Materiality and Aesthetics

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Gordon Matta-Clark, Office Baroque © 2012 Estate of Gordon Matta Clark (Photo: Vanessa Miralles)

Gordon Matta-Clark, Office Baroque
© 2012 Estate of Gordon Matta Clark (Photo: Vanessa Miralles)


Techne, bricolage, and protogeometricality are the key principles of material practices. These principles have traits in common, and traits not in common.

Applied to the arts, material practices refer to the creative process: the production of creative works/aesthetic objects. The three principles, and how I’ve interpreted them are:

Techne: A way to look at any creative process. There are two types of techne: 1) non-industrial techne, and 2) industrial techne. These reflect, respectively, two opposing views of the relationship between creator and nature: 1) creator accepts nature, and 2) creator challenges nature.

Bricolage: A particular type of creative process, in which an inventory of at-hand materials drives the process. Viewed as techne, bricolage is a type of non-industrial creative process, but exclusive of craft.

Protogeometricality: The presence of protogeometrical formal characteristics, those in the “inexact” end of the exact-inexact spectrum.

A key difference in these terms is that techne and bricolage refer to the creative process whereas protogeometricality refers to the formal properties of the output of this process – the creative work.

A way to examine the other similarities and differences between these principles is to use Heidegger’s “four causalities” associated with a creative work:

  • Material
  • Form
  • Use
  • Creator



Jorge Otero-Pailos, "The Ethics of Dust: Doge's Palace, Venice, 2009" (Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Foundation)

Jorge Otero-Pailos, “The Ethics of Dust: Doge’s Palace, Venice, 2009” (Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Foundation)

A material has a life cycle:

  • Raw material obtained from nature
  • Transformed raw material into the creator’s material
  • Material in place in the work, continually transforming due to exposure to the elements and to use

Viewed as a product of techne, materials are seen as an index of this life cycle. Bricolage provides a strategy of using “found” materials, a “form follows material” approach. Combined, these ideas compliment the modernist notion of “truth to materials.”

The recycled materials of bricolage and the handmade materials of non-industrial techne are protogeometrical – less exact in their properties than gleaming, new, high tech materials. Roughhewn handmade materials typically exhibit the heterogeneous properties of their natural raw materials.



Mockbee-Coker, Cook House (Photo: Undine Prohl)

Mockbee-Coker, Cook House (Photo: Undine Prohl)

For a work – and an inventory of materials – created through a process incorporating non-industrial techne, its form, and the form of each of its constituent materials, is seen as a continually evolving index of its being-in-the-world. As an object of perception it depends on natural and social phenomena in its context, as part of its totality.

As bricolage the work’s form derives directly from its materials, which may have been

The form of the work is inspired by the protogeometricality of indigenous and vernacular form; biological form (biomimetic); or inorganic natural form.



Bricolage counters the relationship between use and form found in traditional aesthetics:

  • Classicism: Use follows form
  • Modernism: Form follows use (function)

Instead, form follows material.

Even in techne, as interpreted by Heidegger, use is given equal status with materials (and creator) as a determinate of form. However, “use,” in pre-industrial techne, conflated art and functionality. Objects with practical purposes were made artfully, and art works had practical – often mytho-religious – purposes.

Husserl’s notes on pre-, and protogeometry suggest that the “rough” forms of human-made objects in early antiquity were the results of hand-working natural materials into useful forms. These required roughly geometrical qualities to make them more useful. However, they retained their essential “rough” traits. The selection of a particular raw material was based on its potential to be transformed into something useful. It might even have inspired the idea to make the work to begin with – ancient bricolage drawing on an at-hand inventory of natural elements (James Gibson refers to these as “affordances”).



Techne, as a key aspect of Heidegger’s notion of “dwelling,” finding a rooted, at-peace existence in the world by mending the human-nature, and human-community rupture caused by modern technology, expresses the belief in a profound relationship between the creator’s psyche and the rite of creative work. According to Heidegger, the Greek term for artist was “technite.”

Similarly, Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur engages in a “dialogue with nature.” The bricoleur transforms the leftovers of their cultural community’s past, thus maintaining a place in that community and memorializing its legacy. The bricoleur is culture’s recycler.

Similarly, the first pre-industrial technites, who forged protogeometrical forms out of a-geometrical natural materials, engaged nature.

These creators:

  • Nurture their relationship with nature and community through creative work
  • Have highly developed abilities to imaginatively transform natural and human-made objects in their environment into new forms, for new uses
  • Appreciate and/or use “low-tech” means to produce creative works



Robert Rauschenberg, Rebus: 1955

Robert Rauschenberg, Rebus: 1955

Techne, bricolage, and protogeometricality – contain a set of aesthetic principles which may be used to illuminate movements, and works, in arts which privilege materiality.   

Before I discuss these principles I want to try to make a case for why these ideas matter.

Certain movements and works in the arts today are appreciated by their adherents because of their material qualities:

  • They have roots in vernacular/indigenous traditions which aim less for intellectual responses than perceptual, corporeal, and emotional responses

These movements matter because they fully realize the creative and egalitarian promise of modernity – to draw inspiration from the “messy vitality” of everyday life in a society committed to democratic ideals. They maintain cultural memory by reinventing the past in radically experimental ways. For those who experience them with an open mind, they waken senses numbed by the abstraction of much of modern experience.

Techne, bricolage, and protogeometricality are important theoretical ideas because they provide tools for understanding and appreciating material practices such as these.

These ideas contain 5 key aesthetic principles:

  1. Materiality as aesthetic theme  
  2. Aesthetic object as index  
  3. Form-making effects of hand versus machine techniques
  4. Form follows material  
  5. Perceptible heterogeneity

In future posts I’ll illustrate these principles further using examples from the arts.


© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013

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