Craig Clunas Seminar Series 1: Things, Agency, Social Relations

April 28, 2019


Location: University of Chicago Centre in Beijing, 20th floor, Wen Hua Da Sha, No.59 Zhongguancun Street, Haidian District, Beijing.

Organizer: OCAT Institute

At the beginning of his Art and Agency (1998), British anthropologist Alfred Gell turns away from “aesthetic” and “meaning” as two conventional approaches in art historical research. He turns to the articulation of “agency” as a theoretical tool in analyzing interactions between art and individuals in specific cases and social relations generated in this process. Under this narrative, art transforms itself from a medium to an agent and asserts its influence through its associate personalities. Gell’s argument was joined by contemporaneous theories of the visual arts and its comprehensive model of microsociology points to a unique path that bridges art history and anthropology. The opening seminar in the 2019 Craig Clunas seminar series organized by OCAT Institute takes as its point of departure Gell’s theory of “agency.” Gell’s methodological philistinism has directly inspired Clunas in the latter’s analysis of social arts in Suzhou during the mid-Ming Dynasty and the two interact and resonate in the broader cultural and social sphere. 


Art and Agency provides a grand theoretical framework informed by the anthropology of art. It transcends the presumption that the anthropology of art takes as its main focus the primitive or the colonial/post-colonial society and juxtaposes, as well as compares, tribal art in Africa with contemporary art. Traversing disciplinary specificity and cultures, this visual art comparison proposed by Gell echoes methodologically Clunas’s comparative studies rooted in Chinese art, and reflects the development of theories of cultural studies since the end of the last century. With the rapid development of cultural studies and the intellectual history outside the West, concepts like “art” have been problematized in multicultural studies and have brought with them a series of debates on the cultural incommensurability. Critically reflecting on Western aesthetic traditions, Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural theory maintains that Western aesthetic theories and discourses are peculiar products of the Enlightenment, thus incorporating them into the rethinking of ideologies. Culture is no longer an abstract, static “tradition” but a dynamic, tangible social subject situated in the interplay with historical factors like power and economy.

At the same time, an emerging series of debate on the exaggerating tendency of cultural incommensurability pushed comparative transcultural studies forward. Historians set out looking for parallel phenomena in the cultural sphere of different societies and cultural differences based on cultural commonality. The assumption that the Chinese arts consumption in the Ming Dynasty has similarities with that in Europe in the Renaissance precedes Clunas’s analysis on the former, who then mobilizes theoretical discourses on culture and class in his discussion of the cultural mechanism of Ming Dynasty. Gell’s anthropology of art zooms in on social transactions to a more micro level than Bourdieu’s, better adheres to the art historical focus on particular objects, steers away from the static tendency in the semiotic analysis of cultural consumptions, and situates artistic creation, distribution and reception in a dynamic nexus of social relations.


Upheld, critiqued, applied, and expanded, Gell’s theoretical contribution has received much attention in the field of anthropology and other social sciences, but less so in that of art history. In this seminar, both Lu Wenchao and Li Xiujian articulate Gell’s anthropology of art, trace its historical development and its reference of art historical theories, at the same time touch upon the theoretical advancement of art history and other related academic disciplines. Ye Kangning and Huang Xiao’s presentations focus on, respectively, the social nexuses in which consumptions of drawings and calligraphy in Ming Dynasty and the Zhi Garden were situated, and reflect on how the agency of object was practiced in its distribution. With four presentations and the ensuing discussion, the seminar aims to link Gell’s academic practice with that of Craig Clunas’s, and to put Gell’s anthropology of art in a more direct, comprehensive dialogue with art history.



14:00 Opening remarks by the moderators


14:15 – 14:55

Lu Wenchao (Associate Professor, School of Arts, The Southeast University)

From Narratives to Actions: The Agency of Artworks



Ye Kangning (Associate Professor, Nanjing Arts Institute)

An Admiration for the Elegant (Feng ya): Assessing the Consumption of Calligraphy and Painting during Jiawan Period in the Ming Dynasty



Li Xiujian (Researcher, Art Anthropology Research Center, Chinese National Academy of Arts)

Gell’s Anthropology of Art



Huang Xiao (Lecturer, School of Landscape Architecture, Beijing Forestry University)

Relationship Nexus Behind Ming Dynasty’s Zhi Garden - Garden Owners, Landscape Gardeners, and Painters




Moderators: Guo Weiqi, Shen Cheng

Panelists: Lu Wenchao, Ye Kangning, Li Xiujian, Huang Xiao


Abstract of Presentations


Lu Wenchao (Associate Professor, School of Arts, The Southeast University)

From Narratives to Actions: The Agency of Artworks 


In the discussion on the agency of artworks, the key is to focus on the transformation of an artwork from a narrative device to an agent. If the former tends to assume artworks as passive and interpretable, the latter assumes agency within artworks, and the focus is then on what it is capable of doing. Gell studies this from the standpoint of anthropology of art, claiming that artworks are like humans, capable of influencing with their agency. Gell rejects the notion of art as language, and opposes the semantic interpretation of art, which fails to account for art’s agency. Horst Bredecamp proposed the theory of image as agent based on Austin’s theory of language as agent—under the influence of this new concept of language, Bredecamp developed his theory on art and agency. For him, art is language, and all language is a form of agency. To a certain extent, this idea shares some similarities with the theories of pictures held by Mitchell. Under the influence of Latour’s actornetwork-theory (ANT), art sociologists DeNora, Hennion and Rubio discuss the interactions between human and objects, especially with an attention to the agency inherent in the artwork’r materiality. Though starting from different standpoints, the various theories lead to a more dynamic and active understanding toward artworks. Artworks are humans; out relationships with artworks are not unlike our relationships with other human beings. Artworks are not passive, rather, they exert influence through their agency. This provides crucial theoretical significance and value to the research of Chinese art.


