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Introduction Anthropology of Art 11/04/06 12:47

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Sun, 06 Mar 2011 15:55:42 | Anthropology of Art Nature Culture Feminist
Stephen Gudeman Economic
The texts we have included in this part are the relatively recent foundations of a
How Accurate Are
recognizable contemporary anthropology of art. We make no attempt to cover the Man Mouse Ape Water
early history of writings about non-European art, to examine the place of art in Brief history
evolutionist theories, to summarize the debates between the diffusionists and the Molecular Studies Human
Paradoxes homemaking
evolutionists, or probe the relationship between the anthropology of art and the
Other Views Jaws
culture history school or the technique and form theories of Semper (1989). A Trudy R Turner
number of these issues have indeed been addressed in our general introduction. The Life History Theory
The markedness model
essays in this part are foundational in the sense that many of the current themes
Changing perspectives on
and debates in the anthropology of art are foreshadowed in them. From the dates of Current Research on
the essays in this section the part could almost be titled the late foundations. Political Economy
Landscape material
The earliest essays are excerpts from Franz Boas's Primitive Art. This book was first
published in 1927, but was based on earlier research and writings. It is often
credited as being the most synthetic of his writings (Wax 1956). As often with his
Feminist Anthropology
work, the detailed exemplification obscures the coherent development of his
Medical Anthropology
argument. Primitive Art is interlaced with critical asides that challenge the European Peoples
presuppositions of evolutionary theorists. Boas engaged with the core arguments of Forensic Anthropology

art historians of the time concerning such issues as the relationship between designs Human Evolution
History and Anthropology
and technical processes and the relationship between geometric and figurative
General Anthropology
representations. He examined "the theory that all artistic representation is by origin Linguistic Anthropology
naturalistic and that geometricization grows up only when the artist tries to The Human Skeleton
Forensic Anthropology
introduce ideas that are not inherent in the object itself.'' He concluded that this
Forensic Anthropology
"cannot be maintained, because realistic representation and geometric Social Anthropology
representation spring from distinctive sources'' (Boas 1927:351). Boas's writing on Linguistic Anthropology
Anthropology and Ethics
art emphasized the formal, technical and aesthetic dimensions, and his work is
Health and Illness
frustrating for those who want to explore the meaning of Northwest Coast art in Economic Anthropology
context (but see the Rosman and Rubel chapter and Jonaitis chapter). Cultural Anthropology
Anthropology and
Boas's approach (ch. 1) provided a firm link with the art discourse of the 19th Human Evolution
century but at the same time made art relevant to the anthropologists who followed Philosophical
Anthropology of Japan
him by freeing it from simple deterministic theories. He inspired students such as
Culture and Anthropology
Herskovits, Mead and Kroeber to include art and aesthetics as an integral part of Social and Cultural
their data and yet also enabled anthropology to remain relevant to art-historical Anthropology of Britain
discourse though his emphasis on style. Boas was attuned to the role of individual Anthropology of Movies
creativity in art and at the same time sensitive to the role that technique and skill
Human Evolution
play in habituating artists to a particular form of bodily practice. But it is not so Psychological
much that contemporary theories are latent in Boas's work - it is more accurate to General Anthropology
Economic Anthropology
say that the range of his research topics and the questions that were left open by his
Archaeology and
open ended and somewhat atheoretical empiricism were a stimulus to the Social Organization
development of contemporary theories. Anthropology of Art
Biological Anthropology
The readings selected for this part illustrate the wide range of approaches adopted Anthropological
Social Anthropology

