State of the art relations: New approaches to the anthropology of art

by Dr Alex Flynn and Jonas Tinius

12 Mar 2015

In 2014, the Louvre and the Tate Modern between them received over 12 million visitors. In November of the same year, Christie’s contemporary art sale raised an astonishing $852.9m. Not only has the widely forecast ‘end of art’ (Belting 1987, Danto 1986, 1995) failed to materialise, but art has increasingly spilled beyond the refined spaces of the Tuileries, the Southbank, and the auction houses for the super-rich. Whether it’s Banksy’s murals being torn off walls by ‘ignorant’ council officials in Clacton-on-Sea, the Occupy movement’s ‘bat signal’ being projected onto the Verizon building in New York, or the launch of Paul McCarthy’s ambiguously sexual Parisian ‘Tree’ sculpture, new forms and engagements with art generate fierce debate in all spheres of social, economic, and political life. Are these controversies still about ideas of beauty? Or has art succumbed to spectacle and money? And what, if any, is the relation of contemporary art to the political?

Superstar artists and seven-figure sums fuel the popular imagination, but behind the glamour, there are important new theoretical approaches to and within art being elaborated that go beyond aesthetic judgements of what deserves to be labelled as ‘art’, or financial judgements as to what constitutes ‘value’.

A good starting point is James Elkins’ seemingly innocent opener that ‘seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism’ (1996: 12). Elkins argues that visiting a gallery and looking at a piece of art, evaluating whether it is ‘beautiful’ or not, is no longer of theoretical interest. Instead, for Elkins, the emphasis lies in how the beholder of a work of art becomes engaged in such a way that a ‘metamorphosis’ is prompted. Nicolas Bourriaud (1998) goes even further, arguing that art works should be judged not on old-fashioned criteria of ‘beauty’, but on the work’s potential to bring people together into spaces he calls ‘micro-utopias’, temporary spaces in which people can enter into dialogue and create meaning in a democratic manner.

Such ‘relational aesthetics’ has always occurred in various ways, and beauty is no longer the central criterion for describing and valuing art. Think of the discussions we have with our friends in the gallery café after visiting an exhibition, the reviews and comments we look up before going to see a film in online forums, or the live blogging events that accompany major television shows. Each environment is a space in which we see, we share, and we exchange.

The micro-utopias generated by art works are theoretically open to all, a democratic and emancipatory connotation that also potentialises public art (or graffiti), a mode of expression with its own publics and forms of political negotiations in the street. These dimensions of sociability and participation, connected to the idea that seeing is metamorphosis rather than mechanism, renders art political in a manner that goes beyond sloganeering: for thinkers such as Elkins and Bourriaud, these exchanges in sociable arenas are intrinsically linked to individual and collective dimensions of transformation.

Recently, accompanying ideas of decentralisation and horizontality and observations about the complicity of ‘radical artists’ with the post-Fordist working environments they sought to critique, artists, scholars, and publics have begun to re-evaluate art’s political potential. How can we better understand ideas like creativity and political subjectivity in times when ‘being creative’ has become the latest buzzword in a relentlessly entrepreneurial climate? With sublime beauty and financial value becoming increasingly old-fashioned ways of understanding art, and with more complex relations between new media, global markets, and politicised participatory art forms emerging to define the public perception of art, a multiplicity of new approaches to art proliferate.

The new research network Anthropologies of Art [A/A] has been established to provide a reference point for new approaches that address the contemporary modes of artistic production, reception, and exchange. Building on and yet going beyond such established anthropological approaches to art as those of Alfred Gell or Pierre Bourdieu, [A/A] seeks to extend the canon by curating new encounters on fields and discourses such as international art biennales, post-Fordist artistic labour, global art markets, contemporary art patronage, and ‘artivism’.

One of the key propositions behind [A/A] is the idea that contemporary art theory and practice are increasingly in dialogue with theories of sociality – how we relate to other people to create meaning – and therefore connected to core anthropological interests. The art historian Crista Robbins (2015) has highlighted that increasingly “there is no significant distinction between many forms of participatory art and ordinary social activities,” referring to such curatorial projects as Nato Thompson’s Living as Formwhich blurs the forms of art and everyday life, emphasising participation, dialogue, and community engagement. And such projects share important links to anthropological discourses such as the morphogenetic élan vital (Bergson 1907) and the emphasis that Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold place on the creativity and improvisation of our unscripted everyday lives (2008).

[A/A]’s proposition therefore is that in linking anthropological approaches to art with interdisciplinary and interrogative practices in art we can develop more sophisticated theories to answer some of contemporary society’s most pressing questions: how do we work today? What does democracy mean to us and how will it be created? How do we envisage shared living? The objective of [A/A] is therefore not just to apply anthropological theory to ethnographic situations that are characterised by the production of ‘art’, but to develop anthropological theory through an engagement with the conceptual approaches that underpin the production of contemporary art today.


Although [A/A] has only recently launched, it has already linked scholars in Cambridge, Brussels, Bergen, and São Paulo to rethink the way people come together to create architectural configurations, political localisms, economic partnerships, or religious communities as the ‘micro-utopias’ of relational aesthetics. This initiative lays down an interdisciplinary challenge to use an understanding of social movement and organisation as an art form whereby processes of interaction are understood as generative, transformational, poïetic micro-utopias. This collaboration has resulted in [A/A]’s first publication (Blanes and Maskens 2015) and will lead to a conference panel and a special issue in the international journal Cadernos de Arte e Antropologia. In such ways, the [A/A] network fosters conversation on such issues as human imagination and creativity, as well as questions on political subjectivities and how they are expressed.

In part, [A/A] has been made possible by a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship and the network directly answers the Academy’s stated aim to support interdisciplinary and emerging subject areas. In the interstices of aesthetics, sociality, and ethics, [A/A] thus seeks to understand how by going beyond the superficiality of what an art work looks like, we can better perceive the transformative dimensions present within the social relations that art creates.

Dr Alex Flynn is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University of Durham.

Jonas Tinius is a social anthropologist at King’s College, Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

The above image is “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres
, is an allegorical representation of the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness. The installation is comprised of 175 pounds of sweets, corresponding to Ross’s weight. Visitors are encouraged to take a sweet, and the diminishing amount parallels Ross’s weight loss and suffering prior to his death.


Belting, Hans. 1987. The End of the History of Art. Transl. by Christopher S. Wood.
Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press.

Bergson, Henri. 1983. Creative evolution. Washington, DC: University Press of America.

Blanes, Ruy and Maïté Maskens. 2015. ‘Utopia, Art and Anthropology: Exploratory Notes of a Correlation’. Anthropologies of Art Network. 01/2015.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les Presses du Réel.

Danto, Arthur C. 1984. ‘The End of Art’, in: The Death of Art. Ed. by Berel Lang.
New York: Haven Publishing, pp. 5-35.

—– 1995. After the End of Art. Contemporary Art and the Pale of History.
Princeton: University of Princeton Press.

Elkins, James. 1996. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. New York:
Simon and Schuster.

Hallam, Elizabeth and Tim Ingold (eds.) 2008. Creativity and Cultural Improvisation. London: Bloomsbury

Robbins, Crista. 2015. ‘Together Apart’. Art in America. 01/2015.

Photo credit: henskechristine, Flickr

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