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Art, Material Culture, Visual Culture, or Something Else

‘Art’ in Archaeology and Anthropology: An Overview of
the Concept

John Robb

The concept of art has proved controversial in archaeology and anthropology. Many feel that
the concept, developed to fit high art in modern Western society, is inappropriate for objects
made for other uses, in other times, or in other cultures. Yet there is no widely agreed critique
or alternative concept. This introduction reviews responses to this dilemma, ranging from
using the concept uncritically, using the term ‘art’ simply as an archaeological convenience
to refer to things such as petroglyphs and figurines, and treating art simply as material
culture. It then explores the recent concepts of art as affective material culture, as socially
defined networks, and as locally defined aesthetic action. Finally, it raises the possibility
that art is our local category of the kind of powerful objects found in many cultures.

Introduction to understand something like European Neolithic fig-

urines as akin to a medical technology than to Michel-
‘Art’ is universal and straightforward to define—or is angelo’s David.
it? In the popular understanding of the term, skilled Archaeologists and anthropologists have long
and sensitive artists produce things such as paint- been aware of the mismatch between a modern West-
ings and sculptures which communicate their insights ern definition of art and how to understand objects
to viewers. An oil painting on a gallery wall thus from other cultures. The traditional critique revolved
clearly qualifies as ‘art’. But what of a skilfully cre- around the idea that ‘art’ is concerned with aesthetic
ated, meaning-laden magazine photograph, a cereal value and beauty, but these vary between cultures; if
box, or even a well-decorated cake? Defining art be- beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how can we judge
comes even more problematic when we deal with an- art cross-culturally? Moreover, ‘art’ implies a particu-
cient objects. We are happy to consider pictures and lar social configuration, with artists, patrons and con-
modelled objects from ancient or ethnographic con- sumers interacting in contexts of aesthetic consump-
texts as ‘art’ when they look similar enough to our tion and connoisseurship; none of this applies to most
own objets d’art—the Lascaux Cave painted horses, for figured objects in our own culture (advertising im-
example, or Pueblo pottery. But often they do not. To agery, for instance), much less to contexts of mak-
take one obvious point, a lot of ethnographic and pre- ing and use in other cultures. Thus, art historians
historic ‘art’ is unornamented, frightening, hideous, have struggled to integrate non-Western art into their
or at least patently unconcerned with aesthetic ap- their canon and criticism (Elkins 2002). On their side,
peal or beauty as we know it. Likewise, a lot of an- for most of the twentieth century, with few excep-
cient ‘art’ was meant to be used practically rather than tions (Forge 1973), anthropologists ignored the con-
viewed in the reverential, sometimes moonstruck way cept of art. Instead, they preferred to talk about ‘craft’,
our museum objects are. It is probably more accurate which avoided assumptions of authorship and value,

Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27:4, 587–597 

C 2017 McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research


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John Robb

or they analysed art simply as expressive material cul- our imagination. The term is widely critiqued, but
ture to elicit culture-specific cognitive patterns (Lay- it is also widely used, partly because the public and
ton 1991). This distrust of the concept of art persists institutions we deal with understand it and are at-
(Morphy & Perkins 2006). Indeed, most anthropolog- tracted to it and partly because we have no very clear
ical discussion of art in recent decades concerns pre- alternative. Beneath the surface, several theoretical
cisely this mismatch, in exploring how things such as paradigms bubble away actively, offering stimulating
Melanesian carvings or Australian aboriginal paint- potential alternatives; but none has been widely pro-
ings cross cultural boundaries to become commod- mulgated as a replacement term. Rather like a combi-
ified as art (Küchler 2002; Myers 2002). Archaeolo- nation compost heap and kitchen garden, it is a bewil-
gists have been similarly ambivalent about the con- dering but fertile conceptual mess.
cept. The term is commonly used in archaeology as a The purpose of this introductory overview is to
rubric for cave paintings, petroglyphs, figurines and explore the conceptual geography of the various pos-
similar objects. When we use the term in this way, it sible positions on the issue, and to suggest some ways
is usually acknowledged explicitly or implicitly that forward. It does not attempt to grapple with art the-
most of what we call ‘art’ archaeologically should not ory and art history, as they provide often rich the-
be understood as art in a modern sense. The term still oretical insight into things generally acknowledged
carries an aura of value, however, gilding these ob- as art—paintings, sculpture, music, dance and so on,
jects with a sense of specialness, and archaeologists made by specialists within Western culture in the last
sometimes play the ‘art’ card for all it is worth, claim- few centuries. Rather, I am principally concerned with
ing that Palaeolithic people painting caves were Ice things beyond the margins of this world—the extent
Age Picassos in order to lure grant funding or public to which both the conventional definition of art and
interest. art theorists’ critical views on it can help us make
Since 1990, the situation has evolved signifi- sense of things made outside Western culture and be-
cantly. Anthropologists have claimed that some con- fore modern times.
cept of art is applicable, and indeed necessary, to un- As a large part of the confusion derives from
derstand objects made by people in other cultures using one term, ‘art’, to refer to three quite distinct
(Morphy & Perkins 2006). The theoretical resurgence things, different typefaces are used here in an attempt
has been spearheaded by Gell’s work on art as mate- to maintain clarity:
rial culture (Gell 1998) and several authors’ work on
(a) As a general concept under discussion, ‘art’ will
cross-cultural concepts of aesthetics (Coote & Shelton
be written in a normal font;
1992; Heyd 2012; Morphy 1992). Meanwhile, a sub-
stantial body of material culture theory has emerged
which may help us to understand complex, figured
or highly valued objects. Can material culture theory
help us to understand art? Or does this theory ob-
(c) to connote an archaeological category of
viate the need for a concept of art? A third develop-
material, usually representational objects
ment is visual culture studies (Belting 2011; Berger
such as figurines, paintings, etc., ‘art’ will
1972; Mitchell 2006) which argues that the act of see-
be written like this.
ing is culturally and historically specific, not univer-
sal; people and images interact in ways unique to a Using jarring typefaces in this way is visually annoy-
historical context and which reproduce specific so- ing, but it reminds us to keep distinct the quite sepa-
cial orders. These theories clearly have much poten- rate usages of what is confusingly a single term.
tial relevance to the question of art in other cultures.
Finally, archaeologists have not been idle. While some Defining ‘art’ in anthropology and archaeology:
archaeologists have been exploring a range of anthro- two conventional non-answers
pological models (see papers in this section; Cochrane
& Jones 2012; Garrow & Gosden 2012), others have In what senses is the term ‘art’ used in archaeology
been developing understandings of art growing out of and anthropology? We can begin by briefly discussing
specific historical traditions, particularly Australian two commonly encountered non-answers which con-
aboriginal art and South African hunter-gatherer fuse rather than help our understanding.
To summarize the situation, we have a tradi- ‘ART’ in the traditional Western sense
tional, common-sense, definition of art, which exerts The first non-answer is simply to invoke our tradi-
an inescapable, distorting black-hole-like effect upon tional definition of art uncritically. In common usage,


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‘Art’ in Archaeology and Anthropology

ART refers to an expressive medium whose goal is volves identifying or creating individual authors for
to convey the artist’s values and meanings; it is made objects (sometimes imposing an inappropriate con-
by an artist, displays individual skill and perception, cept of individual authorship itself), developing con-
and is meant for aesthetic consumption (for instance, texts of valuation and consumption and discourses of
by viewing or listening in particular venues such as connoisseurship, and finding or inventing explicit ex-
museums or public places). ART in this sense forms egeses of the object’s ‘meaning’.
a genre of high culture; appreciation requires viewers Underlying the conventional definition of ART
to have training and confers distinction upon them. is a representational paradigm of meaning: the mean-
Even when dealing with deeply prehistoric material ing of an artwork is the message, value or insight
from an alien culture world, the term ART is often the author intends to convey. This follows the Saus-
used to imply that these objects somehow give a priv- surean model of the sign (which in turn formalizes a
ileged window into fundamental human values. common-sense matter–mind dichotomy): the art ob-
‘ART’ in this sense is a magical term, which val- ject is a material signifier and the meaning is what
orizes an object and makes it special. This is appar- it signifies conceptually. Where we know the sub-
ent in contemporary culture when something such ject of the work (as in an Impressionist painting of a
as an advertising poster or a handmade basket is re- haystack), the meaning is accessed through commen-
classified as ART, transforming both its market value tary on the skill and style of expression; where we
and how people engage with it. It is also clear in the do not, the starting point is some indication of what
amount of boundary maintenance the term attracts the object represents. In the most reductionistic sense,
(for instance, in insistence that we define distinctions the meaning becomes the label next to the painting or
between ‘fine art’ and ‘commercial art’ or ‘craft’, or sculpture, something museum visitors turn to imme-
in arguments over whether a particular borderline diately and instinctively before reacting to a work. The
instance ‘is ART’ or is not); clearly this is an acco- biggest problem with this is simply that many objects
lade to bestow restrictedly, lest its value become di- we apply this definition to were not intended to be un-
luted. Within archaeology, calling something ART in derstood in this way. To take an example, a ‘world art’
this sense may be done naively, or sometimes meretri- museum may juxtapose Cubist paintings or Expres-
ciously; it casts an aura over sometimes crude images sionist sculptures with ritual masks from Melanesia
and blobby figurines to bewitch readers, museum- and prehistoric figurines from Greece, implicitly as-
goers, funding agencies and, quite often, ourselves. serting that they are the same kind of thing to be inter-
The most conceptually justified usage is when the preted in the same way. Yet while we may not know
term is used with explicit intention to highlight pre- what a prehistoric figurine was used for, we can be
sumably universal human attributes—most notably, fairly sure it was not intended to be passed around
the cognitive capability for symbolic representation amidst a critical discussion of the author’s vision of
evident for the first time in Palaeolithic imagery. the human condition; the ritual mask, like most fig-
As an anthropological term of analysis, ART in ured objects in the world, was principally intended
the conventional sense quickly encounters limits and to do something rather than mean something, and la-
problems. The usage does not apply well to most im- belling it an ‘ancestral figure’ or a ‘spirit’ does not re-
agery or figured material culture in our own society, ally help us to understand how it worked socially or
which nevertheless can be made with great skill, be why it held compelling affective power. Trying to as-
laden with meanings and have socially compelling similate such objects into our category of ART sim-
roles and effects. It thus excludes much material of in- ply forces us into interpretive contortions, and treat-
terest, and the distinction between art and non-art be- ing material things merely as representations loses a
comes difficult to maintain with any rigour. The usage lot of what made these powerful objects powerful.
fares even worse when applied to objects from non-
Western and non-modern societies. This is tacitly ac- ‘art plus disclaimer’
knowledged in the extensive work that must be per- Among archaeologists, the most common use of the
formed to transform an object from such a context—a term ‘art’ is what we might call ‘art plus disclaimer’.
tribal carving, for instance, or an altarpiece removed This consists of acknowledging explicitly or implic-
from a medieval church—into ART. This collective itly that our modern usage of ART does not fit objects
project of making something which originally is not from ancient contexts, but then using the term any-
art into ART is carried out by an ensemble of critics, way, in the sense of art, to refer to representational
patrons, connoisseurs, academics and the art market, objects such as figurines, statues, cave paintings, rock
and occurs with predictably regularity with indige- art and so on. We justify this on the grounds that (a)
nous and pre-modern ART around the world. It in- such things are representational objects, which makes


