What happens when you turn twice? Where the pictorial turn meets the material turn

By Koenraad Vos.

Published by The International Journal of Arts Theory and History

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published Online: June 3, 2016 $US5.00

Considering the link between the lives of artworks and their agency in light of new materialism and its interest in the agency of matter and objects, this article looks at Karen Barad's agential realism, as put forward in her book "Meeting the Universe Halfway," and its relevance to art theory. It discusses several theories on the agency of artworks or images (those of Gell, Mitchell, and Bredekamp) and argues that Barad’s philosophy could be used as theoretical basis for thinking about material agency in these cases. The recent years have seen an increasing interest in the power and life of pictures. The amount of interest in this topic has generated several differing theories on how this phenomenon operates. One of these is W. J.T. Mitchell's "What Do Pictures Want?" Mitchell conceptualises the life of pictures within a "double consciousness": we don’t really believe pictures are alive, but despite the knowledge of their lifelessness we still attribute properties of life to them. Alfred Gell's "Art and Agency" resolves this double consciousness by severing the link between (biological) life and agency. For Gell, following his ideas of anthropology as the study of social relations, artworks act as social agents and are the central index in a nexus of relations. We should not see the way artworks act upon us in terms of life, but in terms of agency. Another take on this is given by Horst Bredekamp in his "Theorie des Bildakts." His more fundamental approach solves some of the problems in Gell's theory, but, as he himself admits, lacks a metaphysical framework. Barad’s theory of agential realism can provide this framework. Its relevance lies particularly in the role the experiment plays in the way agency is given an ontological basis, giving it special relevance to art theory because of the parallels to visual perception.

Keywords: Material Agency, Material Turn, Pictorial Turn

The International Journal of Arts Theory and History, Volume 11, Issue 3, September, 2016, pp.19-29. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published Online: June 3, 2016 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 507.501KB)).

Koenraad Vos

Graduate Student, Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University, Utrecht, Netherlands