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Tools are Art

Tony Murland

The craftsman, like an artist, lived in his work, for his work and by his work. The rewards of labour were intrinsic to the activity itself and the effect of art was merely to heighten and intensify these natural organic processes as well as to offer compensation or escape.
“Human life is a sad show undoubtedly ugly, heavy and complex. Art has no other end for people of feeling than to conjure away the burden and bitterness. – Gustave Flaubert 1821-1880

By introducing decoration and thus, art, to tools, man elevates the process of labour beyond being solely a task or burden and places it in context in a philosophical sense. In the words of Ruskin, ” Work should be the creative and joyous expression of one’s daily existence, rather than a deadening act of sufferance”. Moreover, “Art is an essential moral ingredient in the home environment and that the loss of daily contact with hand-crafted objects, fashioned with pride, integrity, and attention to beauty, would diminish catastrophically the quality of life of the average citizen “. William Morris endorsed this ideal and indeed it was the philosophies of Ruskin and Morris that led to an aesthetic of individualism which subsequently provided the impetus of The Arts and Crafts Movement . . . but I digress …

Tools contain a virile grace which is inextricably bound up in the substance of the materials. Moreover, the intrinsic appeal of the basic work or tool is often enhanced by accumulated wear from generations of use and also the patina which time has lent them. This metamorphosis is an example of a dynamic or evolving art that occurs naturally, unlike the manipulated dynamic art of the present day’.

“Art is only nature operating with the aid of the instruments she has made.” – Paul Henri, Baron d’Holbach 1723-1789

Tools as objects have often been the medium for contrived Art, they then become tools and yet, not tools, at the same time. The Volti & Voltri Bolton Series, done in 1 962 are made up largely of tools calipers, tongs etc, of considerable dimensions – fashioned into complex sequences of two and three dimensional shapes with distant anthropomorphic and poetic associations (1).

The finest collection of such tools, however, is undoubtedly the Hechinger Collection (2). A collection of works by various artists where, in every case, the materials used are actual tools or tool shaped. The work which typifies the collection and the artistic processes at work is undoubtedly “School of Fishes ” by the French artist, Arman. Hundreds of chrome vise grips have been arranged on a wall in such a way that they appear to be a shoal of silvery fish. The artist has brilliantly created a ‘moving’ effect with a collection of inanimate objects. Quite literally the tools have become art.

One cannot mention Tools and Art without refrrring to the Japanese artist, Hokusai. His famous woodcuts featuring Japanese craftsmen and their tools shows how he appreciated the close relationship between craftsmen, their tools and their importance within the culture and the spirit of art.

Civilisation could not have begun, or progressed, without tools and the tools of humans that have made the wonders of civilisation have also, across the centuries, been used to take life and create unimaginable horror. But they have also produced what might be humanity’s only true redemption, the mysteries, humours and astonishments of art. Neglect it at your peril!

“Sometimes man’s traces are traces of useful action which has so changed natural objects as to make them congenial to his mind.” – George Santoyana


Appeared 1998 – Toolshop Auctions Catalogue

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© 1998-2017 Tony Murland - email