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Ethnographic Art Worlds

The Creative Figuration of Art and Anthropology

Silvy Chakkalakal

Pages 489 - 515


Between the 1920s and the 1940s, cultural anthropology in the United States—and Boasian anthropology in particular—appeared as a collaborative field connected to a social milieu of writers, musicians, filmmakers, dancers, and scholars from a variety of disciplines. My article focuses on this broad network of people who worked on projects, discussed broader social questions, and developed methodological concepts. This collaborative field stemmed from a cultural milieu of intellectuals and artists who used the interdisciplinary space to reflect upon their own work and the society they lived in. I employ and widen Norbert Elias’s concept of figuration to focus on reciprocal relationships and exchange in order to understand the dynamic networks of art and anthropology between the 1920s and 1940s. By analyzing the entanglements between art and design, anthropology, sociology, literary culture, and pragmatist philosophy, we can gain an understanding of the protagonists’ notions of aesthetics as a sensory, practical, and educative way of knowledge production. My figurational examination of the motif of anthropological gesture in the filmic work of Maya Deren, in Mead and Bateson’s picture-ethnography ‘Balinese Character’ (1942), and in Bateson’s and Xanti Schawinsky’s MOMA exhibition ‘Bali, Background for War’ (1943), illuminates how art and anthropology become inextricable.


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