People regularly come to this blog seeking to learn what bricolage is. This post explains some of its meanings. In another post I will explain why this blog takes its name.
Bricolage is a French term for which there is no suitable English equivalent. The word as I use it is described by Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind, a book in which the anthropologist demonstrates the high level of sophistication in so-called “primitive” societies:
The bricoleur is someone who works with his hands, using devious means. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. The set of the bricoleur’s means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project. It is to be defined only by its potential use, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that ‘they may always come in handy’. The bricoleur derives his poetry from the fact that he does not confine himself to accomplishment and execution: he speaks not only with things, but also through the medium of things: giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes between the limited possibilities. The bricoleur may not ever complete his purpose but he always puts something of himself into it.
Bricolage, as I use the term, is a particular type of art practice. The bricoleur does not have a program, but always makes due with what is at hand. Naturally, his skill set builds over time, as does his stockpile of tools and materials. He gets a feel for what types of things may come in handy, and for what types of projects they may be used for, some day. And just as all drawings and poems grow out of previous drawings and poems, all of the bricoleur’s acts become the groundwork for new acts.
Henry Darger's books
Certain art terms correspond with bricolage: autodidact, dilettante, folk art, collage and assemblage.
The bricoleur is an autodidact as well as a dilettante. Webster defines the first as “a person who is self-taught.” That is all. There is no pejorative connotation. However, Webster does apply pejorative values to the second term: “an admirer or lover of the fine arts; a dabbler; a trifler; one who pursues an art desultorily and for amusement; one who affects a taste for, or a degree of acquaintance with, or skill in, art which he does not possess.” It is hardly possible to think about bricolage without thinking about what the artist, in essence, is: someone who, at least in his work, chooses to define himself and, as far as possible, his relationship to society, rather than have others do it for him. And yet, if he is successful, he will have established himself, through his work, as a valuable part of the great continuum of human culture; people will view his work, discuss it, and sometimes argue over it. This means, to put it crudely, that the artist and society constantly use each other to define themselves.
If it is true that self-taught artists have traditionally been thought of as people with learning disabilities or mental health problems (Darger, Wölfli), it is no less true that established artists use any tool or discourse at hand to define themselves as well. For example, Francesco Clemente, one of the world’s most esteemed artists, embraced the term “dilettante”in its best sense: one who pursues art for no other reason than the love of it. Perhaps Clemente, born into the upper class, could afford to say so. And yet whereas the poor are not immune to dissimulation, they have no inclination to affect an interest in the arts, an activity they leave for the snobs. If someone is pursuing an interest in the arts, despite a lack of understanding or support from those around them, you can be sure their interest is genuine.
Yet again, all who follow their desires with no formal guidance or plan, despite class or education, are together dilettantes and bricoleurs. I sport the terms like a nosegay or wield them like a knife or a hammer, as the situation dictates.
Picasso, Woman with a Green Hat
Collage and Assemblage
Ever since Picasso introduced junk art to Europe—an approach which so-called “primitive” artists had been using for countless generations—western artists have been working in this area. Picasso bridged the gap, as it were, between ancient forms and the western classical tradition. At the same time the artists who rallied around the word “Dada” produced junk art which rejected all classical values. Although a Dada sympathizer, Kurt Schwitters created exquisite compositions out of refuse. He developed a type of picture building using junk, garbage, and refuse which Rauschenberg later made famous as “combine painting". Since then junk assemblage has been a widespread practice.
There is old junk and there is new junk. By the 1960's artists began using new junk—that is, cheap materials purchased at a store. In addition, since Duchamp introduced the Ready-mades, artists have been using manufactured objects unaltered, or have commissioned the manufacture of specific objects. But whereas for Duchamp the artist’s act of selecting and exhibiting the object was the art act, for Tony Smith, who had his six foot steel cube made for him, the object was the thing, whether he made it himself or hired a company to make it. For most of the twentieth century the two modes obtained: art tied to classical values, and art which rejected classical values. Generally, the first embraces beauty, and the second rejects beauty in favor of any number of ideological battles.
But whereas these modes of making art continue today, the debate or tension between them lost its astringency by the 1980's. We live in a world today characterized by narrative lassitude pierced by a number, the same old number, of dead discourses propped up by desperate minds. The bricoleur wants, first and foremost, to walk on the ground beneath his feet, to feel the elemental things once again. And that is what he is prepared to share with you on any given day.
Writing as Bricolage
Cutting and pasting, the use of found text, the willingness to use any type of discourse whatsoever, a complete disregard for genre and a love of the hybrid text—these are some of the features of the bricloeur as writer. She will read any kind of text or listen in on any conversation for no other reason than love of language. Her preferred mode of writing is poetry, for no other reason than poetry allows for the most open relationship with all of the modes of language. And yet poetry is not chaos. We are not talking about glossolalia when we talk about bricolage. To make a poem is to come into intimate contact with the world on a local level. The moment of poetry is a very specific, discrete moment, even when, as is often the case, the metaphorical resonances of words radiate back out into the world at large.
Blogging as Bricolage
The best blogs are acts of bricolage, journals produced out of an inner need, regardless of public opinion or reward, made with one’s set of skills and knowledge on hand. Blogs about how to succeed at this or that—say writing for example, advise specializing. Keep your theme simple and easy to grasp and repeat yourself ad nauseam. Not for me, thanks. Blogging can be seen as a unique art form, begging to utilize cut-and-paste from the World Wide Web. It’s a new kind of collage, incorporating images, texts, sounds and ideas. Why not use them all, why not take advantage of this relatively new set of tools? And while you’re at it, be yourself.