ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Creativity and innovation in art and science: Alfred Gell and after

Contact Convenor: Georgina Born

Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Cambridge
Free School Lane
Cambridge, CB2 3RQ

Tel: 01223 762 841  

Panel abstract

The late Alfred Gell’s work Art and Agency offers a theory of agency in art with a strong resonance to actor network theory, the locus of much debate in science and technology studies concerning agency and the equivalence of human and non-human actors. Gell’s treatise can also be read as a general account of agency and of a social and dispersed creativity. His exploration of the phenomenology of time in relation to agency, of retentions and protentions, retrospection and projection, provides fertile ground for addressing the temporal and progressive elements in creativity, as implied by notions of invention or innovation.

This session brings together those working on creativity and agency in both art and science to look at the generative legacy of Gell’s ideas, looking both ‘backwards’ and ‘forwards’ from that point, spinning them across new domains, making comparisons and connections. Is there a need to retain a concern with the specificities of agency and invention in art and science? What are those specificities? Does Gell’s account require to be connected to larger historical dynamics and movements in each domain? Should those concerned with creativity focus not only on the production of art and science but on their reception / use / radiating effects? What role can and do non-experts and publics play in the conduct and direction of innovation? Does a concern with the social nature of creativity imply the need to address its institutional forms? What are the limits of Gell’s approach? How can an account of creativity be advanced which avoids the pitfalls of reification and of outright banality?

Seeing indigenous Australian art

Howard Morphy, ANU

Gell's 'Art and Agency' ironically deflects attention away for the art object to interrelationships among human subjects, emphasising the analogical rather than analytical aspects of representational systems. This paper focuses on the interrelationship between the social and the visual in Yolngu art, while speculating on more general interrogative properties of systems of visual representation. In a Western context how Aboriginal art is seen has been entangled with the history of how European art has been seen. An assumption underlying much Western art history is that art is a mediating process intervening between vision and the outside world. In a naieve formulation of this assumption art is thought to capture images of the world and carry them across space and time. In more sophisticated formulations, art is said to analyse what is there to be seen and reveal it to us, showing us how to look at the world. More radically, art challenges the vanity of its own systems of representation and joins science in an exploration of the ways in which we see, interrogating the components of vision. Does Aboriginal art with its separate histories provide different ways of seeing the world, and are there parallels to the interrogation of vision that has been undertaken by European artists? The analogies that are happily drawn between different Aboriginal art styles and styles of Western art might suggest that this is the case, but such analogies may be merely illusory, encouraging us to see Aboriginal art as if it were European art. Is Aboriginal art even concerned with seeing the outside world, as opposed to conceptualising it? I will argue that in Aboriginal art there is close relationship between the conceptual and the visual as ways of communicating understandings of the world, and that this is revealed in particular in the relationship between abstraction and figuration, and in the creation of visual puns, as well as in powerful symbolic forms. In making ideas visible, human beings have to interrogate ways of seeing: seeing and art-making overlap as human activities, and as a consequence have the potentiality to reveal something of their own nature through the analysis of their interactions.

Collaborative objects: agency, creativity and evaluation in relation to sci-art projects

James Leach, University of Cambridge

Gell discusses the agency of objects ranging from sublime works of art, to land mines, to flint tools. Sci-art collaborations look to make objects which combine the kinds of knowledge embodied by scientists/technologists and artists. Moreover, facilitators are as interested in the processes, networks, and 'social' outcomes as they are in objects produced. The distinction between persons, processes, and objects seems blurred, just as in Gell's theory of the object-nexus. Creativity of a new kind may be embedded in these processes, and/or objects, as the outcome (object) of collaborative endeavour.  Bringing vision and expertise from different domains into the production of novel, imaginative, and potentially valuable objects, participants understand the potential for an interdisciplinary  and 'inter-cultural' exchange between kinds of knowledge, kinds of skill, and kinds of creativity. Anthropologists have found themselves involved in these collaborations. Capturing the social dynamic would be equivalent to capturing new forms of creativity, making them available for others to utilise. 'Evaluation' is required, facilitators feel. Is such evaluation the evaluation of agency in Gell's terms? That is, of the extension of persons, through the object nexus? What would such an approach reveal, and what would it leave out?

Creativity and social organisation

John Davis, University of Oxford

The notion that society is something real which obeys sui generis rules (as say gravity does), and that British, Trobriand, Mount Hagen, Pathan society are local emanations of them, is no longer believable. What does exist is social organisation, agreements made amongst people about how to cope with necessary interaction. Social organisation is made and re-made. It is essentially the result of creative acts of agreement, disagreement, dissent, assent.

The conference paper is an exploration of social creativity: an attempt to see how people make agreements, what the limits to creativity are, and how social creativity is similar to artistic creativity. (And how people create rules to eliminate uncontrolled creativity. Social sciences in particular are conservative forces, propagating the notion that society is systematic and susceptible to a kind of science: a reassurance that ramshackle and fragile appearances are underlain by the forces of natural law.) It ends with an exploration of two difficulties: that particular social organisations persist; and that they resemble each other.

Whitehead, Gell and the anthropology of invention

Dr Andrew Barry, Goldsmiths College, London

In his book Art and Agency Alfred Gell suggested that anthropology has a particular depth of focus which is 'biographical' as opposed to supra-biographical (sociology) or infra-biographical (psychological). Gell's biographical analysis has many similarities with the early twentieth century philosophy of Henri Bergson and AN Whitehead, as well as more recent approaches to the sociology of science. The paper examines the parallels between Gell's anthropology of art and Whitehead's philosophy of process through an ethnographic account of the design of a drug molecule in a US pharmaceutical company.