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Dead Canoes

The Fate of Agency in Twentieth-Century Murik Art

David Lipset

In Art and Agency, Alfred Gell seeks to reclaim the anthropology of art for the Durkheimian social. However, in the course of arguing that objects should be viewed as the "outcome, and/or the instrument, of ... agency" (Gell 1998: 15), he takes an essentialized view of the relationship of personhood to embodiment that, on the one hand, preconceives this relationship as consubstantial and, on the other, as static. Nevertheless, viewing art in Gell's way mimics itself; it offers agency, a powerful exegetical methodology for the study of art. In this article, I apply and refine Gell's thesis by means of a historical explication of the theme of agency in the art of the Murik Lakes people, a group of Sepik River fisher folk and traders. More broadly, I argue that Gell's analytical framework in Art and Agency needs to admit that the relationship of art to personhood and modernity is cultural, discursive, and unfinalized, as well as instrumental.

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Michael K. Bess, David Lipset, Kudzai Matereke, Stève Bernardin, Katharine Bartsch, Harry Oosterhuis, Samuel Müller, Frank Schipper, Benjamin D’Harlingue, and Katherine Roeder

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