Anthropology of art is a sub-field in social anthropology dedicated to the study of art in different cultural contexts. The anthropology of art focuses on historical, economic and aesthetic dimensions in non-Western art forms, including what is known as 'tribal art'.
Franz Boas, one of the pioneers of modern anthropology, conducted many field studies of the arts, helping create a foundation to the field. His book, Primitive Art (1927), summarizes his main insights into so-called 'primitive' art forms, with a detailed case study on the arts of the Northwest Pacific Coast. The famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss took Boas' analyses further in his book The Way of the Masks, where he traced changes in the plastic form of Northwest Pacific masks to patterns of intercultural interaction among the indigenous peoples of the coast.
Essential contributions made to the field of art anthropology by M.N. Haidle showcase the biological changes necessary for humans to evolve creative capacities. These changes include precise hand-eye coordination, improvements in information processing systems, improved aesthetic awareness and prioritization, process-oriented teaching, advancements in communication, and the application of abstract concepts. Individuals that have developed such structural and cognitive advancements are enabled to produce art and will be evolutionarily selected for. Ellen Dissanayake has published work which contributes to this concept and suggests that creativity was practiced by only the most fit individuals within a population. Since artistic involvement is not an essential duty, it could only be produced once survival tasks were completed, and therefore, individuals with the highest fitness could partake. This exemplifies the selection of artistic individuals, since fitness is concomitant with participation in leisure activity. Gillian Morriss-Kay addressed preliminary artistic patters like zig-zag, criss-cross, and parallel lines. Use of patterns indicate advancements in cognition and signify an evolutionary step towards increasing complexity in imaginative capability. Early interpretations of the human form, as seen in the Venus Figurines and the Lion-Man reflect this evolutionary step by indicating awareness of anatomy and the function of symbolism.
One of the central problems in the anthropology of art concerns the universality of 'art' as a cultural phenomenon. Several anthropologists have noted that the Western categories of 'painting', 'sculpture', or 'literature', conceived as independent artistic activities, do not exist, or exist in a significantly different form, in most non-Western contexts. Thus, there is no consensus on a single, cross-cultural definition of 'art' in anthropology. To surmount this difficulty, anthropologists of art have focused on formal features in objects which, without exclusively being 'artistic', have certain evident 'aesthetic' qualities. Boas' Primitive Art, Claude Lévi-Strauss' The Way of the Masks (1982) or Geertz's 'Art as Cultural System' (1983) are some examples in this trend to transform the anthropology of 'art' into an anthropology of culturally-specific 'aesthetics'. More recently, in his book Art and Agency, Alfred Gell proposed a new definition of 'art' as a complex system of intentionality, where artists produce art objects to effect changes in the world, including (but not restricted to) changes in the aesthetic perceptions of art audiences. Gell's ideas have stirred a large controversy in the anthropology of art in the 2000s.