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John Robb

them generically akin to modern artworks if we as- evant to answering other questions. They lose any
sume that all representations share in some universal sense of the material the object is made of, its architec-
characteristics of imagery such as meaning; and (b) tural or landscape setting, the signs of production, us-
we need some rubric for archaeological discussions of age, and biography, and often even its scale. By effec-
these things and no useful alternative is available. The tively de-materializing art and reducing it to a cogni-
result is a specifically archaeological usage: ‘art? yes, tive representation, disciplinary practices prevent us
I know they were not really ART, but I have to call from understanding how it was made and how peo-
them something.’ ple actually interacted with it. To the extent that black-
The ‘art plus disclaimer’ strategy is a traditional and-white line drawings are the industry standard for
tactic, encoded in phrases such as ‘prehistoric art’ and publishing things such as catalogues of archaeologi-
‘rock art’. Like it or not, it may be forced upon us dis- cal art, they recursively channel us unthinkingly back
ciplinarily by publication editors, reviewers and read- into investigating representation and meaning, while
ers, museum curators and the institutions they medi- actually precluding us from answering other ques-
ate, and funding bodies, and by the need to commu- tions.
nicate with a public which thinks in such terms. The
real problem with this approach is that the term art A partial answer: ‘It’s not “art”, it’s just material
carries a heavy load of conceptual baggage derived culture’
from ART. Epistemologically, theoretical categoriza-
tions are interdependent with the practices used to Alternatively, we could bypass the issue entirely,
create data, and use of a term inevitably structures avoiding the term and concept of art and simply treat-
how we think. Although many archaeologists are crit- ing the objects as material culture like any other mate-
ically aware of the term’s baggage, it is hard, perhaps rial culture. This approach is not commonly employed
impossible, to use the term without invoking the un- for figurines and visual imagery, except in specifically
spoken concept and its valorization. This is clear in technological analyses of their material and châine
the resistance one meets if one suggests recategoriz- opératoire; it is more common for things such as dec-
ing rock art as ‘technology’, figurines as ‘toys’, or me- orated pottery and metalwork. A theoretical patron
galithic art as ‘interior décor’. Evidently, we still think saint could perhaps be found in Gell (1992; 1998),
that the term ‘art’ adds something special to the ob- whose explicitly ‘philistine’ approach to art attempts
jects. Moreover, the art-historical concept of ART con- to circumvent discourses of meaning and authorship;
tinues to structure archaeological analysis of art in indeed, Gell treats art simply as a specialized form of
subtle, disciplinarily normalized ways. Most funda- material culture. As Gell intended, this may be a use-
mentally, once we designate something as ‘art’, we ful theoretical shock therapy, as much art theory still
are predisposed to think that the goal of interpreta- reflects the underlying shape of the historic Western
tion is to elicit its discursive meaning. Indeed, many concept of ART even while critiquing it.
discussions of archaeological art simply assume un- But treating art as material culture seems neces-
questioningly that this is so. This in turn channels sary, but not sufficient. Art objects are material cul-
the subsequent process of data creation and analy- ture, and we can and should analyse them as such,
sis down different routes than we would follow if not only technologically, but in terms of their social
we categorized the same objects by any other term functionality (see below). Moreover, even in a soci-
(such as ‘technology’, ‘toys’, ‘decoration’, ‘furnish- ety with active institutions dedicated to policing art
ings’ or something else). The effect works through dis- as a social and commercial phenomenon, it is both
ciplinary practices such as how data are created and impossible and unnecessary to establish a clear bor-
published. For example, for almost any body of ar- der between art and material culture in general; this
chaeological art, there is a strong publication bias can only be even more so in societies without a his-
in favour of overtly representational imagery as op- torically inherited concept of ART. But dissolving the
posed to ‘abstract’ or ‘decorative’ images. Something category of art into material culture loses one impor-
that looks like a narrative picture to us has a much tant insight. Material culture performs many differ-
greater chance of winding up in print than enigmatic ent functions. If a form of material culture performs
geometric glyphs. Similarly, if the goal of analysis is to a specific social function, its characteristics will re-
decode a representation and interpret its iconographic flect the requirements of that function. Whether or not
meaning, the first question is ‘what is it a picture of?’ we choose to use the term ‘art’, it is clearly useful to
and a simplified black-and-white line drawing is of- be able to highlight kinds of objects used in partic-
ten the best way to answer this. But such images fil- ular contexts or roles, rather than losing them all in
ter out most other information, which might be rel- an undifferentiated heap of material culture. Hence


