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It's rubbish all right. But is it art?

Hans Schabus's junkwork in Edinburgh may seem wacky, but has its roots in a time-honoured tradition favoured by Picasso

Hans Schabus is certain to turn heads – and noses – at the Edinburgh festival this year with his exhibition of refuse at the Collective Gallery. The Vienna-based artist has collected all the rubbish that he and his family created in a year, sorted it and bagged it and is displaying it in the heart of the city. Actually, to be fair, I should point out that he has also cleaned it.

Schabus seems to be making a point about the enormity of modern waste and its terrifying impact on the planet. Yet there is also an art history of rubbish (and don't forget, facetious remarks are welcome on this blog). The earliest rubbish-related works of art I know about are 18th-century engravings that use Rococo decoration and Hogarthian depictions of London life to advertise "nightsoil men" (that is, poo removers) in the days before sewers. The cards show men in wigs and elegant clothes discreetly carrying away sacks of excrement from Georgian townhouses in the middle of the night.

Human waste was problematic in premodern societies – but at least it was organic, and had its uses: it became fertiliser. When French soldiers were stranded outside Rome one winter in the 16th century, they lay on the city's dunghills to soak up warmth from the fermenting matter.

These days excrement is disposed of by proper sewerage; but inorganic waste, which does not decay, proliferates. And for at least a century, artists have been recycling it. Picasso was the first to stick pages of discarded newspapers, broken chair seats and bits of cloth to his paintings to invent the art of collage. A few years later, Marcel Duchamp asserted that a urinal was art. But actually it is Picasso, not Duchamp, who is the radical of rubbish. Duchamp liked clean, unused, readymade things; Picasso pioneered the artistic use of the secondhand, the old, the broken. His sculpture of a bull's head made from bits of an old bike finds a new use – and meaning – for junk.

Artists after the second world war picked up on Picasso's passion for trash. Arman started making his "poubelle" works in 1959, using actual refuse. His piece Condition of Woman (1960) in the Tate is a container full of waste on top of an antique pedestal. While Arman was brutally direct in his imagery of waste, American artists were more poetic. The old dolls that Joseph Cornell arranged in fairytale tableaux, and the junkshop items that Robert Rauschenberg incorporated in his Combines, conjure nostalgic, surreal meanings – they are more redemptive than Arman's bleak portrait of consumer society.

Today it is the example of Arman that seems more political, and more urgent. Hans Schabus's creations are clearly in the Arman tradition. Rubbish is part of the modern condition and it was artists who were the first to see it. But the poetry of rubbish seems a luxury now. The horror of waste has overwhelmed its beauty. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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