Waste materials in Art

If one considers the artistic history of man as a whole, it is only very recently that profound changes have taken place. From the days of the caveman to the 17th-18th centuries, Art was closely linked either to beliefs and religions, or to political authorities. Art served primarily as a medium for these last two entities. The artist, his imagination and his talent, were their servants. The artist enjoyed a certain creative freedom but within limits, restricted at different times by dictated themes and by the aesthetics of the day.

The French Revolution and the advent of the industrial age changed the firmest foundations of Art. During that period, there was shift from an art based on a socio-religious creator to an art of a more individual inspiration.

The 19th century was a period of transition. Although the artist had the right to greater self-expression, the fact still remained that his work was subject to the institutionalised production constraints. The displacement of populations towards urban centres and the rapid development of cities generated a “craft” art. The architect had to build buildings with facades that were neoclassical, Gothic, etc. The artist became a “craftsman” in the sense that he had to decorate public buildings on behalf of the municipalities to suit their specific requirements.

Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a certain repulsion of this art form, as it imposed blinkers on creativity, and moved it away from the artistic domain and towards imitation or even mass production.

“Art Nouveau” (1890) was a reaction to this institutionalised imitation of creativity. Hence its name.

The artist thus freed himself from the yoke of religiosity (in the broadest sense), from its themes, and then from those imposed by the institutions. The greatest step though still had to be taken: that for his independence in the face of the “hierarchy of genres” and in the face of Nature.

The most striking, the most “liberating” revolution took place in the 19th-20th centuries with the overthrow of the “hierarchy of genres”. This pyramid of genres, defined by the different academies, ranked the range of subjects to be painted according to their significance. At the top, the “highest” subjects related to the gods, the Bible, the Church and mythologies. Then came the portraits, the landscapes, and finally the “still lifes”. This non-exhaustive list demonstrates the grading of genres that took place within a rigid framework, not only for the ranking of paintings, but also of painters. The materials used, at that time, only had a practical purpose.

It was not until the middle of the 19th century, with Courbet then Manet, that we witnessed the reversal of the “hierarchy of genres”. Realism won. The scenes of daily life became the subjects of the paintings, and these dislodged the mythical gods and heroes. This reversal of the “hierarchy of genres” by Courbet was certainly politically motivated (Commune of 1871). Manet, influenced by the classic masters, caused a scandal by painting “The Luncheon on the Grass” (1863) which depicted old models but in a contemporary setting: a naked woman and two normally dressed men.

With him began the Impressionism that continued this departure from classic subjects towards everyday life, and above all in search of colours, light and volumes. This principal fascination with colours, forms and materials intensified with Cubism, and then abstract art. We witnessed the transition from the “sacred” to the ordinary subject, then only  taking into consideration forms and colours, and ultimately only with the “plastic language” of abstract art. This language became the subject in itself, considered for itself, its emptiness, its fullness, the gesture (Pollock, 1912-1956, Mathieu, 1921 gestural painting, dripping), etc.

The material also became a language in itself, the object and subject of the painting or sculpture. Any object, any subject therefore became a pretext for artistic expression. Even waste, even excrement, as we will see later.

Art had become an end in itself, and the means of expression were limitless. We created as we experienced the “subjects” rather than how we saw them. The object-eye-tool creator expressed himself by way of reasoned realism, whereas the object-knowledge-tool creator did so by way of impact, intuition and design. In this way, he attained a very acute feeling for matter, texture and relief, a feeling that already existed, it is true, but without having the current significance.

The so-called “modern” art was both a break and a continuation, in the sense that it was an answer to well-defined creative problems. There was a break in vision, and continuity in the creative challenge.

The use of debris in Art is not therefore the result of chance, but rather a long evolution of artistic and social history. But this evolution only explains the possible appearance of waste in Art, and not the reason for its use in the 20th century.

Explaining the use of waste only as a reaction, or provocation, against the consumer society is a little oversimplified. Firstly, an obvious anachronism, waste was used long before the concept of “consumer society” appeared, and secondly, other reasons motivated artists in the second half of the 20th century to use waste: inspiration from the sight of a discarded object, taste for new materials, decontextualisation / recontextualisation of manufactured objects, etc.