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‘Art’ in Archaeology and Anthropology

we can certainly analyse art objects as material cul- acts: designating, categorizing, transforming and so
ture, but hopefully that theorization will include some on. Thus, there is a great variety of modelled, figured,
further specification of what their particular social designed, coloured and textured objects in our own
functionality is and how it relates to their observable society, from sculptures and paintings to brand logos,
characteristics. religious icons, shop mannequins, commercial pack-
aging, light switches, etc.; this reflects the great vari-
Defining art: three current theoretical perspectives ety of social tasks to be done. These objects help trig-
ger emotions, presence beings, create appropriate set-
These non-answers and partial answers encapsulate tings for particular social actions, reassure people, up-
much archaeological use of the term ‘art’, but there set them and so on.
is a much richer theoretical literature on the topic in This perspective helps us to pose several impor-
archaeology, anthropology and other fields. Writings tant questions about an object:
on the topic do not fall into a neat typology either dis- • What social project does an object form part of?
ciplinarily or conceptually, but they can be grouped • What effect is the object supposed to have on the
loosely around three quite distinct questions: user?
1. What is the particular social functionality of an ob- • And, critically, how do its material and design fea-
ject, and how does it accomplish it? tures allow it to do it?
2. What social projects and networks call these objects For affective material culture, some of these fea-
into being? tures are relatively obvious: size and visibility, audi-
3. How do art objects form part of a broader system bility, haptic and other sensory qualities, costliness
of visual culture or aesthetic action? and use of restricted materials, ostentatious skill or
technical achievement. They may have subtler psy-
How does an art object work? Affective material culture chological effects as well (for instance, scaling up or
and social functionality down to manipulate a sense of time: Bailey 2005).
In Art and Agency (1998), Alfred Gell proposed a Other features will relate to semantic or rhetorical
straightforward, powerful way of understanding art needs, expressed through motifs, colours, textures,
as a social technology. In brief, Gell argued that soci- designs or style (a neutral white background is reas-
ety runs on emotions such as solidarity, trust, comfort, suring in a medical setting; a shop mannequin has a
fear, anger, recognition, curiosity and disorientation, blurred or generic face to allow viewers to interpo-
which bind people together into networks of com- late their own identity or narrative). Moreover, spe-
mon sentiment and action. But emotions, responses cific forms of design may impose specific cognitive re-
and actions are anything but spontaneous, individ- quirements upon users (for instance, ‘perfect’ objects
ual psychological effusions; they are routinized and such as polished stone axes can be assessed as flawless
engineered, often by cues and prompts built into our or especially valuable by casual observers at a glance,
material settings. In Gell’s definition, ‘art’ is a spe- while ‘involved’ objects such as ornate pottery require
cialized form of material culture or technology whose the viewer to refer to layered semantic contexts: Robb
particular purpose is to provoke a socially desired 2015b). As this implies, expressive material culture of-
response. Art acts upon people. Thus, in one clas- ten incorporates internal cues and standards which
sic Gellian example, a decorated object is often dec- guide the viewer/user in how to interpret it; these
orated, not simply to make it attractive, nor to ex- form a visual language or visual culture whose cumu-
press representationally the values or meanings in- lative effect may be to inculcate interpretive reflexes in
tended by the artist (neither view would account for the subjects making and using it; pictures also teach
inexplicable commonness of polka dots and stripes in us how to see. In a form of reverse-engineering, by
the world!). Instead, the decoration helps the object analysing patterning in art objects, we may be able
to accomplish its psychological functionality, for in- to understand these social purposes and reflexes. This
stance reassuring users, or making a context or object perspective has recently been used to interpret ‘Celtic’
feel familiar. Other objects, such as the prowboards art designs (Garrow & Gosden 2012) as well as macro-
of Trobriand kula trading canoes, may be intended trends in prehistoric art genres (Robb 2015a). In the
to threaten or frighten the viewer. In another Gellian papers below, Creese and DeMarrais put a strong Gel-
example, a ‘technology of enchantment’ is an object lian emphasis on investigating how things such as Iro-
whose design, material, or technological sophistica- quoian pipes and Andean geometrically designs act
tion is intended to provoke feelings of awe or daz- efficaciously.
zlement in the viewer. Art in Gell’s sense also en- In the first instance, this perspective gives us
compasses things which accomplish material speech a powerful approach for analysing specific objects,


