On Matters, Materiality, and Materialism Entanglements with Art History

by Vanessa Badagliacca, New University of Lisbon

Addressing the significant role covered by materiality and matter as more than a superficial texture or feature to display the inherent meaning of artworks—whose content is generally considered as the unique herald to define and analyze them—it seems worthwhile mentioning Daniel Herwitz’s Aesthetics (2008) referring to Canova’s marble in sculpture.


Change the material and everything changes with it. The materiality of the finished form is something that cannot be abstracted from visual experience, or from meaning and effect. […] These things give truth to Hegel’s adage that ‘not all things are possible in all media of art’, and related, that it is the discovery of the potentialities of any given medium, their exploitation and indeed, creation, that defines the history of an art form as much anything else.”[i]


Herwitz’s assertiveness could lead the reader (a general reader external to the investigation in art history) to think about the central role of materiality in art as a given issue, but it is not. After a long marginalization of materiality in the arts over the last century, an interest in this field of enquiry finally emerged in the 1990s: the art historian Florence de Mèredieu provided an outstanding contribution with Histoire Matérielle & Immatérielle de l’Art Moderne (1994). In the introduction to her book she argued that “art history has always appeared as the result or the encounter of two opposed, and consequently, complementary factors: matter and form. […] Therefore, art history, for a large part, is that of its materials.”[ii] Nevertheless, she also acknowledged that, at least within the field of Western art, “it is noteworthy that these materials were relatively limited. […] Art, therefore, remained quartered for a long time in a relatively closed field of materials.”[iii] Moreover, she stated that every technique also evolved over the centuries, and consequently, de Mèredieu highlighted that, especially in the realm of European Avant-gardes at the beginning of the 20th century, artistic practices enriched and diversified themselves through the use of non-traditional materials .

Poor, recycled, industrial, inferred from nature, and even involving the human body, the materials of the 20th century inform one of an expansion in the realm of art, going hand in hand with the historical, economic, cultural, and societal developments of the century. In 1997 the art historian Adalgisa Lugli developed her investigations on Wunderkammern. Her approach—as Krzystof Pomian pointed out in the introduction to her volume—was stimulated by the conviction that an artwork cannot be treated as a text, in other words, “an artwork cannot be separated from its materiality.”[iv] This statement means that the choice of using one medium instead of another is not, and should not, be indifferent to the art historian, since that difference is foundational for the producer as well as for the consumer of a given art object.

At that time, the last decade of the 20th century, digital media were encountering a wide spread, which provoked the rise of visual studies as a field of interdisciplinary encounters. In this context, art history, traditionally the discipline devoted to the analysis of images and art objects, would lose its centrality. In that same period, art historian Carol Armstrong also emphasized the attention to the difference in materiality, in other words, to the use of a material instead of another for artistic purposes. Her statements, in fact, appeared in the “Visual Culture Questionnaire” published on, the journal October (1996), and directed to several art historians including Carol Armstrong.[v]

As a first remark, my aim is to follow Armstrong’s attention to artifacts in their materiality in a context broader than art history—as that of visual studies is. To that extent, I will appropriate a sentence formulated in 1980, “Do Artifacts have Politics ?”, the question entitling an article by Winner (1980). By transposing it into an affirmative sentence, inverting the order of the question, I would, therefore, argue that “artifacts do have politics,”[vi] and for this reason materiality should not be overlooked by art-historical studies. However, if we consider that art history might tend to privilege the visual aspects rather than the material ones, the image over the object, these references could be observed just as sporadic examples in this discipline. Nevertheless, more recently—precisely in the second decade of the 21st century—literature on art history and materiality have finally started to pay serious attention to this everything less than secondary aspect of art history.

