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Art and Transparency

Comrades! What follows is a portion of the research proposal you loving Uncle Joe is working on.  Wallow in it to your heart’s content and make sure to point out grammar and spelling mistakes.

Yours, always
Uncle Joe


Since the technological developments of Late nineteenth century, art and culture have acquired an unprecedented availability to general public. What followed this technological revolution was the gradual transformation of culture from something sacred into an ordinary marketable product. As art critics and artists alike found themselves in a state of confusion they have created new ideas for dealing with the prevalent sense of uncertainty. We have seen Tracy Emin win the Turner prize for publicly neglecting to tidy up her room. We have heard Zizek loudly proclaim fantasies about looming postmodern conspiracies. We have been taught (to the point of being drilled into our heads) that there are encrypted messages encoded in artworks that can only be extracted by following the correct methodology generously bestowed upon us by omniscient dead white men like deSausurre or Lacan.

Amidst all the commotion between the glamorous rising stars of the intellectual elite and it’s captivated audience (Dan Sperber- ‘Guru Effect’ Pascal Boyer ‘there is no such thing as sexual intercourse’) it has not occurred to many to develop a methodology that’s capable of integrating the common sense of the people who are the audience of these works of art and/or entertainment.  I believe the actor-network theory professed by Bruno Latour and it’s application to ‘Laboratory Life’ is a good start.

A reformation of the way art is studied is necessary for several reasons. An awareness of these reasons comes hand in hand with the nature of the new methodology. In the following chapters I will identify these reasons.

The first one is a re-assertion of the importance of art from an anthropological perspective, illuminated by Alfred Gell’s invitation to adopt a position of ‘methodological philistinism’ to the study of artefacts and the social network(s) they are part of.

The second is the worry that corporate executives and other agencies are already experimenting with ways of calculating audience reaction to their products. Although the perception of this development may not appear to be a danger for some, there is definitely a trend towards banality (Henry Jenkins, Guy Debord, Neil Postman, de Certeau), segregation (Bourdieu) and snobbish manipulation (Graeber)

The final reason for reforming the way we study art is a more optimistic development. Namely the recent changes in the way art is made. This part will look at the development of Read Write culture (Lawrence Lessig). The drive for changing copyright law (Richard Boyle). And the new and emerging participant activities made available by new technologies (Mimi Ito). I will also be stressing the importance of keeping a close handle on existing participant cultures (Marilyn Strathern, James Leach, Susan Küchler).

‘The Artist as Occult Technician’

In his essay Enchantment of Technology and Technology of Enchantment , Alfred Gell makes some exceptionally provocative remarks about how anthropology and arts are standing at odds against each other due to the preformed ideas western scholars of art have about their subject of study. art objects he argues, are devices ‘for securing the acquiescence of individuals in the network of intentionalities in which they are enmeshed’.

In this view Gell abandons the idea of the artist as a creative genius who possesses a power in par with God’s omniscience. He clarifies the extent to which art has a the power to mesmerize it’s viewer by suggesting that the anthropologist/sociologist studying art works needs to adopt the same stance he adopts towards religion, he calls this ‘methodological philistinism’. Alfred Gell’s controversial point opens an entirely new possibility in studying art. Nevertheless it has a slight inconsistency which will have to be mended one way or another.

Gell’s denial of the possibility of Trobriand canoe prow designs working cognitively to push their observers in a state of fear and panic (p46) is a double edged sword. One one hand it is damaging to  the prevalent sense of functionalism in structural anthropology which is admittedly a more pressing perspective from an anthropological point of view.  It basically suggests that there is no hidden language within these objects which is responsible for triggering an immediate reaction. There is no hidden structure for the anthropologist to dig up and reveal. What there is instead is a purely technical act which awes the observer through the sheer amount of work that went into it (in the case of the matchstick cathedral or photorealistic paintings), or by  the vastness of the leap it makes in creative imagination (in the case of Picasso’s statue.)

While Gell’s position stands in opposition to functionalism in the most immediate sense, it fails to avoid the epistemological pitfall. This problem is illustrated by Pascal Boyer in his Tradition as Truth and Communication. The question is thus: If we explain the creation of traditions and customs by insisting on the fact that they are time proven methods of regulating society, then how do we explain how they came to regulate society so well in first place? Where did these ideas come from before being repeated over and tested for efficacy? The question reformulates itself in relation to Gell’s suggestion as follows.  If works of art create a form of aura around them not by their aesthetic presence, but by their technical virtuosity then how do we come to spot technical virtuosity in first place?

The question may be more simple when it comes to works that strike us for the amount of labour that went into them, like the matchstick cathedral. But it gets a lot less obvious when making claims like:  ”reconstructing the processes which brought the work of art into existence, he [the spectator] is obliged to posit a creative agency which transcends his own and,  hovering in the background, the power of the collectivity on whose behalf the artist exercised his technical mastery” (p52). The activity Gell would have the spectator perform is a fundamentally cognitive one. Not in the Levi-Straussian sense that a particular pattern screaming out to the observer to avoid incest. But in a much more roundabout way, by conjuring up an image of “the collectivity on whose behalf the artist exercised his technical mastery”.

There is more to say about the more recent developments in cognitive anthropology. Particularly about theories concerning how certain ideas about can ammend Alfred Gell’s point.

2 Responses to “Art and Transparency”

  • doopa Says:

    Gotta love the jargon.

    But otherwise its an interesting read. Must follow up some of the links (well references – I was just expecting them to be links ;) ).

  • Randy Dogmaeye Says:

    Hey dude what an interesting artistic write…Interesting enough to catch my eye… I’ll come back for more debate cheers

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