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Matthew Rampley on Theories of agency in art

10 April 2019

Theories of agency in art

Review of:

Horst Bredekamp, Image Acts: A Systematic Approach to Visual Agency. Translated by Elizabeth Clegg. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2018. Pbk. 361 pp.

Matthew Rampley (Brno) 20/MR1

Abstract: This review offers a critical summary of Bredekamp’s Image Acts. Identifying Bredekamp’s theory of the image act as an attempt to provide a general Warburg theory of the image, it argues that despite the impressively wide-ranging and ambitious scope of the study, it is theoretically undetermined. Agency is a central term, but the book lacks a theory or even working definition of agency, which makes it different to understand the force of some of Bredekamp’s claims. The review contrasts Bredekamp with Alfred Gell, whose Art and Agency focused on anthropological study of the ascriptions of agency to images in different cultures and the structure of such ascriptions. It argues that Image Acts ends up being neither a fully worked-out theory of visual agency nor a historical or anthropological account of attributions of agency, and its purpose and focus consequently remains ambiguous.

Key words: visual theory, anthropology, Alfred Gell, Aby Warburg, Ernst Cassirer, W. J. T. Mitchell, prehistoric art, agency, speech act theory, symbolism

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