Tools and the Enigma of Democratization

Ezra Shales

We simultaneously idealize a maker’s expertise in working with tools and the democratization of the toolbox. Doesn’t every toolbox hold the promise of autonomy and self-determination? The “Tool at Hand” is a phrase that implies the human propensity for tool use is itself a universal right, that there is no one right tool (no “one best way,” to contradict early twentieth-century “scientific management”). The exhibition can be read as proof of the democratization of access to historical technologies and craft traditions. While once historically guarded by guilds and protected as national assets, these practices are now devalued and deregulated. Yet, it has another resonance. While we are prone to think of virtuosic tool use in relation to specialization of a medium, most things worth making require more than one ingredient and more than one implement to help form or cook them.

It is important to recognize that most tools are conceived as parts of larger families of technologies. Tools are cogs whose teeth intermesh with other gears. Historians usually cluster utensils by chronology, regional preference, application, and complexity, as if these distinctions told a story in and of themselves. There is more to it than that. For an obsolete antique implement the museum or gallery may become zones of promiscuous material mingling. Threaded fasteners and dimensional lumber are necessarily units of larger systems. Like the proverbial apple and orange, tools such as the screw and the stud are unrelated (unless these implements slip into the ear as homonyms of earthly contact). So no tool is autonomous or disembodied from the whole, from the body politic, even ones that have the capacity to seem idyllic, innocuous, at first glance.

Numerous interstitial tools live in obscurity and many more live on purely in the realm of metaphor. For instance, marvel at a muscular arm holding a hammer outstretched from a museum wall; the wood carving appears to be a beautiful symbol of strength (figure 1). Soon after its origins are known, the nineteenth-century limb, a surrealist fragment from a twenty-first century perspective, becomes embodied in class struggle, emblematic of mechanics’ identity formation. Made to hang outside a shop and encourage the sale of work clothes, it is a tool with deceptive emotional capabilities that cannot be retrieved today without numerous instruments of our own, from empathy to speculation. Basic methods of classification as well as typical museum presentation can inhibit such relationships. The identical image on baking soda packaging might or might not engage us on the same visceral, emotional or social levels. A tool’s function may be hidden in plain sight.

Fig. 1 Henry Higginson, Arm and Hammer Trade Sign. Paint and Wood. 34.5 x 34 x 23 in. Gift of Harry W. Smith, 1954. Collection of the Newark Museum 54.173

Most fine art museums and art history textbooks mention tools to illustrate vernacular architectural methods. Few authors emphasize tools as visually worthy of prolonged visual analysis. George Kubler’s magisterial Shape of Time (1964) proclaimed that tools are not merely artifacts but worthy of study as significant works of art. Kubler sought to marshal an “egalitarian doctrine of the arts.” Despite this fascinating premise, the Shape of Time does not expand our understanding of how the quotidian tool might gain artistic distinction. Kubler claims that craft rules sustain repetition. Well-worn ruts damn the craft toolkit to predictability; silversmiths have their set methods of raising a bowl and potters their own specific rhythms.1 To challenge this premise, Kubler notes that Attic red-figure pottery was displaced by black-figure. He argues that this change in craft practice was mainly brought on by rupture, either a lateral shift in the hierarchy or population of divided labor, patronage, or a drift in exemplary models. Even though tools and craft practices are key here, this is not democracy in action. It is the rare event of technological hybridity that occurs despite human predilection for routine.

Artists, curators and the general public still get caught up in age-old arguments over whether some skills are truly “craft-like” or mere labor. Histories that privilege craft usually suggest that the profusion of power tools, such everyday things as the screw gun or circular saw, undermines virtuosic construction. Whether the humanizing touch can be satisfactorily identified in ordinary manufacture — such as balloon framing — and to what degree are subjective questions. Most artists, let alone the general public, have no idea that the turn-of-the-century industrial arts museum heralded such skilled “manufactory craftsmanship” more loudly than Duchamp averred the anonymity of such artifacts.2 Toilets still had distinct profiles due to their manual finish in 1915. Each press-molder could identify his handiwork despite sharing plaster molds with twenty other men.

