Anthropology and Art: an Introduction

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This course examines the relationship between art and anthropology covering the latest theories, and debates in the field.

Taught by Dr. Max Carocci

10 x 1. 5 hour classes

Start date: 19th September 2023, 18.00 UTC

Price: £245

At the end of the course, students will be awarded a certificate of completion

Please email with any further questions.

This course is open to anyone interested in the connections between anthropology and art. Museum professionals, volunteers, gallery consultants, anthropology and art students will find this course particular stimulating.

Anthropology and Art have mutually-entwined histories. In this course, we shall look at the relationships that historically tied these disciplines through a series of topics of current relevance. Questions raised during our examination of specific issues such as ‘primitivism,’ ‘exoticism,’ and the development of new contexts for the, collection, display, and consumption of art, among others, will help you to mature critical skills, and cross-cultural perspectives. Drawing on a vast repertoire and expertise of anthropologists and art historians, the course will address museum specialists, curators, gallerists, collectors, and theorists’ concerns over the nature of art, and what turns certain items into valuable objects.

Key words: Art and Anthropology; History of Anthropology; World Arts; Crafts; Folk Arts; Material Culture; Tourist Arts; Museum Anthropology; Ethnographic Artefacts

Tutor biography

Dr. Max Carocci is Adjunct Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at the Richmond American University in London. For more than twenty years he has been teaching anthropology, art, visual and material culture in a variety of universities across the UK (Birkbeck College, Goldsmiths College, Chelsea College of Art, UCL, University of East Anglia). In addition to his academic career, he has served as curator at the British Museum, the Weltkulturen Museum Frankfurt, the Venice Biennale, and several institutions (including the RAI), and galleries in Britain and abroad. Max has published widely on a variety of subjects at the intersection of Anthropology and Art. Among his latest publications,Art, Observation, and an Anthropology of Illustration(co-edited with Stephanie Pratt, Bloomsbury, 2022), andArt, Shamanism and Animism(co-edited with Robert J. Wallis, MDPI: Basel, 2022).

If you are already an enrolled student, you can access our Moodle platform here:

Course objective & structure

The course is taught remotely. It is divided into 10 sessions based on lectures (power points presentations), complemented by small group conversation, and question and answers. Students are invited to fully participate in the discussion and analysis to hone their skills and develop new ones

You will be learning about issues that are germane to the management, interpretation, and evaluation of world peoples’ cultural property, arts, and crafts. It is expected that by the end of the course you will have developed analytical and critical skills through evaluative and comprehensive summaries of current issues related to the nature of art, and questions of perception and representation.

Summary of seminar topics

  • Week 1 – Introducing Art and Anthropology.
  • Week 2 – Non-Western Artefacts in the West.
  • Week 3 – Ethnographic Artefacts versus Art.
  • Week 4 – Form and Function.
  • Week 5 – Structures and Symbols.
  • Week 6 – Authorship, Authenticity and Provenance.
  • Week 7 – Heritage, Inspiration, Ethics, and Cultural Appropriation.
  • Week 8 – Decolonising Art Practices and Museums.
  • Week 9 –Contemporary Worlds.
  • Week 10 – Future Directions and Recap.

Week 1 – Introducing Art and Anthropology.

The historically distinct disciplines of art history and anthropology have developed their theories and methods in separate geographical areas: Europe and countries under the European influence, and the rest of the world respectively. Although anthropology brought to the attention of the academic community examples from different cultures, art history has been slow in embracing the study of arts from most parts of the world. In this session, we look at the historical trajectories that turned art history and anthropology to opposite directions as a way to examine the emergence of large theoretical and methodological gaps that have rendered the discussion of most world regions’ arts marginal to the cross-cultural study of artefacts, and aesthetics in most Western academic circles outside anthropology.


  1. How do art history and anthropology differ?
  2. What are the scopes and aims of the two disciplines?
  3. What questions will each of the two disciplines ask?
  4. Why did anthropology mostly focus on non-Western cultures?
  5. To what extent is art history only concerned with European and European-influenced cultures?

Week 2 - Non-Western Artefacts in the West.

Cultures have been in contact for millennia and objects exchanged hands since antiquity through trade, curiosity, and anthropological research. In this brief excursus of West’s multiple engagements with non-Western artefacts, we uncover the impact they had on the European imagination, from Renaissance cabinets of curiosity to Picasso and the Surrealists’ collecting of African and ‘tribal’ arts. A short history of the birth and differentiation of various types of museums will contextualise the ways in which European discourses on non-Western arts have been constructed on ideas of cultural difference (ethnographic arts), primitivism (prehistoric and tribal arts), exoticism (tourist arts), and orientalism (decorative and applied arts from eastern countries) to analyse how even today, art beyond the West is perceived and valued according to these standards. Between week 2 and week 3 students will be asked to visit a museum in anticipation of a class discussion in week 3 (e.g. Horniman Museum, British Museum, Wellcome collections London, Oxford Pitt Rivers, Cambridge Museum of Anthropology, Ashmolean, Brighton Pavillion, etc.).