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John Robb

typically finished objects in use. It helps us investigate cal material from its context in the past and repurpose
what art does rather than what it means, and how art it as a resource in the present.
is efficacious. Used narrowly in this way, it takes for This perspective poses important analytical
granted the broader social system in which the social questions:
tasks arise and the systems of aesthetic reflexes which • What networks generate the social need for art?
art objects harness to do these tasks.1 We turn to these Why is the project calling art into existence defined
next. as it is?
• Who is involved with creating art objects? How do
Art, sociologically: institutions and conventions, or the their relations influence its form and products?
frame is what makes it art • How are materials and resources mobilized? How
The pop artist Andy Warhol once made perfect repli- do these intervene in the production process?
cas of cardboard boxes of Brillo soap pads for an art To take an example, at a modern art pottery
exhibition; then, when asked to stage a subsequent ex- show, the ceramics on display are extremely varied;
hibition at short notice, he simply bought some gen- no two potters make the same kind of wares. This
uine boxes from the Brillo company and put them on stylistic heterogeneity cannot be explained by taught
display. Warhol’s point, of course, was to poke fun traditions or different aesthetic backgrounds, nor by
ironically at the art world, which lionized the artist- the social functionality of the objects (as in the preced-
as-creative-genius. The Brillo boxes argue that it is ing approach); they all have more or less the same job,
not the object itself, or any remarkable perception or to be objets d’art. Instead, underlying economic and so-
skill bestowed upon it by the artist, which constitutes cial nature of the ‘art production system’ generates the
ART; it is the act of being put on display in a gallery. diversity. Both to maintain their distance from ‘craft’
Effectively, if we put a picture on a cereal box, it is not and to define themselves as artists in relation to the
art, but advertising, with the mundane practical goal market, potters are taught to ‘find their own voice’
of helping sell the cereal; if we frame the same pic- and develop a visually distinctive style.
ture, put it on a wall, attribute it to an author and criti- What can be generalized from the sociological
cally discuss its meaning or aesthetic value, it becomes approach to help us understand cultures without
ART. In a sociological perspective, art objects are thus ART? One key point is simply that different cultures
any objects which are treated as art within the institu- engage with material culture differently (for instance,
tions of the ‘art world’, a heterogeneous network of Küchler 2002). Beyond this, it shows how art, whether
artists, patrons, critics, audiences, technicians, suppli- ours or other people’s, is produced within specific
ers of materials and others (Becker 1984). social networks and contexts; one important goal of
Warhol’s ironic approach mirrors that often the archaeology and anthropology of art is to trace
adopted by sociologists and anthropologists of art, its characteristics to features of these networks and
in which ART is taken to be a conventionally de- contexts, as in the art pottery example above. Sim-
fined genre of modern Western high culture, and the ilarly, Nowell’s paper below maps out some direc-
goal of analysis is to understand how it behaves as tions in which Palaeolithic art has to be understood in
such. Such an approach has clear affinities on one terms of the system of relationships and communities
hand with Bourdieu’s work on ART as cultural capi- generating it. However, we can go beyond this rela-
tal (Bourdieu 1984) and on the other with Actor Net- tively straightforward inference. This approach sug-
work Theory (Latour 2005). The latter, for instance, gests that an understanding of art as a mode of ma-
would see ART as the product, not of individual terial culture is one of the defining characteristics of
creators, but of a heterogeneous network of human these shared contexts of production and use; you can-
and non-human actants, including people of various not have an ‘art world’ without a shared understand-
kinds (artists, producers, audiences), places (studios, ing of what ART is. Generalizing from this, other
galleries) and materials and technologies (canvases, societies may have their own specific forms of pro-
frames, paint, media for diffusing imagery). This is es- duction which are regarded as inherently valuable,
sentially a constructivist approach to art; the assump- powerful or essential to constituting particular con-
tion is that any kind of object or performance will texts or realms of value; the most common form is
work equally well as ART, provided it is institution- probably sacred or cosmologically powerful objects:
ally construed as such, or, perhaps, conforms to some Miller’s paper below highlights this powerfully for
straightforward criteria such as scarcity, expense, or the ancient Maya. In the papers below, Zedeño, Creese
affording scope for distinction. Bailey’s paper below, and DeMarrais all underline in their own way that in-
in fact, builds upon this constructivism, arguing that digenous productions were situated in local ontolo-
archaeologists should feel free to liberate archaeologi- gies, not in universal categories. If this is so, we should


