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Art and Conflicting, Overlapping, and Shifting forms of Agency

Posted By Steven F. H. Stowell, Monday, May 16, 2016
In recent decades, much research regarding the emotive, social and religious force of images have coalesced around discussions of art and agency. Following the influential work of anthropologist Alfred Gell, Early Modern art historians have asked how works of art had agency in religious, social and political spheres; that is, how were works of art attributed with the agency of sentient, social agents with psychological intentionality? These terms have been viewed as especially pertinent when discussing such objects as miracle-working images, and images that have agency through magic.


Gell’s theories of art objects’ psychological intentionality are in part a development of James George Frazer’s theories of sympathetic magic, in which objects have magical agency over other objects to which they are connected through likeness or contagion. However, Early Modern art works might appear to complicate or disrupt this interpretation since they have agency over a plethora of other objects and social agents, and therefore not only one form of agency but several. A miraculous image of the Virgin, for instance, has agency in many different scenarios, some of which might even appear to be antithetical to one another, as, for instance when an image miraculously restores lost wealth to one devotee while also encouraging the ideal of charity and poverty with another. Moreover, what “counted” as miraculous was also coming under increasing scrutiny in the Early Modern period, and thus various groups perceived agency differently.


This session seeks proposals for papers that address conflicting, overlapping and shifting agency in Early Modern art to explore how images had the power to manifest several sometimes antithetical or conflicting forms of agency.

Organizer: Steven Stowell, Concordia University, Montréal

Please send abstracts by 31 May to . As per the RSA proposal guidelines, please include:


-a paper title (15-word maximum)

-abstract (150-word maximum)


-a very brief curriculum vitae (300-word maximum).

Tags:  agency  anthropology  Art History  Cultural History  material culture  miracles  visual culture 

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