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Introduction Anthropology of Art 11/04/06 12:47

by anthropologists interested in art. Raymond Firth maintained a strong interest in Social Anthropology
Social Anthropology
indigenous art throughout his long life, writing on Maori and New Guinea (Firth
Social Anthropology
1936) art early on in his career and later producing more synthetic analyses (e.g. Biological Anthropology
Firth 1992). In Tikopia, Firth, an anthropologist with a great personal interest in art, Development and

found himself - ironically - working in a society with very limited plastic arts though Anthropology of Persons
Nature Of Magic
a rich heritage of music, song, poetry, and dance. However, in his analysis of
Anthropology of Politics
headrests Firth shows how aesthetic values extend beyond works of art to material Sub Racial Anthropology
culture objects in general (c.f. Coote's chapter (16)). Firth has something in common Forensic Anthropology
Anthropology Beyond
with Boas in his meticulous analysis of form and his attention to technique and
Archaelogy and
stylistic detail. Firth's is a study of quality both in terms of skill and craftsmanship Epidemiology
but also in the sense later developed by Munn (Munn 1986) using Peirce's concept of Interpretive Anthropology
Race Evolution
the qualisign. Firth connects the energy invested in the production of headrests to
The Neolithic Invasion
the structure of Tikopean society. There is almost a dialogic relationship between the Human Paleobiology
form and composition of the headrests and structural features of Tikopean gender Language and Culture
relations and social hierarchy. Law and Anthropology
Anthropology of Science
Levi-Strauss's important analysis (ch. 2) of split representation also concerns the Evolutionary Anthropology
Philosophy of
relationship between the form of art and structural features of society. The chapter
Modern Anthropology
is an exemplar of his structuralist method and from that perspective is highly Magic and Witchcraft
theoretical. Yet it also has Boasian associations. Not only does Levi-Strauss base his Names and Naming
analysis partly on Boas's Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) data, he takes up a problem of Latin American
Anthropology of Japan
interpretation highlighted by Boas and he too pays close attention to the relationship
Anthropology and Health
between technique, surface and form. But in analyzing the data he does precisely Anthropology of Landscape
what Boas avoids: he attempts to explain the representations by seeking Anthropology of American
Evolutionary Anthropology
relationships between apparently disparate kinds of data and drawing connections
Religion and Anthropology
between different levels of analysis, between the form of art objects and structural Witchcraft and Sorcery
features of society. Anthropology and Science
Bateson's chapter (4) is equally bold and fundamentally comparative in intent Visual Anthropology
though he exemplifies his argument with an analysis of a Balinese painting. Bateson Greek Anthropology
Cultural Anthropology
applies to art a model drawn from communication theory, a model connected to
Dental Anthropology
structuralism through its emphasis on underlying structures and transformation. He Anthropology and Theology
presents a theory of art that locates it as a mode of communication separate to that Kants Anthropology

of everyday language, allowing artists and their audiences to engage, often Extraordinary
Cultural Anthropology
unconsciously, with important themes that connect human beings together and with
the deep and fundamental issues of their lives. Bateson's approach to art is Pragmatic Anthropology
multilayered, focussing equally on the relationship between skill and pattern in the Democracy in Africa
Urban Anthropology
creation of aesthetic effect and on the domain of meaning. Bateson's chapter is
The Cold War
inspirational rather than being a totally convincing analysis of Balinese painting: it Biological Anthropology
poses fundamental questions about the kind of objects art objects are, and the Freedom and Anthropology
Social Anthropology
possibility of cross-cultural communication through art, and opens up avenues for
Origins of Linguistic
research. Bateson would almost certainly have appreciated Levi-Strauss's heartfelt Theological Anthropology
cry "These [comparative] studies have been jeopardized even more by intellectual
pharisees who prefer to deny obvious relationships because science does not yet
provide an adequate method for their interpretation'' (ch. 4, p. 57). Forge's writings,
though much more grounded in detailed ethnography than Bateson's analysis, cover
very much the same terrain. Forge was the first British anthropologist to focus

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Introduction Anthropology of Art 11/04/06 12:47

primarily on art. At the center of Forge's analysis of Abelam art is the relationship
between style and meaning, concepts that link his work both to interests of art
history and the symbolic anthropology of the 1960s (see e.g. Forge 1973). In contrast
to societies such as the Northwest Coast (see chapters by Rosman and Rubel (19)
and Jonaitis (20)) or the Yolngu of northern Australia (see Morphy chapter (17)) the
Abelam lack a tradition of exegesis. Forge sought the underlying meanings of
Abelam art through analyzing relationships between the formal elements and by
placing the art in its social and religious context (see also Losche 2001 for a
complementary analysis). In his chapter (6) Forge provides a rich ethnography of
the Abelam artist at work and engages with issues of individuality, stylistic
continuity, and change.

