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Oceania Publications, University of Sydney

Review: A Critique of Alfred Gell on "Art and Agency" [Corrected title: A Critique of
Alfred Gell on Art and Agency]
Author(s): Ross Bowden
Review by: Ross Bowden
Source: Oceania, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Jun., 2004), pp. 309-324
Published by: Wiley on behalf of Oceania Publications, University of Sydney
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40332070
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A Critique of Alfred Gell on Art and Agency

Ross Bowden
La Trobe University


This review article examines in detail the argument in Alfred Gell's posthumously published
book Art and Agency: an anthropological theory. The 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.

Alfred Gell's posthumously published book Art and Agency: an Anthropological Theor
(1998) has achieved something of a cult status in modern anthropology. It is the work w
every anthropologist interested in art is assumed to have read, and not to cite it, and e
cially not to cite it approvingly, is regarded in some quarters as automatic grounds for c
cism. Some indication of the high regard in which the book is held is indicated by th
blurbs on the back cover. Publisher's blurbs can be expected to be complimentary but a
the writers in this case are respected anthropologists. For instance, Caroline Humphr
Reader in Asian Anthropology at Cambridge, is quoted as saying that the book 'complet
reshapes the anthropology of art', and Maurice Bloch, a professor at the London Scho
Economics, that it 'changes the very basis of the way art has been viewed in the human

ences'. The same highly flattering tone is continued in the Foreword where Nic

Thomas contends that the book 'may amount to the most radical rethinking of the ant
pology of art since that field of inquiry emerged' (Thomas 1998:ix).
Unlike Humphrey et al. I am not persuaded that this book justifies the praise they
on it (see also Layton 2003). Like his other work the book is unquestionably written w
literary panache and Gell presents his argument in a commendably forthright manner.
might even be attracted to the fashionably difficult language. Instead of saying that vie
often draw inferences from artworks about the status, power and intentions of the pe

who create and display them Gell asserts that 'indexes' (i.e. artworks) 'motivate'
prompt) 'patients' (viewers) to make 'abductions' (inferences) about 'social agency'.

problem is that when the reader begins to dig beneath the surface to try to work out pr
ly what Gell is saying, it soon becomes apparent that all that glitters is not gold analyti
and that what he is arguing is either much less original than it first seems, ethnograph
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 argumen
each chapter in turn and comment on some of the author's more questionable assump
and conclusions. In the second I step back from the individual chapters and comment
three of the more general issues the book raises.

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 o





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Critique of Alfred Gell on Art and Agency

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 'recip

respectively. Gell presumably takes the first pair from traditional grammar where t
'agent' is the performer of an action and the 'patient' the person (or other entity) w
'suffers' or is the target of the action. An agent, Gell writes, is any 'thing' (e.g. an art
or a person) 'who is seen as initiating causal sequences of a particular type, that is, ev
caused by acts of mind or will or intention.' (p. 16; see also pp.17 and 19). Again, 'Wh
er an event is believed to happen because of an "intention" lodged in the person or th

which initiates the causal sequence, that is an instance of 'agency" (p. 17). Person

always the primary agents but artworks and other inanimate objects can be agents in a
ondary or indirect sense, for although they themselves are not intentional beings they
quently act as the mediums through which people 'manifest and realize' their intenti
(p.21). As such they are 'extensions' of the persons whose agency they express - part
their 'distributed' personhood (see especially Chapter 7). Agent and patient are relatio
concepts: for every agent there must be a patient, and vice versa (p.22).

Any social context in which an artwork mediates social agency constitutes what Gell call
an 'art nexus' (pp.l2ff). 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
'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 consid
ered 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 Chap
ters 2 to 4 is devoted to illustrating this. Here I cite one of his more straightforward illustr
tions, though the example is my own. In the cartoon illustrated in Fig. 1 a comfortably-of
man is shown standing before a portrait and holding a glass of wine aloft, toasting the pe
son 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 o
a family business of which the spectator is a grateful beneficiary. In Gell's terms the viewe

of the portrait is the patient, the painting the index, and the person depicted the prototype. I

Chapter 3 Gell argues that when viewers of artworks respond primarily to what is depicte
as in the situation illustrated, rather than how it is depicted, the prototype exercises great


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Fig. 1 . Untitled cartoon by Reg Lynch, from the Melbourne newspaper The Age,
Money Managers section, 31 Aug. 2002. Reproduced with the artist's permission.
agency in relation to the patient than the producer of the prototype, i.e. the artist. But in sit-

uations 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).
Gell uses complex, scientific-looking formulae 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] - Artist-A] - Index-A] ^ 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.

In Chapter 5 the argument shifts from art nexuses and agent-patient relationships in

to the first of three accounts of what it is about artworks that makes them effective med

tors of social agency, i.e. what it is about them that 'motivates' viewers to make abdu


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Critique of Alfred Gell on Art and Agency

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 he, 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
1992: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 splashboards, 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 over-


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sight 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 espe-

cially pp.lO2ff). 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


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Critique of Alfred Gell on Art and Agency

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,

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 actua

very damaging for his argument as a whole. He states that the reason he has focused up to th
point in his book exclusively on the transactional contexts in which artworks are found,

paid no attention to such topics as the meanings they might encode, is not because to do
would be unanthropological, which is what he initially argued, but because he has hither
focussed on individual artworks, i.e. objects taken in isolation from each other ethnograp


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cally. 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.




