What are Material Practices?
By material practices I mean creative practices in the arts which privilege materiality. The experience of the creative work – the aesthetic object – is a visceral response to its material qualities. The object’s appeal is to the body, senses and emotions.
I take a contextualist view of materiality. The origin and life of an aesthetic object occurs within a particular socio-historical context which is encoded in the material qualities of the object. Creative works therefore carry social and political meanings embedded in their physical features.
Material Practices as Marginalized Practices
Materiality has been subordinated to immateriality in Western aesthetics. The origins of this are the mind-body split in Western philosophy and theology. In the arts, this lead to high-low distinctions (high = immateriality, low = materiality). These hierarchical distinctions are supported by the dominant culture in order to maintain its hegemony. There are exceptions to this, of course, but our inherited systems of aesthetics are strongly based on this binary hierarchy.
Material practices, therefore, as I define them, tend to be marginalized practices. They originate in and are primarily used by sub-cultures. This happens for two reasons:
- Lack of resources needed for producing “high” works
- Deliberate appropriation of “lowbrow” approaches
Examples of the former include:
- Indigenous and vernacular architecture
- Folk art and music
- Popular music originating in low income and minority communities, such as prewar blues, jazz, rhythm and blues and country
- ‘B’ films, such as film noir
Examples of the latter include:
- Critical regionalist architecture
- Popular music associated with middle-class youth subcultures, such as rock music and rap
- Avant-garde practices in the visual arts such as Dada, abstract expressionism, pop art and post-minimalism
- Literary avant-garde
Material Practices in Immaterial Arts?
Materiality entered the discourses of all of the arts during the 1980s and 90s. Although its relevance for the visual arts is obvious, its importance to the performing and literary arts is less apparent (no pun intended).
However, aesthetic theories of materiality have emerged in these immaterial arts, including music and literature. I plan to write about these in future posts.
In summary, I define material practices as those originating in marginalized cultures which unconsciously or consciously subvert traditional aesthetics by privileging materiality. Aesthetic and social meanings elide. The aesthetic object becomes a mystery waiting to be solved through visceral engagement.
© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013