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‘Art’ in Archaeology and Anthropology

perhaps not assimilate other peoples’ powerful ob- provides a theoretical charter for an archaeology of
jects to our concept of ART; instead, our concept of aesthetic action and Wells provides a well-crafted, un-
ART may be best seen as a local form of a more gen- usually clear example, that of Iron Age European vi-
eral category of locally defined powerful objects. sual response. Fundamentally, such theories discuss
the elemental qualities of material meaning—why a
How can art work? Art as aesthetic action and visual movement or gesture or sound has potential to signify
culture something to an appropriate audience. This significa-
One of the hardest things to ‘get’ is the art and mu- tion is not really at a representational or interpretive
sic of another culture. Remember moving through a level; it happens at a more abstract, prior level, a level
gallery of African, American or Melanesian indige- where it is not really appropriate to translate it into
nous art, or listening to Indian or East Asian music. discursive ‘meaning’ because it is really constituting
Unless you have spent much time in these cultures the potentials to make up such meanings. Aesthetic
or have acquired expert knowledge, you can see and approaches do not apply only to art; in them, the bor-
hear things, but the rhythms of the music, the bal- der between art and all other processes of making and
ance and themes of the pictures make little intuitive acting becomes labile or arguable. The key is acting
sense to you. Our usual response is translation and in accordance with some governing set of values. Ex-
commentary—a label next to the carving saying ‘rep- tending this line of argument, if we feel it necessary
resentation of ancestral spirit’, a bit of text saying ‘the to distinguish ‘art’ from aesthetic action more gener-
counterpoint recalls the sound of flowing water’. But ally, it may consist of action which self-consciously
these tend simply to underline the gulf in understand- attempts to foreground and exemplify such qualities
ing; they do not tell us why one figure is frightful and and the skill necessary to create them, in the process
another joyful, why one melody is comfortingly tra- rendering the aesthetic reflexes explicit.
ditional, another daringly innovative, why the work The other line of thought develops out of the
has power to affect someone emotionally, rather than art-historical realization that the act of looking at pic-
just communicate a message intellectually. This lack of tures is not a neutral, transparent or universal act; in-
comprehensibility is a signal that we are in the pres- stead, it is culturally specific, learned and semanti-
ence of alterity, of a visual or oral culture different cally embedded in concepts of social relationality and
from our own. power. A representational paradigm implies that im-
As this suggests, any individual art object or net- ages simply supply cognitive content on demand and
work rests upon systems of more general reflexes and that interpretation is a straightforward matter of de-
dispositions which transcend it and which it repro- coding the content. In contrast, visual culture theory
duces and comments upon. For much of the history problematizes relations between people and images.
of anthropology, art was regarded within a semiotic In an older generation of art theory, Berger’s influ-
or representational paradigm; anthropologists from ential book Ways of Seeing (1972) reconstrued West-
Boas to Lévi-Strauss mined art as a source of mean- ern art in terms of male consumption of female sex-
ing, the mental organization, the cognitive codes of uality, a line of thought continued in feminist art his-
their informants (Layton 1991). But treating the in- tory (Koloski-Ostrow & Lyons, 1997). Other works
terpretation of art simply as a matter of decoding have tried to identify period-specific ways of see-
cognitive representations misses the essence of the ing (Baxandall 1972) and linked the development of
act of interpretation. Efforts to deepen the discussion landscape painting, still-lifes and vision conceptually
have been developed in two distinct directions. One with the development of capitalism (Alpers 1984).
is a recent revival of aesthetics within anthropology More recent theorists reframe the question of how im-
(Coote & Shelton 1992; Heyd 2012). Aesthetics in this ages affect viewers (Belting 2011; Mitchell 2006). Other
sense is defined as a culturally specific sense of qual- visual-culture theorists highlight the politicization of
ities which can be actualized through colour, pattern, the act of seeing, of vision as a mode of reproducing
sound and gesture. For example, Australian Aborig- domination, whether racial, gendered, heterosexual,
inal concepts of ancestral power can be actualized or or colonial. In this collection, Fowles’ paper follows
presenced through visually dazzling patterns or the this line of thought in examining how pictures affect
brilliant play of light (Morphy 1992); East African an- viewers, though he goes beyond the limits of conven-
cestral shrines, dance and language all incorporate tional art theory in advocating a specifically archaeo-
reference to patterns originating in the curve of cat- logically ‘big picture’ history of vision.
tle horns (Coote 1992). Such aesthetic qualities give a These approaches to art, material culture and im-
sense of rightness to what Coote terms ‘marvels of ev- agery do not see objects in isolation, but as part of
eryday vision’ (Coote, 1992). In this collection, Skeates a larger sense of order or system of reflexes which