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Critique of Alfred Gell on Art and Agency

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.
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 cogniti vely 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 differ-

ent 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


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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 activi-

ty 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 surpris-

ing 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


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Critique of Alfred Gell on Art and Agency

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 concluding chapter is devoted to what Gell calls the 'extended mind'. Specific
argues that a collectivity of artworks unified by a common style, such as the Ma
objects considered in the previous chapter, constitute an externalised or objectified
their maker's mind or consciousness. 'The pith of my argument is that there is isom
structure between the cognitive processes we know (from the inside) as "consciou
and the spatio-temporal structures of distributed objects in the artef actual realm'
such as the 'oeuvre' of a single artist or a stylistically unified body of work prod
different people from a single society.
Taking a cue from Husserl (see pp .232-42) Gell argues that subjectively exper
consciousness is composed, among other things, of 'retentions' or memories of the
well as 'protentions' relating to future events (p.236; the latter is misprinted in
places as 'portentions'). Retentions and protentions are not static or stable aspects
sciousness but unstable and dynamic, for they are continually being modified in th
new experiences. Retentions are continually being modified as the events to whic
relate are seen in the light of later experiences, and protentions are continually m
the future events to which they relate become progressively nearer. Gell contends
stylistic features that link artworks exhibiting the same style are analogous to thos
the different parts of subjectively experienced consciousness. Individual artwork
instance, display complex retentions from (or resemblances to) earlier works com
the same style, and equally complex protentions in relation to works created late
complexes of stylistic inter-relationships 'recapitulate ... the processes of [individ
nition or consciousness' (p.254). Stylistically unified artworks, furthermore, cons
'single, coherent object distributed in space and time' and form an extended or o
part of their creator's mind - or minds if they had multiple authors. Gell attempt
trate his argument through detailed discussions in turn of New Ireland malangan s

(pp.223-228), New Guinea Kula canoes (pp.228-32), Maori meeting houses (pp.

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 s
cally related artworks 'recapitulate' the processes of individual consciousness is p
Every art historian is accustomed to documenting the complex similarities and dif
that connect earlier and later works by an individual artist or those from the same
the history of a single society. But Gell jumps from this relatively innocuous fact
clusion which is not entailed by it and which is in fact incorrect. He infers that th
that connect a set of stylistically unified artworks, like the retentions and prot

individual consciousness, are necessarily 'dynamic' and 'unstable' and that an

those stylistic interrelationships can therefore never be absolute but are at best pr
(p.256). In the case of the work of a single artist, for instance, 'we cannot totalize
vre as a temporal object which can be regarded sub specie aeternitatis. All we can
compile a 'file' of different temporal perspectives on the oeuvre as a whole' (pp .24
Gell's argument would have some plausibility if it applied to the work of a livin
or a society where the set of objects under discussion was periodically being added
it would make sense to say that the stylistic interrelationships between the memb
set were dynamic and unstable, for later works might be created which significant
the analyst's interpretation of the stylistic links between them and earlier works. B
set of objects which is closed, as in the case of the work of a deceased artist, then


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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 spac
permitted. One is the fashionable but confused notion of the 'distributed person' which Ge
discusses at length in chapters 7 and 9. In this concluding section, however, I restrict m
comments to three more general issues.
4 Anthropological9 studies of art

As already noted, Gell begins his book with a no-holds-barred denunciation of earlie

anthropological analyses of art which focus on what he calls 'aesthetic' systems and the cul
tural 'meanings' that artworks supposedly encode. He denounces these not because they are
illegitimate intellectually but because they are inherently unanthropological. They are unan
thropological 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 ar
historians and 'critics' (p.2). Gell partly withdraws from this position at the end of Chapte
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 conduct
ed fieldwork the members of each clan deliberately and quite consciously decorate the cere
monial buildings they own in slightly different ways from all others precisely for the pur
pose 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 t
size, political strength and depth of artistic skill of the clans that own them. Entirely legit
mately, 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
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 restrict


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Critique of Alfred Gell on Art and Agency

ing 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).
Aesthetic values

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


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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.

Fig. 3. Claude Mellan (1598-1688), Head of Christ on the Sudarium (1649).

Engraving, 43.2 x 32.4. Courtesy of The Victoria and Albert Museum, London (cat-

alogue V&A: E.2546-1960)


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Critique of Alfred Gell on Art and Agency

Fig. 4. Claude Mellan (1598-1688), Head of Christ on the Sudarium (1649) (detail).
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;
cf. 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


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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:
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 virtuos-

ity, as in his Head of Christ done in one spiral line (Osborne 1978:710; my
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 crosscultural 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 'polities', 'economies', '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


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Critique of Alfred Gell on Art and Agency

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 fails 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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