Anthropology Art/Aesthetics
by
Jeremy MacClancy
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0031

Introduction

The anthropology of art includes within its ambit the anthropological study of any aspect of artistic production, very broadly understood. It is primarily concerned with the diverse social dimensions of visual phenomena, as opposed to musical or literary ones: it is about visual art in particular, rather than the arts in general. However, its borders are never sharply scored, because the definition of “art,” deeply contested within Western society, remains forever open to continual reexamination when understood cross-culturally, especially in a world of accelerating change. Specific foci for the anthropology of art have developed and broadened, since the first writings on it in Victorian times: from grand evolutionary surveys to formalist analysis, to the integrative roles of art in maintaining social structure, to decorated artifacts as complex modes of communication to be decoded, and to present-day scenarios where the increasing spread of global forces pushes anthropologists of art into studying border-crossing interactions and transcultural processes. The idea of studying the artistic production of a single, isolable group of people is barely tenable today. Instead, anthropologists of art may study the collection, selling, and exhibition of ethnographica; the recontextualization of these objects in museums; or the cultural constitution of art markets, anywhere in the world. This widening of the anthropology of art has moved it much closer to the center stage of the discipline than at any period since the early 20th century. At the same time, once-clear distinctions between the anthropology of art and the history of art have become much more blurred in certain, common domains of study, such as the analysis of traditionally produced objects and the nature of a cross-cultural aesthetics. Some academics working within this general area wish to subsume the subject within the recently emerging field of visual studies. Furthermore, though productive engagements between working artists and the anthropology of art have occurred since the late 19th century, their rate has risen markedly since the 1980s, with an increasing number of contemporary artists wishing to exploit and comment on anthropological procedures. These anthropologically informed artists may be termed curators of their own anthropological museums or ethnographers of their own society. Similarly, some anthropologists in the early 21st century experiment with elements of artistic practice in their own work.

Textbooks

Until recently, the anthropology of art was a relatively small section of the discipline, and thus without sufficient market to justify a plethora of introductions. In the early 21st century there are relatively few textbooks in the anthropology of art that are not badly outdated for current readers. Layton 1991, originally published 1981, is an exception. Svašek 2007 is the leading more recent example.

  • Layton, Robert. 1991. The anthropology of art. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Though a little long in the tooth (e.g., there is nothing on globalization), still a very useful, rounded introduction, especially its critical section on structuralism and its discussion of dimensions of artistic creativity. First published in 1981 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press).

  • Svašek, Maruška. 2007. Anthropology, art and cultural production. Anthropology, Culture, and Society. London: Pluto.

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    A well-balanced, critical survey that defines art as social process. Svašek links the production and consumption of artifacts to political, religious, and cultural dynamics. She also examines the sociopolitical reasons why the boundaries between art and allied categories (e.g., craft, kitsch, pornography) are so often contested.

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