Another explanation of the use of waste in art is to be found in the new notion of time that the West has given itself. Two wars, economic liberalism, the object of disposable consumption, the teaching of history where chronology takes second place, the flow of instant information from the “news” (TV, radio, press), gradual abandonment of Christianity and therefore the notion of paradise, happiness in the afterlife, eternity, etc., all cause Time to become more and more bound to the present. The past and the future step aside for the immediate, the here and now. Any political project must yield results within four years, maximum eight years (electoral mandate). A longer-term forecast, a programme that would only bear fruit after 15-20 years, would be electoral suicide. The traditionalists, as everyone knows, are ignored. It is fashionable to be progressive but … with a vision that goes no further than the tip of one’s nose. What progress…

This notion of fleeting, present, instantaneous time is illustrated in Art by ephemeral works and by waste. The latter is the very symbol of our ever-sought-after nowness. To include debris in a work of art is to denounce this restrictive vision of time. It resuscitates the object, gives it life again, eternalises it since it is no longer disposable (unless you discard the artwork itself). The artist, with his passion for creating, resembles Eros fertilising Thanatos when he brings death back to life by including it (waste) in his work.

The artist introduces a notion of cyclical time. At each cycle, new criteria for perceiving objects come into play. It is the artist who introduces new criteria: by the very introduction of debris in an unusual setting: his work, by staging it.

FIRST TIME -> WASTE: which no longer has its original use, be it functional, economic, symbolic or aesthetic, and is discarded. Essential definition because we must go beyond the notion of “everything is waste” to that of “nothing is created, nothing is lost” (Lavoisier – 1743-1794)
THIRD TIME -> REUSED WASTE: as a raw material for a new function, aesthetics, value or symbolism.
FIRST TIME -> WASTE: reused waste as above becomes in turn waste
THIRD TIME -> REUSED WASTE: as a raw material for a new function, aesthetics, value or symbolism.
  etc …


Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) wrote in 1882 a “Philosophy of Art” in which he concluded that the work of art is determined by the intellectual and moral environment in which it is produced. Following this assertion, it can be said that each era and each human group has specific artistic criteria. At our end of the century, we retain this definition of Art which is more sociological than artistic or, in other words, emanating more from the public than from the artistic sphere:

ART: creation institutionally separated from the rest of the visual design by a form or an exhibition venue or the boundaries of the artistic culture.
FORM: support, title, signature, explanatory note, foot, base, frame, canvas, etc …
EXHIBITION VENUE: Museum, gallery, private collections, public place, street, …
LIMITS OF ARTISTIC CULTURE: aesthetics, concept, approach, market value, fashion, etc …

the combination of waste and painting, sculpture or simply an official exhibition venue, is enough to create a myth in the Barthian sense of the term, and by virtue of the assemblage design, Barthian always. A pedestal, a frame, a title, or a signature would rob the waste of its meaning by bringing it into a new semiotic system. It is this transformation to the myth that justifies the status of a work of art given to an amalgam of waste. It could be argued that an assemblage of waste does not make sense, and therefore cannot give rise to a new semiotic system. However R. Barthes responded to this objection: “I have in front of me a collection of objects so disorderly that I can not find in it any meaning ; it would seem that here, deprived of any previous meaning, the form cannot root its analogy anywhere, and that myth is impossible. But what the form can always give to interpretation is disorder itself: it can give meaning to the absurd, make the absurd a myth.” And he added: “This is what happens when common sense mythicises surrealism [and thereby the works including waste: Duchamp, Picasso, etc.], for example: even the lack of motivation does not thwart the myth; because this absence itself will be sufficiently objectified to become intelligible: and finally, the absence of motivation will become a second motivation, the myth will be restored” (Roland BARTHES.- Mythologies.- p. 212)

The transition from the meaning of an object to a new semiotic system – in this case the transformation from waste to the work of art – is made thanks to a contextualisation: currently that of the work of art in our society where capitalisation and, in general, money dominate.

Because of his independence from religious institutions and academic canons, the artist today should have total freedom in his creativity. But in fact, by going from the “public sector” to the “private sector”, in other words from “employee” to “independent”, the artist automatically falls back into new institutions. It is no longer churches and town halls but new temples of art: the museum and the gallery. The “academic canons” of these new churches are ultimately still money.

The artist can create to create, he can take advantage of the freedom of expression offered by our century, but if he wants to live off his art, he must comply with the laws of commerce.

Two options are available to him. Firstly to produce only, at the risk of losing one’s creativity, works that sell well, which are popular with the public. It is the “gravy train” that found a Vasarely (geometric paintings) or an Erni (horses, motherhood, couples, etc … in litho at Ex-libris!).

