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Modern Art and the Scientific Aesthetics of Radcliffe-Brown: Towards ‘The Social Organisation of Australian Tribes’ (1931)

Dr Isak Niehaus, Brunel University London

Wednesday 13 March at 5.30 pm

In this seminar, I suggest that modern art was a major inspiration for the social structural approach in anthropology pioneered by A.R Radcliffe-Brown. This suggestion is counter-intuitive, given that Radcliffe-Brown is known to have advocated studying social life by methods similar as those in the natural sciences, rather than by more humanist orientated, approaches. However, during the early twentieth century no insurmountable gulf separated the sciences and arts. Drawing on archival sources, I show that in addition to his anthropological work, Radcliffe-Brown was a vocal proponent of modernism in the arts. As President of the Five Arts Club in Sydney, he argued that art should be in concert with the ‘scientific spirit’ of the time. He opposed photographic realism, sentimentalism, vagueness, and the over-elaboration of detail; and advocated abstraction based on a definite method of composition, hard lines. and definite forms. This orientation is also apparent in his rejection of ethnographic romanticism of his predecessors, EH Man and Daisy Bates, and in the composition of his seminal work, The Social Organisation of Australian Tribes (1931). The study follows the principles of minimalism and abstraction, and seeks to elucidate structural forms underlying social interaction.

Isak Niehaus is a senior lecturer at Brunel University London, whose fields of interest include South African ethnography (witchcraft, local level politics, HIV/AIDS) and the history of anthropology. His most recent monograph is AIDS in the Shadow of Biomedicine: Inside South Africa’s Epidemic (Zed Books, 2018).      

This event is free, but tickets must be booked. To book tickets please go to https://niehaus.eventbrite.co.uk

Location : Royal Anthropological Institute
50 Fitzroy Street
United Kingdom