  1. How have ideas of primitivism, orientalism, exoticism and cultural difference impacted European understandings of non-Western artefacts?
  2. To what extent can we link the idea of collecting with Europe’s colonial past?
  3. When did the notion of the ‘primitive’ emerge and why?
  4. In what context can we talk about ‘tribal’ arts?
  5. What is the status of ‘oriental’ arts in the Western imagination?

Week 3 – Ethnographic Artefacts versus Art.

Anthropology’s interest in cultural diversity is behind the creation of large collections of artefacts from all the world regions. Often these objects are stored and displayed in museums specifically build for them in the 19th c. Items gathered in ethnographic collections stand in stark contrast with art pieces that epitomise national heritages. With this lecture we aim at highlighting the subtle differences there are between folk traditions, cultural heritage, ethnographic objects, national collections, and high arts. These classifications will be juxtaposed to make sense of the contextual perceptions associated with diverse cultural productions from different parts of the world. We will specifically focus on the art-artefact nexus that still polarises popular perceptions and representations circulating in various places.


  1.  How has the division between art and artefact been used in Western institutional discourse?
  2. What is the status of artefacts in places where they are presented as ‘folk’ culture?
  3. What are the differences between folk and ethnographic arts?
  4. To what extent can contemporary non-Western arts be considered ‘ethnographic’?
  5. What are the implications for dividing high art from ethnographic and folk art?

Week 4 - Form and Function.

An anthropological study of art does not simply mean introducing non-Western arts in the comparative analysis of objects with aesthetic value, it is a more complex exercise that questions what counts as art, one that analyses whether or not what we can usually call ‘art’ practices (painting, sculpture, performance etc.) can be applicable to objects and experiences that in contexts outside the West may not be classified as such. Here we address how at the beginning anthropology began to study art produced in areas outside Europe, progressively moving away from formal analyses of objects and diffusion of ideas (Boas) to study their function from the vantage point of social structure (Sieber). Here we examine the limitations and advantages of using diffusionist and structural-functionalist ideas in the study of art developed in early anthropology.


  1. How far can a study of form and function take an anthropological analysis of artefacts?
  2. What are the limitations and benefits of using a diffusionist framework for an understanding of artistic changes?
  3. What was Boas’s most ground-breaking contribution to the study of non-Western arts?
  4. What is anthropology’s aim in studying non-Western arts if its object is not limited to studying aesthetics?
  5. How do we deal with artefacts that appear to be ‘art’ in places where there is no such concept?


Week 5 – Structures and Symbols.

Developments within anthropology shifted the attention from the function of objects to their inherent communicative potential. Art began to be interpreted as a symbolic language (Levi Strauss), then as text (Geertz), until anthropologists started looking at the materiality of objects to develop new theories (Miller). In this latter phase objects and humans were discussed as mutually constituted through practice. This new perspective was further developed into the notion of the agency of objects (Gell), which became extremely influential in new shifts towards anthropological theories of art. Agency theory eventually led to a new interest in local ideas about the active role of things, and how they are frequently thought to be alive. This lesson looks at the implications for direct applications of these theories to a study of artefacts worldwide.


  1. What was Levi-Strauss’s contribution to art history, and the study of art in anthropology?
  2. Why did anthropologists after Levi-Strauss engaged with the materiality of objects?
  3. Following Gell’s theory, how far can stretch the notion that objects have ‘agency’? 4. In many places artefacts embody the presence of invisible entities, what are the implications for collectors, museum professionals and gallerists?
  4. How can we explain the communicative potential of objects in non-Western contexts?

Week 6 – Authorship, Authenticity and Provenance.

Art historical prerogatives and parameters have very frequently offered a template for museums, galleries and collectors. Issues of provenance, authenticity and authorship are germane to the valuation of art/ethnographic/folk objects that circulate in multiple ways through art market circuits, auction houses, and museum acquisition channels. Here we discuss the implications and consequences for framing art pieces in terms of their market value, and the impact that connoisseurship may have in establishing aesthetic standards, economic worth, and prestige for individual pieces and eventually, entire collections.


  1. How important is to determine an object’s authorship?

  2. To what extent we can say that traditional cultures are unchanging?

  3. What are the implications for applying aesthetic judgements to non-western artefacts?

  4. How compatible are European and non-Western aesthetic systems?

  5. Why do Western institutions insist on the provenance of non-Western artefacts?

Week 7 – Heritage, Inspiration, Ethics, and Cultural Appropriation.