Conversely, an essential part in archaeology research since the inception of the discipline in the 19th century, always involved the materiality of objects. “Material culture” is grounded on an analysis of material objects inherent to a specific context in which they were produced—especially in cases in which objects are the sole resources of information due to a lack of written documents. Apt to provide elements for knowledge on a specific culture, material culture has therefore been at the core of anthropology and sociology research as well. Regarding the relationship between material culture and art history, the art historian Michael Yonan argued


Materiality […] has been an implicit dimension of art-historical inquiry for more than a century, one that has suffered at the expense of other artistic qualities. Art history has tended to suppress its status as material culture even as it has flirted continuously with materiality, and this has evolved into a serious intellectual limitation. The prestige recently accorded to dematerializing approaches to art, which have resulted in a diminished concern for materiality in general, has only exacerbated the situation.[vii]


The issue of dematerialization stressed by Yonan underlines the importance of materiality in art. Moreover, Yonan also associated the disregard to material culture in art history as a theme which inevitably “overlaps with the larger concerns of historical materialism, which in art-historical discourse has meant a Marxist (or Marxist-inspired) history of art interested in the economic and therefore material conditions from which art is produced.”[viii] The materialist approach— inspired by Marxist historical materialism—would lead us to consider artworks as a commodity, an overly reductive perspective that has caused major resistance for applying it to art history.

At this point, it is important to underscore that the defense of materiality’s art as a perspective for art history research, neither me or Yonan (recalled here as a useful reference) or the art historians mentioned above, attempt to pursue any prevarication of materiality over the visual, but rather “to some extent it is possible to imagine visual culture and material culture as interrelated aspects of the same scholarly project.”[ix] Even“the digital image”, in its disembodied bi-dimensionality, “still requires a material means of conveyance […] to be seen.”[x] Moreover, I would add that the same technological devices are not neutrally interchangeable, since they affect the way we access information differently, and interact with people, facts and things; in this case, the way we see an image.[xi] Afterwards, Yonan referred to the position previously defended by Armstrong in 1996. According to the latter, whether the advantages of including visual studies in art history, it threatens to conceal  the importance of materiality. She, therefore, concluded her intervention to the questionnaire arguing:


The material dimension of the objects is, in my view, at least potentially a site of resistance and recalcitrance, of the irreducibly particular, and of the subversively strange and pleasurable. It is again, at least potentially, a pocket of occlusion within the smooth functioning systems of domination, including the market, the hierarchical thought-structures, and subject-positionalities: a glitch in the great worldwide web of images and representations. […] [T]o subsume material objects within the model of “text” is to discredit and misunderstand the particular intelligence involved in material facture. And least, I would propose that the differences between kinds of production, be they literary, or pictorial, painterly, sculptural, photographic, filmic, or what have you, matter absolutely, that they are the source of whatever philosophical work it does, and that to ignore those differences is to submit utterly to the system of exchange and circulation in which any cultural object undeniably participates.[xii]


In continuity with Armstrong’s insight, Yonan pointed out that “the interdisciplinary practices of material culture” must be taken into account, and suggested “mov[ing] toward a more complete synthesis” between art history and material culture, also highlighting “that art has a physical, sensual dimension, and not just a visual one. […] The physical dimension is an indissoluble component of art’s capacity to mean.”[xiii] He eventually proposed, instead of the allegory of shadow represented by Plato’s cave in The Republic, to consider Aristotle’s Metaphysics, “in which the philosopher conceives the world not as traces of something else but as organized embodiments of matter and form.”[xiv] Following this path, according to Yonan, could have the only beneficial result of empowering art history.

Nevertheless, this attention to materiality in art historical and theoretical investigation has just begun, if we also consider the position of the Dutch art historian Ann-Sophie Lehmann. She opened up her recent essay “The Matter of the Medium: Some Tools for an Art-theoretical Interpretation of Materials” (2014) declaring: “Materials, in spite of their decisive role in determining the meaning and effects of visual artifacts, have long been overlooked in art-theoretical discussion.”[xv] According to her colleague and scholar in gender studies and philosophy Iris Van der Tuin, Lehmann coined the “4Ms”, which attempt to define “the precise relationships between matter, materials, materiality, and materialism.”[xvi] Her approach must be framed in the broader intellectual context of cultural theory, whose interest in matter has determined in recent years the so-called philosophy of New Materialisms. According to the initial theorists of this current, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost


For materiality is always something more than “mere” matter: an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable. In sum, new materialists are rediscovering a materiality that materializes, evincing immanent modes of self-transformation that compel us to think of causation in far more complex terms; to recognize that phenomena are caught in a multitude of interlocking systems and focus and to consider anew the location and nature of capacities for agency.[xvii]


As Yanbing Er pointed out, the New Materialisms’ focus on matter involved also investigations in the fields of “material culture, eco-critical discourses, material feminisms, and science studies,” in the attempt not to abandon “the historical legacies of materialist thought,” but rather “to reconsider the notion of matter in “acknowledgement of the powerful constellation of geopolitical and biotechnological forces acting in the world today.”[xviii] These connections and inclusions towards pluralistic theoretical approaches, overcoming “the otherwise narrow boundaries of traditional academic disciplines,”[xix] highlight the transversal orientation of New Materialisms. The terms transversal, transversally, and transversality are repeatedly emphasized in Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies (2012) regarding different aspects.