Henry Chapman Mercer’s “Tools of the Nation Maker” begun in 1897 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, was a pioneering museum project. The preservation of the Pennsylvanian German stoveplates and butter molds was intended to communicate the constituent features of the pre-industrial democratic nation state. Yet, the conservation of these tools from the middle of the industrial revolution has ambiguous meanings. Mercer’s palatial concrete museum lays out trades and their respective tools encyclopedically, but also higgledy-piggledy. He hung the stoveplates in a massive cluster, not as singular aesthetic compositions. In fact, the iron Biblical scenes are hung vertically off the wall on hinges and can be flipped through as if a collection of posters. Browsing through the dozens of cast iron plates is humbling manual labor itself. Does the accumulation tell us that sandcasting and molten iron liberated artistic invention or that mechanization increasingly limited choice and originality? Either narrative is possible.

Beginning in 1909, and as late as 1928, exhibitions of hardware in the Newark Museum showcased door handles and all sorts of brass fittings, mostly goods made by local manufacturers for whom the hand (manu) of their employees was still essential to their identity. Firms that straddled the sphere of “goods ornamental and useful”, which made beautiful doorknobs or tasteful knockers, were being celebrated as proof of the resilience of good handicraft and careful design in the age of mass-production. Or, were these aesthetically superior goods highlighted so that they could be purchased by the masses whose standard of living in the United States was rising? There is no doubt that tools were on display as tools, and as promising endeavors, but to what end? Why?

Will the next social revolution turn on the orbit of an app or a lowly screwdriver? What if our tools get the best of us, or reintroduce the best of us, by releasing a vital seed into one of our species’ ossified professional strategies? Perhaps this image of the cyborg evolving out of machines sounds derivative of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, but if this futurism were rooted in an antiquarian flywheel or a wooden windmill it might seem like a less grandiose and untelevised possibility. There is hopefulness in thinking that the museum preservation of our wealth of inherited tools might somehow serve as a convection cell for change. Some corpse-like machines might speed innovation in an unexpected way, if we only valued these historical implements as functional.

Alternately, the next expansion in the American high-tech toolkit might take place in yet another wave of counter-cultural communes. Although rural utopian settlements of the nineteenth century are often regarded as a rejection of the industrial order, it was hardly so simple; they were seedbeds of some of the most ingenious mechanical contrivances. By 1852, Shakers had a patent to make chair feet with brass tilts that would not mar floors when sitters leaned back on the rear legs. Oneida developed superlative bear traps and farther out in the hinterlands the Mormons improved firearms when John Browning invented the repeat rifle. Born of utopian efforts to retool the social covenant, these inventions did not rupture the flow of individualist and capitalist American enterprise.

While it is hard to imagine that the next step in civilization might be a devolution from an over-reliance on complex tools, in the world of fine art deskilling has been the tendency. The Tool at Hand illuminates the gulf between the misuse and abuse of tools as well as their idealization. For instance, Beth Lipman’s Gift Ball (2011), a mass of silicon caulk, suggests both a lack of control and the failure of a tool to cooperate in the act of form giving. The adhesive is mysterious and removed from its origins in the tube, so much so that visitors constantly touched it to assuage their curiosity. David Gates shows us that a saw can be used to shave spokes and split lumber, even though these purposeful misapplications are frustrating struggles.

By going beyond the deadening mothball effect of museum vitrification, by listening to makers and seeing them in action via the accompanying videos hosted on the web, The Tool at Hand argues that tools are as good to think with as they are to use. The pluralism that exists in practices at the intersection of design, craft, and art resembles a honeycomb of rigid enclaves more often than dynamic permeable membranes, as Kubler rightly pointed out. This extra-medium perspective, far from the mindset of professional associations or collectors’ parameters, makes the exhibition a significant tonic to the typical de-contextualized museum display. The final democratization of tools will not occur until more cross-pollination can be engineered. Future curators and artists must shoulder this challenge of tillage and unnatural selection.


1 George Kubler, The Shape of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 48.
2 Ezra Shales, Made in Newark: Cultivating Industrial Arts and Civic Identity in the Progressive Era (Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 170–187.