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Art and Agency: an anthropological theory (Alfred Gell, 1998)  

Reading Group of the Doctoral School in Philosophy and Human Sciences



Art and Agency: an anthropological theory (Alfred Gell, 1998)

Convener: Jessica Murano


The Alfred Gell’s book Art and Agency puts forward a new anthropological theory about art and, particularly, about the responses of people who treat works of art as living beings. To study such responses it single out that aspect of interaction between works of art and their viewers that makes them similar to living beings: their agency, the power to influence their viewers, to make them act as if they are engaging not with dead matter, but with living persons.

It considers objects of art not in terms of their formal or aesthetic value or appreciation within the culture that produced them. Neither does it consider them as signs, visual codes to be deciphered or symbolic communications. Instead, Gell defined art objects in performative terms as systems of actions, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it. Art works thus considered are the equivalents of persons, more particularly social agents.

The anthropology of art is here reformulated as the anthropology of a category of action: Gell shows how art objects embody complex intentionalities and mediate social agency. He explores the psychology of patterns and perceptions, art and personhood, the control of knowledge, and the interpretation of meaning, drawing upon a diversity of artistic traditions.

The reading group will go deep inside of the main arguments stressed out by Gell, inquiring both anthropological and artistic issues.


A. Gell, The technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology, in J. Coote, A. Shelton (eds), Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics, ClaredonPress, pp. 40-66, 1992.

A. Appadurai, The Social Life of things: commodities in cultural perspective, Cambridge University press, 1986.

D. Freedberg, The power of Images, University of Chicago Press, 1989. (Introduction, chapter I, VII, XI)

L. Chua, M. Elliot (eds), Distributed Objects: meaning and mattering after Alfred Gell, Berghahn Books, 2013 (Introduction, chapter I, VIII)


[Starting from February 2016]

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