In the first place, this theoretical approach dismantles the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. This cultural theory

Does not privilege matter over meaning or culture over nature. It explores a monist perspective, devoid of the dualisms that have dominated the humanities (and sciences) until today, by giving special attention to matter, which has been so neglected by dualist thought. Cartesian dualism, after all, has favored mind.[xx]


In second place, the transversality of New Materialism is also proposed as a “shift” from the

Dualist  gesture of prioritizing mind over matter, soul over body, and culture over nature that can be found in modernist as well as post-modernist cultural theories. […] In other words: a new materialism is constituted by demonstrating how the canonized relations between the aforementioned terms are in fact the outcomes of “power/knowledge” according to which Truth is an instantiation of a politics or régime, as Michel Foucault (1980) would have it.[xxi]


Moreover, renewed concern about the matter, materials, and materiality in artistic practices realized in the first years of the 21st century also coincides with a different approach to the objects in the ocean of production and consumption of them. In the realm of pollution, nature devastation and increasing amounts of waste, strategies such as recycling, reusing and even using less interrogate our own attitudes towards materiality even in our most ordinary activities. These concerns do not only belong, or can be relegated to, behavioral practices to which we can sympathize with, or have an interest in, but rather they have became a crucial necessity calling us to participate and take responsibility. Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden (2012) is just an example of this kind of reflections in the artistic practices.

Particularly remarkable Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’ statements at the core of the theories around the New Materialisms:


As critically engaged theorists, we find ourselves compelled to explore the significance of complex issues such as climate change of global capital and population flows, the biotechnological engineering of genetically modified organisms, or the saturation of our intimate and physical lives by digital, wireless, and virtual technologies. From our understanding of the boundary between life and death and our everyday work practices to the way we feed ourselves and recreate or procreate, we are finding our environment materially and conceptually reconstituted in ways that pose profound and unprecedented normative questions. In addressing them we unavoidably find ourselves having to think in new ways about the nature of matter and the matter of nature; about the elements of life, the resilience of the planet, and the distinction of the human.[xxii]

Facing “the elements of life, the resilience of the planet, and the distinction of the human,” the way the authors put them, in a time in which other philosophical perspectives replaced anthropocentrism, we should approach, more than ever, materiality as a resource for further investigations in the realm of art history. Regarding the most recent practice and theories of art, it is remarkable, in this context, the pivotal exhibition for the 21st century held in Kassel in 2012. In fact, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev conceived Documenta 13, with a program that was the fruit of a “‘holistic and non-logocentric vision,’ whose associative structure insisted upon ‘a more balanced relationship with all the non-human makers with whom we share the planet and our bodies.’”[xxiii]  This kind of perspective may be adopted not only for the analysis of artistic practices occurring in our present time, but also to re-read and propose renewed perspectives in the study of past artistic practices. In a nutshell, the discipline of art history would be enriched by including materiality in lateral sense in its field of research.


[i] Daniel Herwitz, Aesthetics. Key Concepts in Philosophy, London, New York: Continuum, 2008, 139.

[ii] “L’art est toujours apparu comme la resultante ou la rencontre de deux facteurs opposés et, par voie de conséquence, complémentaires: la matière et la forme.” […] L’histoire de l’art est ainsi, pour une large part, celle de ses matériaux.” Florence de Mèredieu, Histoire matérielle & immatérielle de l’art moderne, Bordas, Paris, 1994, 1.

[iii] “Mais, si l’on reste dans le seul champ de l’art occidental, il convient de remarquer que ces matériaux son restés en nombre relativement restreint. […] L’art est donc resté cantonné longtemps dans un champ matériel relativement clos”. F. de Mèredieu, Histoire matérielle & immatérielle de l’art moderne, Cit., 1.

