Category : Learning Notes
Date : 19th May 2018




In the book “Art and Agency” (Alfred Gell, 1998), using the perspective of anthropology, Gell defined an ‘agency’ as a social activist and a ‘patient’ as an affected factor. In his point of view, the way of viewing art should not only depend on the art object. Instead, art could be viewed in an anthropological way, analysing the relationships between the agencies and the patients. Although Arthur Danto claimed in his institutional theory of art that art is determined by a group of art critics, auctioneers, collectors, theorists, etc., Gell advocated that what the theory of anthropology concerns is another matter. In his notion, art is a form of social behaviour, thus, the main structure of this is the interaction of the members in art. Gill did not oppose that social interactions would one day be developed into an art institution; he just believed that under the art institution, the more fundamental part was the social interactions between humans. In addition, the ‘artist’, the ‘index’, the ‘prototype’, and the ‘recipient’ were also defined by the author in the book. Gell considered that these were four important factors in the relationship of art, therefore, he tried to analyse and explore the relationships between every two factors. This anthropological perspective of art is similar to the theory of structuralism, which claims that the elements of human culture must be understood through their relationship with a larger overall system or structure.


In my opinion, there are many ways of viewing the art, such as from the perspectives of economics, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, psychology, science, or philosophy, and the audience could find different viewpoints and focuses of the art from all of these perspectives. From the theory of anthropology, the main focus of the art is not the object, but how people feel and response. Many culture meanings behind the object could be found out by analysing the interactions between the agency and the patient. Therefore, in order to gain an in-depth understanding of an art object, people should try to reflect the art in an anthropology way.


London Design Festival x LCF with MA Fashion Artefact graduate Jo Cope.


The political participation of art is an example of art and agency. Terms like socially engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, littoral art, interventionist art, participatory art, collaborative art, and contextual art are the forms how art participate in the public and society. Take Jo Cope’s fashion artefact works in 2017 London Design Festival as an example, he created conceptual footwear sculptures which existed in two states, as functional objects designed to fit the body and also as non-functional art installations that inspired people to think about the aesthetics and the reason to exit of the shoes. The art objects, ‘Walking in Circles’ and ‘The Language of Feet in the Walk of life’, included the physiology, brain cognition, desire, anatomical actions and many more things, which Jo Cope hoped to grab people’s attention toward fashion and the reflection of life. In this case, his artwork became an agency, and all the audience were the patient participating in the social interaction of the art.


London Design Festival x LCF with MA Fashion Artefact graduate Jo Cope.


In conclusion, from the perspective of anthropology, ‘art’ is not only about the objects, but the relationships between agency, patient, artist, index, prototype, and recipient. In other words, art includes the whole process of interaction and the political participation.








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