Secondly, to create according to one’s own desires, ignoring at first the public taste. The latter will then be conditioned by the publicity, by a commercial strategy of the exhibiting gallery, by posters and publications, which will make it possible to “sell a new concept”, to commercialise a “new form of expression”, much as one launches a new washing powder.


We believe that waste materials were used at the end of the 19th century by the artists of “Art Brut”.
The “Art Brut” is the creation of “works” by people outside of what is usually considered as the “field of Fine Arts”:

  • People unaccustomed to standards, artistic modes, creative techniques and aesthetics.
  • Art not promoted by institutions such as museums, galleries. In other words, Art Brut artists do not create specifically for a recipient.

Despite this, a collection of Art Brut was created in Paris in 1947 by Jean Dubuffet. She then moved to New York from 1959 to 1962, and then to Lausanne in 1972. The key figure of the genre has long been Michel Thévoz (Curator of the Collection of Art Brut).

We must note the paradox of this Museum which proffers this definition of “non-institutionalisation” of the Art Brut, and at the same time “rescues” the artists by institutionalising them within a Collection. Please note, for the sake of objectivity, that these works were never put up for sale, and that the Collection is an anti-museum owing to its history of being created in parallel with the Official Art circuits.

Yet Michel Thévoz himself gives an example of what could/should be a total Art Brut. It might be a woman who makes exceptional knitwear during her nights of insomnia. Michel Thévoz tries to acquire one of these masterpieces but without success. The old lady claims that her knitwear has no value, except for her, and she undoes it every morning. Mr. Conservative has a hard time accepting that he cannot “rescue” these works! (Interview with Michel Thévoz, 1986)

Detailed below are some artists who used waste materials in their works. To understand each artist, seven important points were considered. They are: the time, the movement, the artist, his work, his interpretation of his own work, the role of waste and, where possible, the reaction of the public or art critics.

From 1878 to 1908, Postman Cheval (1836-1924) built his Ideal Palace in Hauterives (Drome-France). His main motivation was, I quote: “to make a dream habitable”. He would  realise this dream over a period of 30 years, after 12 years of gestation. The materials used were stones, rubble and debris of tiles, glass, etc. He used waste for artistic reasons, and above all for lack of other materials that his modest postman’s salary didn’t allowed him in any event to buy. His neighbours considered him to be “a poor fool who filled his garden with stones” (Cheval dixit).

Auguste Forestier (1887-1958) He created many assemblages between 1935 and 1949. By using waste for lack of other materials, he wanted to make one feel the quirky side of his works; he ennobled non-noble materials, and also expressed a certain savagery in his creations. In the hospital where he was interned after derailing a train, medical personnel recognised “a certain primitive art” in his works, and let him set up a rudimentary workshop.

Heinrich Anton Mueller (1865-1930) created machines around 1906 using scrap parts of bicycles and bits of machinery picked up from anywhere. The only purpose of these machines was to waste energy. He wanted to leave the mark of his freedom on a society that had excluded him earlier. He made this freedom known by creating machines without efficiency, without output, without performance. Little is known about the appreciation of his works by the medical staff of the asylum where he ended his days, except that it seems that his creations were tolerated. If waste materials were used, it was again for reasons of scarcity.

After that very peculiar art, Art Brut, let us see now what were the first works of “official” Art that integrated waste. Without doubt these were the “Readymades”, created, if that is the right word, in 1913-1915 by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). After being classified as an Impressionist, Duchamp took up Dadaism, then Surrealism (1920). Seven years before the creation of this last movement he exhibited “Bicycle Wheel” and the “Fountain” (urinal). His main intention was provocation, subversion, a kind of reordering of reality by an anti-creation, an anti-work. He presented the commonplace object as a work of art by the law of least effort. It was an act of deviation from artistic norms, from the serial and official movements. In this case, waste materials were used as a medium for provocation and for humour (black). The public cried foul and the Art theorists were angry. The message was therefore delivered.

Born in 1887 and died in 1948, Kurt Schwitters holds a special place among artists who have used waste in Art. It was indeed he who, after a period as an academic portraitist, introduced waste into all of his works. Unlike Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, and Miro, to cite the best known, Schwitters used debris consistently in his works of 1918. His approach was engendered by the influence of the different schools of the time: Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Blaue Reiter, and around 1920, Dadaism. After having named his works “Merzbilder” – a name found in the same way as “dada”, but on a torn poster and not in a dictionary – he accumulated in his workshop an impressive amount of waste materials picked up off the street. This debris contained, above all, things that he liked. At the same time, he decried the consumer society, and berated the alienating Order and the rigidity of the Nazi system around 1938-40. The latter considered him a Kulturbolschewik, and he had to go into exile.