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John Robb

emerges from multiple things and forms of action. Be- medium. While it is clearly useful to know the gen-
cause they focus upon general principles of order, the eral subject a representational object refers to, reduc-
object of study is really the processes of making and ing interpretation to answering this question gener-
seeing rather than the product itself, an object. It is the ally misses the point, leading us to overlook under-
correct or skilful way of doing things; it is always per- lying questions of why affective objects are powerful,
formative. Thus, the concept of art could be applied and why people interact with them as they do (for in-
to almost any object or action, unbounding the cate- stance, why they understand a statue, not as a repre-
gory; art as aesthetic action is not a thing, but a way of sentation of a deity, but as the deity itself). As Gell’s
doing. Thus, methodologically, as Skeates’ and Wells’ work directs us, we should think less about what art
papers show, in contrast to the focus upon specific ob- means and more about what art does and how it does
jects, contexts or social networks which form the fo- it.
cus of other approaches, an archaeology of art as aes- Underlying these issues, I would suggest that
thetic action involves evoking general patterns, qual- there are two deeper, possibly terminal problems with
ities and reflexes which cross-cut objects and fields of the term ‘art’.
action. 1. First, it implies that art has an essence, that we are
talking about a single thing. This may be tied up
Discussion: where to go from here? with a disciplinary search silently inherited from
art history for a single essence which character-
To conclude this overview, it is useful to step back and izes ‘true’ art as a bounded, specifiable category.
ask where the field stands and where we can go from The three perspectives reviewed above pose dis-
here. tinct questions about quite different subsets of ma-
terial culture or aspects of experiential process. In-
The real problems with the A-word sisting that all of these must align and that our
Should we use the term ‘art’ to refer to non-Western proper object of study lives only in the place where
productions or non-modern productions? This is con- they overlap is unnecessary and distorts our subse-
troversial. Some archaeologists and anthropologists quent thinking.
feel that the term adds something useful, either in 2. Secondly, the term ‘art’ is perhaps irretrievably em-
a traditional usage or following one of the theo- bedded in disciplinary practices. It pre-chooses the
retical approaches above. Some prefer to avoid the kind of objects discussed (representational objects,
term because it has too much theoretical baggage. things with obvious high investment of materi-
Many feel that it is problematic, but that we are stuck als and skill and things without obvious useful
with it by disciplinary or institutional constraints. But functions aside from aesthetic enjoyment—in other
whichever of these is the case, we do need to recog- words, things which correspond prima facie to our
nize the theoretical costs or risks of using it. ART objects). This is then implemented through
One manifestation of the term’s theoretical bag- analytical choices such as separating such objects
gage is the way it prompts us inevitably to ask two from their materiality and contexts and asking dif-
questions which tell us more about ourselves and our ferent questions about them than about other ma-
expectations than about the object. The first is ‘Is it terial culture. And it implies what the art specialist
art?’ In the three theoretical perspectives reviewed is supposed to do—in particular, close reading and
above, if we see art either as a social technology or exegesis of the interpretation of ‘meaning’. Such
as aesthetic action, in both views the category is un- expectations are enforced disciplinarily. As in the
bounded; it is at best a subset of material culture dis- example of prehistoric art above, it structures dis-
tinguished by a particular focus rather than a sharply ciplinary pathways for how we create data which
bounded category. If, on the other hand, we look at prompt us to ask some questions and which ac-
art sociologically as ART, the product of the networks tively prevent us from answering others.
constituting an ‘art world’, it is clear that the desire
to draw a sharp boundary to ‘art’ is boundary main- The map of art
tenance of a prestigious or fetishized social category. The review above makes clear that, broadly speaking,
The question is an integral part of the phenomenon there are at least three distinct anthropologies and ar-
we are trying to explain, rather than a useful part of chaeologies of art, each with a different definition of
any explanation. The other question is ‘What does it the term, sense of the problem to be understood and
mean?’ The question itself grows out of our own rep- methodological strategies.
resentational paradigm for imagery, along with the • Art as aesthetic action and visual culture. This cen-
concept of ART as an expressive or communicative tres around the question of how art can mean


