Anthropology of Art

By Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo’s David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence)

Anthropology of art is a sub-field in cultural anthropology dedicated to the study of art in different cultural contexts. The anthropology of art focuses on historical, economic and aesthetic dimensions in non-Western art forms, including what is known as ‘tribal art’.


Franz Boas, one of the pioneers of modern anthropology, conducted many field studies of the arts, helping create a foundation to the field. His book, Primitive Art (1927), summarizes his main insights into so-called ‘primitive’ art forms, with a detailed case study on the arts of the Northwest Pacific Coast.[1] The famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss took Boas’ analyses further in his book The Way of the Masks, where he traced changes in the plastic form of Northwest Pacific masks to patterns of intercultural interaction among the indigenous peoples of the coast.[2]

The Problem of Art

One of the central problems in the anthropology of art concerns the universality of ‘art’ as a cultural phenomenon. Several anthropologists have noted that the Western categories of ‘painting’, ‘sculpture’, or ‘literature’, conceived as independent artistic activities, do not exist, or exist in a significantly different form, in most non-Western contexts.[3] Thus, there is no consensus on a single, cross-cultural definition of ‘art’ in anthropology.[4][5] To surmount this difficulty, anthropologists of art have focused on formal features in objects which, without exclusively being ‘artistic’, have certain evident ‘aesthetic’ qualities. Boas’ Primitive Art, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ The Way of the Masks (1982) or Geertz’s ‘Art as Cultural System’ (1983) are some examples in this trend to transform the anthropology of ‘art’ into an anthropology of culturally-specific ‘aesthetics’. More recently, in his book Art and Agency, Alfred Gell proposed a new definition of ‘art’ as a complex system of intentionality, where artists produce art objects to effect changes in the world, including (but not restricted to) changes in the aesthetic perceptions of art audiences.[6] Gell’s ideas have stirred a large controversy in the anthropology of art in the 2000s.[7][8][9]


  • Boas, Franz. (1927) Primitive Art. New York: Dover
  • Coote, Jeremy and Anthony Shelton, eds. (1992) Anthropology Art and Aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press ISBN 0-19-827945-0
  • Forge, Anthony, ed. (1973) Primitive Art & Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Forge, Anthony. (1979) The Problem of Meaning in Art, in Exploring the Visual Art of Oceania. Sidney M. Mead, ed. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, pp. 278–286
  • Geertz, Clifford. (1983). Art as a Cultural System, in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books
  • Gell, Alfred. (1998) Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-828014-9
  • Hatcher, Evelyn Payne. (1985) Art As Culture: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Art. Lanham: University Press of America ISBN 0-89789-628-9
  • Layton, Robert. (1981) The Anthropology of Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press ISBN 978-0-521-36894-0
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1982) The Way of the Masks, translated by Sylvia Modelski. Seattle: University of Washington Press
  • Morphy, Howard and Morgan Perkins, eds. (2006) The Anthropology of Art: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing
  • Munn, Nancy. (1973) Walpiri Iconography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
  • Price, Sally. (1989) Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Chicago: University of Chicago Press



  1. Jump up^ Franz Boas. (1927) Primitive art.
  2. Jump up^ Claude Lévi-Strauss. (1982) The Way of the Masks.
  3. Jump up^ Robert Layton. (1981) The Anthropology of Art.
  4. Jump up^ Howard Morphy & Morgan Perkins. (2006) Introduction, in The Anthropology of Art: A Reader.
  5. Jump up^ G. Angioni, Fare dire sentire: l’identico e il diverso nelle culture, Nuoro, il Maestrale, 2011
  6. Jump up^ Alfred Gell. (1998) Art and Agency.
  7. Jump up^ Ross Bowden. (2004) A Critique of Alfred Gell on Art and Agency. Oceania, 74: 309-325
  8. Jump up^ Robert H. Layton. (2003) Art and Agency: A reassessment. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9: 447-464
  9. Jump up^ Howard Morphy. (2009). Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency. Journal of Material Culture, 14 (1): 5-27