Before moving on to new artists who routinely use debris in their works, there was a period until around 1960 when only a few creators occasionally used debris. The best known of these were Picasso (1881-1973) and Joan Miró (1893-1984).

The first, Picasso, who, because of his fantastic creativity, cannot be tied to any school. He dominated all styles and was, with his “bull”, classified as a Surrealist. But his approaches were multiple, and what interested him most was creation for the sake of creation. If it was sometimes provocative, that was not an end in itself.

Joan Miró was a similar case. He did not belong to any school, and obeyed only his own parameters. He tried to find the creative purity, the naivety of the drawings of children in his paintings. For sculptures with waste, it was only the material and the creativity that interested him.

Around 1960 a movement emerged, with a manifesto (Pierre Restany 16 April 1960) advocating the use of waste in Art for a new perceptive approach to reality. These were the NEW REALISTS. Dadaism was a farce, a legend, a state of mind, a myth. The tabula rasa, the zero dada, represented the phenomenological reference to abstract lyricism.

This lyricism was exhausted. New Realism created a new starting point for a more sociological form of expression, that of communicating the reality of our consumer society. The world was considered a painting, the fundamental Great Work of which the new realists appropriated fragments with “universal significance”. There was no more imaginative or conceptual transcription. Reality was the basic element of a new expressive repertoire. An expression that had an internal logic for each artist. There was, however, one common denominator: a certain mockery of our consumer society.

The first of the New Realism artists were Yves Klein, Caesar, Jean Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri, Arman, Niki de St. Phalle, Martial Raysse, Rotella and Raymond Hains.

The Golden Age of our consumer society that was the ’60s, directed artists towards two approaches with the same essence. Firstly, a strong society, in full economic expansion, allowing marginal artistic approaches that the euphoria of the moment accepted without a blink. This was, for example, the “ready shit” or “Merda d’artista” of Manzoni (1962). Faeces, waste par excellence, was used as the ultimate provocation.

The other approach was the criticism of this consumer society. Predisposed by the overabundance of goods, but also waste, many artists expressed their doubts, their fears about the symbolism of this consumption that distanced Man from Reality, plunging him into a schizophrenic materialism. Added to that, for artists using waste, a desire for provocation. But this was no longer at the level of the artistic sphere, but at the level of the general public. The “revolution” that was waste in Art already belonged to the past for the artistic world. However this was not the case for the general public, which had not always assimilated this type of work as an integral part of contemporary artistic norms.

New Realism is an excellent “label” for other creators in Europe and the USA. Consequently, following the initial group of New Realism, many other artists have taken up waste as the raw material for their works. And this is still the case today. Here are just a few: Buraglio, Tapies, Robert Rauchenberg, Rudolph Haas, Richard Serra, Joseph Cornell, Reiner Ruthenbeck, Paul von Hoeydonk, John Chamberlain, Panamarenko, Edward Kienholz, William Sweetlove, Alfonso Ossorio, Bill Woodrow, Joseph Beuys.

Joseph Alessandri for example, celebrates with discarded objects that are broken into very aesthetic salvage-creations. The material is at the origin of the work for its element of chance in the discovery of the forms, the wear-and-tear and the marks of Time. A poetic side emerges from his works. Joachim Luetke explores Time. His is an artistic archaeology that appeals to the public as it is their collective memory that is stimulated. Some of his works are reminiscent of the fabulous sets of films of fiction about ancient civilizations, where the adoration of gods takes place in grandiose ceremonial buildings.

In recent years, we have seen the appearance of a fairly marked aestheticism in works made with waste (Haas, Caesar: gold jewellery, Alessandri, etc.).

Although all these artists use waste materials for the reasons described above, their artistic approach is diverse. According to the artists, the waste raw material is sometimes also appreciated for its beauty, for marking a difference from the serial and the standard, for carrying the message one wants to express, and for total creativity. That is to say, a creativity where not everything that is on the painting or the sculpture is under the control of the artist. A painter controls his painting from the first to the last stroke. By using waste, the creator introduces an element of chance. He no longer controls all the elements of a work and must appeal to his instincts. The artist creates with his guts.