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‘Art’ in Archaeology and Anthropology

something, either by looking at elemental aesthetic by assuming that discussions of art must all be dis-
signification or by looking at vision as a socially cussing the same thing, having different perspectives
constructed act laden with power and meaning. analysing art can be a strength. But are important
This approach focuses upon how art is meaningful, new perspectives emerging? Here, a number of pa-
but often at such an abstract level that if we elicit pers converge to suggest a coalescing centre of gravity,
the underlying structures as some kind of explicit that of powerful objects.
‘meaning’, the result sounds forced, stilted and im- It will be apparent that the three analytical per-
probable; deeply embedded, society-wide ontolog- spectives outlined above often do not overlap, and
ical, class and gender norms may inform the design we can employ each one without assuming that it ad-
of a cereal box, but it is not really accurate to high- dresses the same problems and material as the oth-
light them as the ‘meaning’ of it. Art as aesthetic ers. Yet, when they do overlap, they create special cat-
action is typically unbounded or poorly bounded, egories of object. The argument is that many, if not
shading into all sorts of everyday action, gesture all, societies make special categories of object which
and material culture. Analysis might typically em- are understood as cosmologically or ontologically dif-
ploy analysis of patterns and qualities to under- ferent from everyday material culture. Such powerful
stand aesthetically significant aspects of action and objects
to deduce the interpretive frameworks constructing • Do serious work of cosmological action or creating
vision. social value;
• Art as a production system, the product of a spe- • Consciously foreground aesthetic qualities and
cific set of social institutions and networks (the ‘art may involve particular, ontologically highlighted
world’ in the modern West, but potentially analo- ways of seeing; this may be effected through a range
gous institutions and networks producing power- of ways, including use of particularly valued mate-
fully categorized objects in other societies). ‘Art’ in rials, ostentatious investment of skill, decoration or
this sense refers to a category of object defined lo- thematic referencing, ritual practice, or visual para-
cally and often quite sharply within such networks. dox or transformation;
Analysis might centre on identifying how powerful • Are the product of tangible, delimited social net-
objects are the products, not of single creators, but works in particular contexts, often involving high-
of heterogeneous networks of people and materi- status people or offices, high-stakes political mes-
als, and on identifying what social role they are in- sages, or highly valued things and experiences;
tended to accomplish—for instance, how fine met- • Require people to interact with them in ways dif-
alwork formed part of networks of material provi- ferent from ‘ordinary’ objects; they may impose
sion, craft production, gift exchange and display in moral obligations, or have particularly powerful,
Bronze and Iron Age Europe. even transformative effects upon viewers or users.
• Art as affective material culture, a specific kind of ob- Such compelling objects are well described by
ject designed to accomplish social tasks. The key Miller (this section). They harness aesthetic reflexes
question here is how art acts, what it does. ‘Art’ in to particular tasks (Wells, Skeates, this section). They
this sense is again a very poorly bounded category, may effectively materialize politicized messages (De-
as probably all material culture involves some built- Marrais et al. 1996). They may also materialize dif-
in element of psychological functionality. Analysis ferent ontologies (for instance, ritual or animated ob-
would typically centre around close analysis of a jects which do not represent cosmic forces, but which
specific kind of object, to show how it harnesses are cosmic forces). The most obvious examples are
broader aesthetic reflexes within particular social sacred or animate objects. In Medieval Europe, for
contexts and need to create objects whose material instance, crucifixes, reliquaries, icons and other re-
attributes and design features allow it to act effica- ligious objects were understood to contain spiritual
ciously. power which demanded reverence and could receive
These clearly presuppose each other, and it is of- prayer and entreaty. The richness of their construc-
ten impossible to pigeonhole a specific analysis into tion was sometimes understood as a fitting manifes-
one or another category; many of the papers below tation of this spiritual value. In the Andes, huacas in-
really work back and forth between several of these. cluded things such as stones which were understood
as animate beings and treated as such (Bray 2009) (De-
Art as powerful objects: an emerging archaeology of art Marrais, this section). In Iroquoian society, wampum-
The papers in this collection give a sense of the var- shell beads were understood not merely as an eco-
ied, creative ways archaeologists can think about art. nomic commodity, but also as affectively compelling
Indeed, once we get beyond the confusion caused (J. Creese pers. comm., 2016), and representational


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John Robb

objects could also be animate (Creese, this section). tive system intersects discussions of art production sys-
Zedeño outlines beautifully how Blackfoot tipis were tems, and his discussion of the replication of pattern in
not simply expressive, but involved dreams and spir- Marquesan carvings mirrors perspectives on aesthetic
its. In these and other examples, it is not surprising reflexes below.
to find high-value materials deployed often in elite
contexts for political purposes; the surprising and im- John Robb
portant thing is how these objects are neither simple Department of Archaeology
representations nor decontextualized ‘valuables’, but University of Cambridge
consistently have an underlying ontological enmesh- Downing Street
ment and prescribe particular forms of response. Cambridge CB2 3DZ
The logical conclusion is thus not that all societies UK
have some version of ‘art’; it is distorting to assimi- Email:
late other people’s powerful objects to our ‘art’. But
neither is it that our ‘art’ has no relationship to any
indigenous categories of things in other societies (this References
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