Ye Kangning (Associate Professor, Nanjing Arts Institute)

An Admiration for the Elegant (Feng ya): Assessing the Consumption of Calligraphy and Painting during Jiawan Period in the Ming Dynasty

The booming of luxury and cultural consumption is one of the manifestations of social and economic prosperity. Luxury consumption is the consumption of leisure and wealth, and cultural consumption is the consumption of leisure and knowledge. Painting and calligraphy served as commodities that fulfill two consumption characteristics—not only reflecting leisure and ostentation, but also accentuating erudition. Jiawan period underwent unprecedented economic prosperity during the Ming dynasty which also saw a peak in painting and calligraphy consumption.

Taking Along the River During the Qingming Festival as an example of a consumption case, I analyze some of the prominent issues that appear in it. 


Shifeng refers to the general trend of people's ideology and lifestyle during a certain period of time. Shifeng during Jiawan period revolved around the penchant for extravagance (she mi zhi feng) and the affection for superfluous things (zhang wu zhi hao). It came as a result and reflection of the economic development of the society, yet at the same time being counterproductive to the society and economy. Shifeng’s influence can not be underestimated in face of the unprecedentated prosperity of the painting-calligraphy market. The penchant for extravagance (she mi zhi feng) had influenced the concept of consumption and cultivated a huge consumer group; the affection for superfluous things (zhang wu zhi hao) had created consumer demand and thereby directly causing the prosperity of the calligraphy-painting market. For luxury consumption, different consumption spaces not only indicate different levels of consumption, but also affect ways of consumption. Rarely was there any any large-scale transcactions taking place at street vendorsconsumers prefer to buy and sell in their own writing rooms (wen fang). 


A large number of dealers (ya ren) were active on the painting-calligraphy market. They shuttled back and forth between sellers and buyers, making transactions and facilitating consumption, meanwhile profiting from them. They were also involved in appraisal and price-setting for the artworks. Their commission ususally comprised of three-tenths of the transcaction amount. 


The prices of the paintings and calligraphy works varied depending on the time of their creation as well as their artistic value; prices were influenced by the length of their creation time, size, and the amount of characters. In general, paintings were more expensive than calligraphy; earlier creations sold higher than later creations and later transactions sold higher than earlier ones. 


Since demands were high for works by the masters, many literati participated in forgery for its heavy rewards. Forgeries produced by literatis increased the quality of counterfeits, making collectors hard to discern them from the authentic.  

Consuming calligraphies and paintings enabled the leisure class, most of whom are literatis and merchants, to appear elegant (qing ya) while simultaneously displaying their wealth oepnly. Through the consumption of paintings and calligraphies, vying for vanity (jing shang li ming) transformed into the pursuit for the elegant (jing shang qing ya).


Li Xiujian (Researcher, Art Anthropology Research Center, Chinese National Academy of Arts)

Gell’s Anthropology of Art

British scholar Alfred Gell was one of the most important art anthropologists of our time, with Art and Agency (1998) being his major academic work. Gell drew from a myriad of theoretical sources - on the one hand, he was influenced by British functionalists like Bronislaw Malinowski, Raymond Firth, Forge, and Edmund Leach, on the other hand, he also took as reference the theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marcel Mauss, and Pierre Bourdieu, and the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce and  the cognitive science developed by Pascal Boyer in particular. Regarding art as a technical system and further articulating his perception of art in The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology, Gells outlook on art and his anthropology of art are highly original. The anthropology of art adopts the methodological Philistinism, steers away from the aesthetic and semiotic analysis of art and takes social relations as its very core. Gell advocated that we understand art from the perspective of social anthropology; regarded artworks as objects endowed with agency and personalities, and the anthropology of art a biological research; discussed the functioning and circulation of art in the nexus of social relations, and the social context in which art is produced, distributed, and received. He had constructed an art nexus and a unique theoretical system centered around the key concept of agency. Issues around decorative art, expressive art, artistic genres, and contemporary art were then discussed based on the very system. Not only influential in the field of the anthropology of art, Gells theory has also received prevailing attention from art historians.


Huang Xiao (Lecturer, School of Landscape Architecture, Beijing Forestry University)

Relationship Nexus Behind Ming Dynasty’s Zhi Garden - Garden Owners, Landscape Gardeners, and Painters

Ming Dynasty was the prime time of ancient Chinese gardens, with regions south of the Yangtze River being their major cluster. According to statistics, in Ming Dynasty, there were more than 260 recorded landscape gardens in Suzhou, more than 120 in Nanjing, and more than 170 in Shaoxing. During this period of time, both the quantity and quality of landscape garden saw a significant surge, leading to the establishment of numerous famous gardens, amongst which were Wang Shizhen’s Yan Shan Garden in Tai Cang, Pan Yunduan’s Yu Garden in Song Jiang, Zou Diguang’s The Valley of Yu in Wuxi, and Qi Biaojia’s Yu Shan Garden in Shaoxing. The Zhi Garden of Wu Liang in Changzhou that is in focus here was built in the very era. It is because of Zhang Hongs Painting of Zhi Garden that the Garden is known and preserved until today. What was the identity of Wu Liang, who initiated the project?What was his family background? What was his relationship to the landscape designer of the Garden? Taking the case study of the Zhi Garden as its entry point, this presentation attempts to showcase how famous officials and scholars, together with artists, collaborated on projects of landscape gardens, and presents a preliminary exploration into the relationship between the art of landscape gardens and the social context from which they emerged.