or both (see Bowden 1999; Bowden 2002). Indeed, Mellan's work has actually been criticised for placing too great an emphasis on bravura technical skills at the expense of these other properties. In his brief entry on the artist in The Oxford Companion to Art, Harold Osborne writes:
[FIGURES 3 and 4 OMITTED]
After 12 years' training in Rome he [Mellan] won considerable popularity in Paris, particularly for his engravings of compositions after Vouet. His use of long sinuous lines with no cross-hatching gave his work at its best...great directness and clarity. Excessive skill turned much of his work into a sheer display of virtuosity, as in his Head of Christ done in one spiral line (Osborne 1978:710; my emphasis).
Definition of art
A third major shortcoming of Gell's book is that it fails to provide a coherent definition of art and hence fails to specify what the book is ostensibly about. This is a significant failing in a work that purports to offer both a theory of art and a model of how anthropological analyses of art should proceed cross-culturally. Gell was clearly well aware that he had not adequately addressed the issue of how 'art' is to be defined, for in the opening chapter he attempts to sidestep the issue by dismissing it as irrelevant methodologically (Gell 1998:7). But this strategy, to use the vernacular, is a cop-out. Gell knew it, furthermore, for immediately after brushing the issue aside he attempts to justify his indifference to how 'art' is to be defined by saying--highly misleadingly as it happens--that he will limit his discussion to objects which no-one would dispute were art, such as the Mona Lisa (p.7).
Gell also attempts to sidestep the problem of how to define 'art' by saying that this concept is only found in certain types of societies, notably those with 'institutions' such as galleries, art schools and critics; any definition, consequently, would have no value in cross-cultural research (p.12). Gell is correct when he states that the modern Western concept of art is only found in certain types of societies, notably European societies and their cultural offshoots (Appiah 1995; Kaeppler 1989). But the fact that a concept is not found universally does not mean that it has no value in cross-cultural research. If he were correct exactly the same could be said of almost all the analytical categories that anthropologists use, including 'politics', 'economics', 'religion', even 'kinship' and 'family'. Rather, the fact that terms closely parallelling art are not found in the formerly nonliterate societies which anthropologists have traditionally studied should prompt the analyst first to offer an ethnographically informed account of how the term is used in those societies in which it is found, and then offer an explanation for why close equivalents are not found in many other cultures, even when they are great art-producing societies in Western terms. If Gell had done this it would have taken him close to the heart of many of the major issues in the study of art cross-culturally.
Although Gell rejects the need to define 'art' he nevertheless reveals in passing what he believes the characteristics of artworks to be. Artworks display 'technical expertise', 'imagination of a high order', and 'exploit the intrinsic mechanisms of visual cognition with subtle psychological insight' (Gell 1998:68). This is certainly better than nothing, but unfortunately the three features he mentions are not limited to artworks and consequently do not distinguish this class of objects from a whole range of other entities, such as any well-designed product on a supermarket shelf, the best television advertisements, and any number of computer games.
Paradoxically, Gell's failure to offer a methodologically useful definition of 'art' reflects the fact that his book, despite its title, is not primarily about art at all. The primary focus of the book is indexes of agency, of which artworks are only one variety. Indeed, for Gell's purposes it is completely irrelevant whether the indexes he is discussing come under the heading of 'art' or not. The fact that his book is centrally concerned with agency rather than art is made clear in the very first chapter where Gell defines the anthropology of art as an academic discipline as the study of 'social relations in the vicinity of objects mediating social agency' (p.7; emphasis supplied). Note that he says 'objects', not 'artworks'. A few pages later he modifies this definition slightly by saying that anthropological analyses of art focus on objects which relate to social agents in 'art-like ways', or occur in 'art-like situations'. But these phrases clarify nothing, for all he means by them is that such objects 'permit ...abduction[s] of agency' (p.13)--something that is true by definition of indexes of agency of all kinds, even natural objects such as smoke that is taken as a sign of fire (p.13). Later he again modifies his definition of the anthropology of art as an intellectual discipline by stating that it deals with indexes that have been made intentionally (pp.16, 17). But this also falls to distinguish artworks from any number of other objects which are made intentionally, and potentially serve as indexes of agency, but would not be classified as 'art'. These include university examination papers, parking tickets and even the boiled eggs that Gell apparently enjoyed for breakfast and are the subject of one of his more memorable meditations (p.101).
(1.) One of the anonymous reviewers of this article suggested that criticism of Gell's book should be tempered by the fact that it was published posthumously. But this is questionable. If Gell had not wanted the manuscript published, or had not wanted it published in the form in which he left it, he would have instructed his executors accordingly. The fact that he did not, and that his executors published the book over his own name rather than that of an editor, implies that the text represents Gell's considered views on its subject-matter.
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2004|
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