Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bricolage, Bricoleur: What is It?

Kifwebe mask

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.


  1. Bravo and Amen to all that.

    To be the Kurt Schwitters or Rauschenberg of Blogging, now there's an idea!

  2. "Keep your theme simple and easy to grasp and repeat yourself ad nauseam."

    Yeah, I don't get that one either. I also don't get the blogs where the advertising outweighs the content.

    This I totally get:
    "..one who pursues art for no other reason than the love of it."

    I've run into many many people over the years who lost all passion for something they had previously loved once it became a job. You need to separate the two to balance your life. Things you do for work, and things you do because they feed your soul.
    Great post mark. Thanks.

  3. This is why I love your blog. I always learn something. The bits and pieces of life, cut, pasted and sewn together, are the interesting parts.

  4. Hear! Hear! What you've explained so eloquently, with depth and perception, I have mind-labeled "organic" without the tools to verbalize. That's what I like about you.

  5. I don't care for the idea of a blog being a paste-up of others' ideas copied from the internet.

    Genre is created by the need of the artist's immediate need in creating his art. Tradition decides whether to keep that invention.

    --Roberta SchulbergGoro

  6. Roberta said, "I don't care for the idea of a blog being a paste-up of others' ideas copied from the internet. "

    - There are lots of blogs that do this - tumblr is full of them - people who just present poems or quotations and images they have culled from the web. They can be fun to look at if you like the person's taste. But that's not the kind of blog I make and it isn't the kind of blog I have advocated making.

    I have said that cutting and pasting and the use of found text are among the bricoleur's tools. They're not the only ones (and the only use of found text you will find on my blog is in the form of old-fashioned quotations). I think it's a useful image though to imagine the culling and gestation of ideas as someone cutting things out, as if he were going to make a collage. Isn't this what we do when we have our eyes and ears open, when we read? Things catch our attention, they appeal to us. We collect them for later use. We combine things, see what happens when we put this with that. Bricolage is all about individual creativity. Look at the examples I've given: assemblage, collage, the poetry of Anne Carson.

  7. This resonates, especially the section, "Writing as Bricolage."

    I read an article about Carson the other month, how she's been known to wander through libraries, picking up random books that interest her, and how some of these books, ideas, end up in her writing.

    I admired Carson long before I read that article, but after reading it (and seeing myself, in a way, in her), I admired her even more.

    I posted a poem on my blog last week, A Mythology of Blue, which was a bricolage poem. I studied bricolage while still an undergraduate student, but now, all these years later, see that it is a lifestyle, one I live.

    Thank you for this illuminating post.

  8. There are quite a few suitable English equivalents of the French verb "bricoler"… which, incidentally, has always been almost totally pejorative. Normally, a serious artist would not like to be described as a "bricoleur". Throw together bits and pieces, knock up a hasty solution to a problem, work shoddily, perform an ordinary task in a messy and incompetent fashion, fiddle…

    Funnily, the origin of the French noun "bricole" is an Italian term, "briccola" (with two "c"s), designating the string of an archer's bow. The term "bricole" has been used in French to designate the element of a horse's harness that passes over the animal's chest. It also designates the strap used by a human porter enabling him to lift and carry a heavy and bulky object such as a piano. More recently, "bricole" has come to designate a small accessory, or an insignificant object. And that is the origin of its current pejorative sense.

  9. William: I haven't written about the French verb "bricoler", I have written about the term "bricolage" as described by Lévi-Strauss. According to the passage that I cite there are no English words that I think are suitable. "Dabbler" or "handyman" are not appropriate. "Self-taught artist", "craftsman" or "folk artist" are better terms, but since it is Lévi-Strauss's description that appeals to me I see no reason not to use his term.

    If the terms "bricoleur" and "bricolage" (and not just "bricoler") are "almost totally pejorative" in France then I still can't think of an exact English equivalent - "slacker" doesn't seem to cover it. It might be that were I a Frenchman I would not have a blog titled The Bricoleur. I'll never know. But I am an American, and I have used this French word for my own purposes. I have done so respectfully, again, out of great admiration for a very fine French writer.

  10. Terresa: I think it's cool that someone as brilliant as Carson would wander through bookshelves in a desultory manner. That's how I discovered her. I happened to pick up a New York Review of Books, which I do not read regularly, and there happened to be an article on her in it. It was not a particularly flattering article, and yet I was intrigued. I went to a bookstore, found a couple of her books and instantly fell in love.

    Your poem http://goo.gl/yp2aq is a beautiful example of what I think of as bricolage as poetry.

  11. Wandering, serendipitous discovery is just as vital as focused study, don't you think?

    About the poem, thank you.

  12. Thank you, especially for your last paragraph here. I've been leaning toward the same line of believing.

  13. In the process of reviewing my past forty years in the visual arts, this term came to mind again, and prompted a Google search, where I found this blog. In the 1970s, when I was an MFA student in painting and photography at Cornell and discovering Feminist Art History, one of my teachers called me a "bricoleuse" and talked about this term from a Feminist perspective. Fascinating to think about how this term applies to women's' lives and women's creative output!