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Durham University

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Publication details for Prof Robert H. Layton

Layton, R.H. (2003). Art and agency - a reassessment. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9(3): 447-464.

Author(s) from Durham


In his book, Art and agency, Alfred Gell presents a theory of art based neither on aesthetics nor on visual communication. Art is defined by the distinctive function it performs in advancing social relationships through 'the abduction of agency'. Art objects are indexes of the artist's or model's agency. This article examines Gell's use of agency, particularly in relation to the ritual art that is central to his argument. Focusing on Gell's employment of Peirce's term 'index' (out of his triad of index, icon, and symbol), I note that Peirce's approach deflects attention from signification towards the link between art works and the things to which they refer. I consider what Peirce meant by abduction, and conclude that while Gell makes a good case for the agency of art objects he does not explain the distinctive ways in which art objects extend their maker's or user's agency. Gell lacked the time to make detailed revisions before publication and I acknowledge that, given more time, he might have revised some parts of the book.