Material Practices

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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:

  1. Lack of resources needed for producing “high” works
  2. 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

Vernacular Building, Alabama (Photo: Don Armstrong)

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

Sculpture, Richard Serra (Photo: Don Armstrong)

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.

Photo: Carl Van Vechten

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie (Photo: Carl Van Vechten)

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






4 thoughts on “Material Practices

  1. Very refreshing and down to the point Don.
    Is this a topic or type of discussion you would incorporate into the “Materials and Construction Procedures”? Or you think this a provocative “thought” not worthy of a classroom “event”?
    Looking forward to your future posts.

  2. Definitely plan to incorporate into my teaching as well as my research “lens.” How? We’ll see, will keep you “posted.” Any thoughts on ways to fold into beginning design?

    Jose, thanks for comments, please feel free to share this blogsite with any architects or faculty who might like it – are you blogging these days?

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your discourse on the symmetry found present in techne and the concept of bricolage. It definitely gets the reader’s attention (or at least my attention) for it currently has me reminiscing about old St. Joe brick (a vernacular brick praised in the southeast).

    In response to Mr. Colmenares question, your thoughts and views on material practices and the correlations between art and architecture are noteworthy for “classroom” events and one you should continue to pursue and develop. I find this to be very important in eliciting critical thinking and discussion among classroom participants and as encouragement for the designers of tomorrow.


    • Barja, thanks for your kind remarks. I’m hoping to, after sketching a semi-coherent theory synthesizing a set of concepts – techne, bricolage and inexact science (to come) – move into applications, including teaching. Any thoughts on how to bring this into beginning design? As you know, as a TU grad, the Tuskegee campus historic buildings – and the student-made brick – are physical manifestations of these principles, plan to blog about this soon.

      Would love to hear more about St. Joe brick, including any photos (send as a comment and I’ll post). Thanks for the feedback, keep it coming!

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