Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Gell's theory of art as agency and living presence response

Subproject of "Art, Agency, and Living Presence in Early Modern Italy".

2005 - 2011
Caroline van Eck
NWO Vici NWO Vici

In this part of the programme, which deals with methodological issues involved in studying living presence response, two issues are central: 

  • in what ways can Alfred Gell’s anthropological, that is a-historical study of art’s agency be used to study the responses of people who treat works of art as living beings?
  • how can this be done in a way that is (art-)historically informed? 

Since its posthumous publication in 1998, Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency has been both hailed as a major new departure in the anthropology of art, and dismissed as a deceptively complicated jeu d’esprit, whose intricacy fascinates its readers in the same ways as the Trobriand canoe prows Gell analysed acted upon their Polynesian viewers. Most reactions to Gell’s work try to assess the significance of his work to anthropology and/or art history in general; here the merits of applying a Gellian analysis to one particular, but very widespread, variety of art acting on the viewer are considered: living presence response, in which viewers react to works of art as if they are living beings or even persons that act upon the viewer, enter into a personal relationship with them, and elicit love, hate, desire or fear.  

Art and Agency offers a new departure to study such responses because it singles out precisely that aspect of the 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. Because Gell’s is an anthropological theory of art, the stress is on the art nexus, the network of social relations in which art works are embedded; that is, on agency. 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. To understand why and how art objects exercise such influence on their viewers, Gell took art to be a special kind of technology. In an earlier article he had called them ‘devices for securing the acquiescence of individuals in the network of intentionalities in which they are enmeshed’. Technology fascinates the viewer because it is the result of barely comprehensible virtuosity that exemplifies an ideal or magical efficacy we try hard to achieve in other domains.  

Gell's main concepts are agency, index, prototype, artist and recipients. Agency is mediated by indexes, that is material objects which motivate responses, inferences or interpretations. Indexes can stand in a variety of relations with their prototypes, artists and recipients. Prototypes are the objects or persons that indexes represent or stand for, mimetically or non-mimetically, visually or non-visually. Recipients are those who are (or are intended to be) affected by the indexes. Artists are those persons considered to be the immediate cause or author of the existence and properties of the index. They may be the artists of Western art history and theory, but they can also be vehicles for the agency of others. For example, the emperor Augustus was the prototype for the index which is now known as the Prima Porta statue; the people attending a court case in a basilica where one of the many copies of this statue stood, are the recipients; its artist’s technical ability to create the illusion of lifelikeness by suggesting movement, sight and speech fills the public with awe and admiration. Agency is achieved through technical virtuosity. It can enchant the viewer: ‘The technology of enchantment is founded on the enchantment of technology’. But there are many varieties of this technique. Stylistic virtuosity, and in particular the artifice that results in vivid lifelikeness is an instance. Using Gell’s theory to configure the social networks in which art works exert this particular variety of agency is very useful to identify the actors involved, the network of relationships in which the viewer becomes enmeshed, and the effects of agency on the viewer’s behaviour or beliefs. It thus helps to integrate the analysis of living presence response in a much wider range of anthropological and psychological enquiry.  

The living presence response a work of art elicits can thus be redefined as a kind of agency. But they do not overlap entirely. I would argue that there is a defining characteristic of living presence response that is not covered by Gell’s theory: its experiential character. Art and Agency maps the ways in which indexes make viewers do things (in the widest sense of the word), and this mapping depends heavily on the cognitive psychology of Pascal Boyer. But it does not engage in much detail with the actual experience of the patients of the index. Yet is is precisely the experience of a work of art turning out to be alive, of the creeping awareness or sudden appearance of the inanimate as an animated, living being that defines living presence response, makes it  resistent to any form of scientific explanation, and at the same time profoundly unsettling. The next questions then become, what kind of experience is such experience of living presence, and how were they defined in the early modern period?

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