William Fagg's chapter (3) is also concerned as much with individuality as it is with
definition of stylistic areas, even though, ostensibly, the aim of the book it
introduces is to depict the typical styles of different African tribes by selecting
representative art objects. The one tribe-one style approach to African art has been
justly criticized by Kasfir (1984). However, in reading Fagg it is important to bear in
mind who his audience was. Fagg's chapter is directed against the ethnocen-trism of
European art history and the status given to the European canon. His aim was to
show the diversity of African art by representing each tribe as a potential nation
with Africa having a heritage of artistic expression every bit as complex and diverse
as that of Europe. The works selected were tokens for difference. In much of his
work Fagg was indeed concerned to emphasize the individual nature of artistic
creativity. Towards the end of his life the identification of the individual hand that
distinguished one set of Yoruba carvings from another became a major focus of his
research. However there is unquestionably a contradiction between the roles given to
tribal style and to individual creativity that remains unresolved in Fagg's writing.
While he emphasizes that the tribes have fuzzy boundaries, change over time, and
mix together at the edges, they are still there as an important framework to explain
difference. The problem is to see the patterns in art history, regional aspects to the
distribution of styles, the relationships between art forms and society, the
relationships between forms of art and temporality, without looking for a single
explanatory framework and trying to contain all variation within little typological
boxes. Style and identity, traditions of practice, forms of social organisation,
religious systems, and regimes of meaning and value, are all structuring components
of human action and it is essential that the explanation of form in art be approached
from a diversity of perspectives. Fagg is unlikely to have disagreed.

Many of the topics of the anthropology of art reflect wider debates within the
discipline and are subject to the same cumulative processes of understanding. These
include the issue of group definition, the relationship between cultural process and
individual agency, the nature of language, and the concept of structure, and so on.
Art has been a productive arena for debating these core themes but the anthropology
of art has also created its own discourse. Anthropologists writing about art have had
two quite different audiences in mind. On the one hand, they have been concerned
to challenge the presuppositions of the Western art audience for Indigenous art and
to use art as a means of extending cross-cultural discourse. On the other, they have

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Introduction Anthropology of Art 11/04/06 12:47

been concerned to demonstrate to their fellow anthropologists the validity of the

concept of art for cross-cultural analysis and the contribution its analysis can make
to anthropological research and understanding. The anthropology of art has
maintained a broadly comparative perspective, perhaps in part because the issue of
relativism versus universalism is deeply embedded in discourse over aesthetics. All
the authors in this part are concerned with the relationship between pattern, style,
structure and individual creativity; all are attuned to the analysis of form. All are
people who are passionately interested in art and are attuned to the possibility of
universals perhaps because they sense that aesthetic values are widely shared across

Boas, Franz, 1927 Primitive Art. Oslo: Instituttet for Sammenlignende

Kasfir, Sydney, 1984 One Tribe One Style? Paradigms in the Historiography of
African Art. History in Africa 9:163-193.

Losche, Diane, 2001 Anthony's Feast: the Gift in Abelam Aesthetics. Australian
Journal of Anthropology 12(2): 155-165.

Firth, Raymond, 1936 Art and Life in New Guinea. London: Studio.

Firth, Raymond, 1992 Art and Anthropology. In Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics.
Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton, eds. Pp. 15-39. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Forge, Anthony, 1973 Style and Meaning in Sepik Art. In Primitive Art and Society.
Anthony Forge ed. Pp. 169-192. London: Wenner-Gren Foundation and Oxford
University Press.

Munn, Nancy, 1986 The Fame of Gawa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Semper, Gottfried 1989 The Four Elements of Architecture & Other Essays. Harry
Mallgrave and Wolfgang Herrmann, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wax, Murray, 1956 The Limitations of Boas' Anthropology, American

Anthropologist, 58: 63-74.

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« Conclusion Primitive Art »

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