Peoples whose objects have been acquired during colonialism often consider items part of these collections as their cultural heritage. Claiming legitimacy on these items’ designs and specificity results in harsh diatribes on who has the right to produce, sell, or market art inspired by them, or that uses traditional motifs more generally. While the issue of authorship is not a universal concern, the mounting interest in these questions has generated legal and moral dilemmas for the display of non-Western objects more generally. Importantly, it has highlighted important problems related to the ethics of dispossession, the sale of art pieces from questionable sources, and representation of sensitive material (secret, religious, controversial) in museums and galleries to the larger public.


  1.  ‘Ethnic’ arts are source of inspiration for designers, fashion stylists and artists, how legitimate are non-Western peoples’ accusations of cultural appropriation?
  2. Inspiration and creativity are at the core of Western market’s driving forces, how ethical is the use of non-Western motifs in Western-produced merchandise?
  3. On what bases have display and sale of sacred objects in museums, auctions, and galleries been criticised?
  4. How can museums, galleries, collectors, and auction houses respond to the mounting criticism of being the soft arm of neo-colonial ideologies?
  5. What could institutions do to integrate non-Eurocentric strategies in their practice?

Week 8 - Decolonising Art Practices and Museums.

In the post-colonial era the active presence of non-Western and indigenous artists has radically reshaped the discourse and practices of art markets, museum representations, as well as collecting. Increasing pressure to relinquish colonial legacies entrenched in institutional operations of museums, art galleries, and auction houses have put in sharp focus minorities’ issues about power, notions of value, and problems of access to networks. Institutional marginalisation has prevented many artists around the world to actively engage with high-end trade markets limiting their creations to being perceived as either simple expressions of their cultures, or poor derivative copies of Western templates/models. This lesson also covers issues of repatriation and the establishment of tribal museums and indigenously-run cultural centres.


  1. What were the consequences of postcolonial independence for heritage, art, and folklore?
  2. What are the differences between postcolonial states, and settler colonial states with regards to the arts and heritage?
  3. How do socioeconomic differences impact non-Western artists/craftspeople access to art trade networks?
  4. What place do minority, indigenous, and postcolonial arts have in the current art trade?
  5. How far have galleries, auction houses, and museums engaged with postcolonial critiques?

Week 9 –Contemporary Worlds.

Biennales, museums, and art galleries are becoming increasingly more attuned to the emergence of new voices from the peripheries of the art historical world. Starting from the earliest attempts at creating new forums for the display and sale of non-European and indigenous arts, the lecture will cover the often contentious curatorial choices that over time have guided public perceptions of the art trade’s new ventures (investments in Aboriginal, Tribal Indian, or African arts), and the establishment of new discourses around them. This lesson will also address the most recent attempts at involving increasingly more artists in the art market by way of temporary exhibitions, and the effect of specialised galleries’ activities (e.g. expert forums, artist talks, educational lectures, round tables etc.).



  1. How can we explain the absence of indigenous, and non-Western artists in the art trade circuits?
  2. What can non-Western artists contribute to the art discourse and anthropology?
  3. Why would anthropology be interested in contemporary non-Western art and artists?
  4. What is the role of the ethnic-contemporary art dichotomy in today’s art market?
  5. How can we explain the overwhelming interest in some non-Western regional arts and the lack of attention to other areas?

Week 10 – Future Directions and Recap.

The complex issues engendered by the multiple intersections between all the actors that have roles in museums, art trade, and source communities (the makers of the arts outside the West) offer interesting new possibilities for the practice of both art and anthropology. In particular, they underscore the necessity of contextually evaluating the premises upon which professionals working in these fields may base their choices for working with specific communities. Contexts generated by the various connections between artists, source communities, collectors, gallerists and museum professionals indicate new exciting avenues for the exploration of alternative ways of working with and across disciplinary boundaries that so far have bound, both practically and discursively, activities and theories to their respective disciplines. In this session we explore new possibilities to advance novel approaches for dealing with art at the crossroad between art history and anthropology.


  1. How will museums deal with contemporary artists from areas well represented in their ethnographic collections?
  2. . What future productive areas of engagement can we foresee between source communities, collectors, and institutions (e.g. galleries, museums, art trade, and auction houses)?
  3. How useful could it be to apply different strategies of interaction between source communities, collectors, galleries, museums, art trade, and auction houses?
  4. To what extent art history and anthropology will remain separate domain of investigation in the foreseeable future?
  5. Museums and galleries’ attention to artefacts limits our understanding of arts as the study of objects. Will there ever be a chance to challenge this model with alternative scenarios?