* Both Alfred Gell and Howard Morphy have contributed influential writings on the anthropology of art. Their work deals mostly with art produced by non-Western societies (Indigenous Peoples). In the following excerpt, I summarize and respond to two quite "famous" pieces of their large corpora of writing, Gell's "The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology" (1992) and Morphy's "Art as Evidence and Art as Action" (2009). I focus on their understandings and applications of aesthetics and agency.
Gell's (1992) calls for anthropologists to reject a purely semiological or aesthetic understanding of images and objects, considering art objects as social agents in themselves able to produce and effect social relationships. While Gell does acknowledge that “we have to somehow retain the capacity of the aesthetic approach to illuminate specific objective characteristics of the art object” (p. 42), he refuses to treat the aesthetic as a communicator or driver of social consequences and instead posits that the agency of art objects is a result of the technical processes it embodies. Technical processes being all the material processes that go into art’s production. To Gell, an artwork is inherently social because it is a real thing in the world that mediates between two beings and therefore creates a social relation between them (p. 52). Howard Morphy (2009) also emphasizes the capacity of art as a form of action that shapes relationships between people, and emphasizes the potential for art to communicate values, beliefs and knowledges cross-culturally (p. 265). While Morphy agrees that it is important to distance non-Western art from the post-Enlightenment aesthetic criteria, he critiques Gell for employing too narrow an understanding of “aesthetics” (as just form of moral discourse). Morphy argues that it is the form and style of an artwork that enables them to be used to act in the world and in some cases enables agency to be attributed to them. While Gell may be too marrow in his understanding and application of aesthetics, I suggest that Morphy adopts too narrow of an understanding of agency. He seems to adopt a form of ontological agnosticism, suggesting that it is only people who “believe” that objects have agency—objects can be believed (by people) to be animate and endowed with attributes of persons as if they were persons. It must be noted that this approach ignores ontologies of peoples that allow for “other-than-human” worlds with agentive objects and materials (with agencies inherently different than human agency) that are continuously interacting and negotiating with the human world. So while Morphy argues that art and images must be understood in the context of their producing society, I would say that researchers attempting to do so must be wary of imposing their own ontological perspectives on other peoples. After all, art and culture cannot be separated from a people’s worldview.