[iv] K. Pomian, “Adalgisa Lugli: materialità e significato dell’arte”, Introduction to Adalgisa Lugli, Wunderkammer. Le Stanze delle Meraviglie, Torino: Allemandi, 1997, 14.

[v] See “Visual Culture Questionnaire”, October 77 (Summer 1996): 25–70. Available at <http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/VisualCultureQuestionnaire-October-77-1996.pdf> (accessed in September 2015). Quoted by Michael Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, in West 86th, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011), The University of Chicago Press, 232-248: 239.

[vi] Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?, Daedalus, Vol. 109, No.1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter, 1980), 121-136. I find extraordinary this kind of reflection having appeared already in 1980 and I think it can be useful to summarize its key points and arguments. In this article Winner suggested that technology is generally considered as a symptom by which we might recognize an authoritarian versus a democratic society. “We all know that people have politics, not things”, he argued and later added, “What matters is not technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded.” He also noticed that this would be a easy conclusion for social scientists and, therefore, proposed a theory of technological politics, in the attempt of, not replacing, but rather complementing theories of social determination and technology (Marxism, for instance). The approach would pay “attention to the characteristics of technical objects and the meaning of those characteristics.” For instance, Winner distinguished two ways that artefacts can contain political properties: 1) a specific invention, design or technical device can determine a particular social effect in a community (I would call it inductive) or; 2) when a particular political situation is the essential condition to establish a specific “man-made system” (I would call it deductive). He afterwards offered some examples of both ways, like Robert Moses’s buildings of roads, parks and public works (infrastructures) between the 1930s and 1970s in New York to create borders between upper and lower classes, white and black people; and the atomic bomb as “an inherently political artefact”.

[vii] Michael Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, in West 86th, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011), The University of Chicago Press, 232-248: 233.

[viii] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 235.

[ix] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 239.

[x] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 239. Moreover, I would add that even technological devices are not neutrally interchangeable, since they different affect the way we access information, in this case, the way we see an image.

[xi] It seems appropriate remembering the writer Evgeny Morozov’s statement “Why technologies are never neutral”, which entitles the last part of the 10th chapter of his E. Morozov, The Net Delusion. The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

[xii] Carol Armstrong, in “Visual Culture Questionnaire”, October, Cit., 28.

[xiii] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 243.

[xiv] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 245.

[xv] Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “The Matter of the Medium. Some Tools for an Art Theoretical Interpretation of Materials”, in The Matter of Art: Materials, Technologies, Meanings 1200-1700, in C. Anderson, A. Dunlop, P. H. Smith (eds.), Manchester: Manchester University Press 2014, 21-41: 22.

[xvi] Iris Van der Tuin, “On the Threshold of New Materialist Studies”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Jessica Legacy and Yanbing Er (eds.), Issue 19, Autumn 2014, 1-12: 4. Available at <http://www.forumjournal.org/issue/view/97> (accessed in December 2014).

[xvii] Diana Coole & Samantha Frost, “Introducing the New Materialisms”, in D. Coole and S. Frost (eds.), New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010, 1-43: 9.

[xviii] Yanbing Er, “Editorial Introduction: The New Materialisms”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Cit., 1-6: 2-3.

[xix] Yanbing Er, “Editorial Introduction: The New Materialisms”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Cit., 3.

[xx] Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies, Open Humanities Press, University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor, 2012, 85. Available at <http://openhumanitiespress.org/index.html> (accessed in December 2014).

[xxi] Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies, cit., 119.

[xxii] D. Coole and S. Frost (eds.), New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Cit., 5-6.

[xxiii] C. Christov-Bakargiev, “The Dance Was Very Frenetic, Lively, Rattling, Clanging, Rolling, Contorted, and Lasted for a Long Time”, dOCUMENTA (13), The Book of Books, Catalog 1/3, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2012, 34. Quoted by Christopher Cox, Jenny Jaskey, Suhail Malik, “Introduction”, in Christopher Cox, Jenny Jaskey, Suhail Malik (eds.), Realism Materialism Art, Cit., 15-31: 28. Regarding the relationship among human and non-human agents sharing the planet and the human, in her essay Christov-Bakargiev made reference to D. Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

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