As my core focus is on the anthropology of art, I have been reading Morphy and Perkins’ edited collection ‘The Anthropology of Art: A Reader’, which traces the history of this field. In particular, they attempt to redress the neglect of art by anthropologists* by proposing a theory of how art can operate within cultural systems, both locally and cross-culturally.
The separation (and reintegration) of art and anthropology
Previous decisions to separate the studies of art from anthropology came in response to earlier colonial collections, as “in the minds of [20th century] theorists the study of material culture was too closely associated with the more simplistic aspects of evolutionary theory. [However, Morphy and Perkins argue that] anthropology must re-engage with [these] methods and problems… [in order to understand] the production of art objects [as] a form of agency that arises from bodies of knowledge… The study of form [also enables] comparative and historical analysis… [which] can be central to the analysis of historical process and the dynamics of relationships between groups over time” (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, pp. 6, 17 & 18).
After neglecting the study of art in the first half of the twentieth century, theoretical developments in two areas of anthropology began to enable theorists to consider material culture objects as invoking affect and (re)producing social relations. These two areas were Symbolism – “culture viewed as a system of meaning” and Exchange – “one of the ways in which value is created.” These theories developed from the 1960s onwards, in line with a growing interest in visual anthropology, myth, religion, and ritual. (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, pp. 9-10)
Definitions of art objects
In order to produce an anthropology of art, Morphy and Perkins acknowledged that they needed to define a working definition of art objects, one which could be applied to art produced in all cultures and contexts. They decided to reference Morphy’s previous definition (Morphy, 1994, p. 655) which describes general attributes that could be used to refer to art objects: “art objects are ones with aesthetic and/or semantic attributes (but in most cases both), that are used for representational and presentational purposes.”
They also identified that art can be mapped onto both senses of the word ‘culture’ – “[whereby art represents both the] bodies of knowledge, technologies, and representational practices… of a society [and is also] the product of a particular stage of Euro-American history… [one where there is] an emphasis on the autonomy of the aesthetic experience, … individual creativity [and] innovation.” (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, p. 12)
Defining art objects through an anthropological study which includes their social, political, and economic dimensions, as well as formal and aesthetic concerns, creates a potential framework for comparing art objects cross-culturally as it “incorporates a range of thoughts and practices that employ creativity in the production of expressive culture” which aims to “overturn the essentialised uniqueness of the western category.” This strategy would therefore require art objects to be analysed on their own terms and from an understanding of their own contexts, rather than through previous art historical classifications. (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, pp. 3, 13)
As anthropology has previously been focused on the material culture of ‘small-scale’ societies, a more holistic approach would be to address practices which have been defined through an art historical tradition, which includes an understanding of how artworks and artists are defined from this perspective. (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, p. 3) Such an investigation would also explore the boundaries between cultural forms of expression through trade and exchange, incorporating tourism and other forms of globalisation. (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, p. 18)
This approach aims to express the networks and processes which produce the image of cultures, in order to avoid the more damaging aspects of appropriation which “can create a simplified, essentialized, atemporal image of a particular society which bears little relation to its recent history or contemporary existence [and belongs more] to the consuming culture rather than to the producing culture.” (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, p. 19)
* Although this was generally the case, they do mention the few social anthropologists who maintained a holistic practice in the study of material culture including Raymond Firth (1979), Melville Herskovits (1934, 1938, 1959, 1966), and Robert Redfield (1959) (Morphy and Perkins, 2005, p8)