The Centrality of Tools

Manet, Boy with a Sword, detail (1862)                                 Velazquez, Infanta Margarita, detail (1653)

Art sometimes seems like a meditation on the brush. Certainly visual metaphors for art's tools abound from, say, Edouard Manet’s early Boy with a Sword (in effect he holds a giant paintbrush, see explanation) to Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of the Infanta Margarita in the Louvre whose figure (see explanation in reference to Matisse) has the bristles of a brush on her head. There are hundreds of medieval examples too. Tools are crucial to craftsmen. With lifelong practice, they become an extension of the artisan’s body in a psychological process scientists call “flow”. In performance at a very high pitch, the practitioner’s body and implement become as one. They lose consciousness of their instruments as a separate object; they identify with it. This, though, is not a cultural construct, as so much of art's content is said to be, but a universal and unchanging experience in the high-level performance of craft. It must have been the same in the neolithic caves. As a universal experience, its meaning is far more important than something momentary, historical or culture-specific. Over the millennia the symbolism of the artist’s tool has acquired accretions of meaning which are spiritually and psychologically profound.

The Four Evangelists (German, mid-11th century) Ivory Plaque. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The artist’s interest in the practice of his or her craft is as common in religious images as secular ones. Early gospels often portray the Evangelists like craftsmen. In this 11th-century decoration sculpted from ivory (above) as a cover for a Gospel codex, St. Matthew sharpens a tool (top left) like the cover’s carver would have done while St. Luke (lower left) dips his quill in ink like the scribe himself. A draftsman’s identification with his instrument is also evident in a poem by an Irish scribe of the 11th century called Colmcille. Below is a modern translation by Seamus Heaney who in his own first book of poems described the pen in his hand as “snug as a gun”. Here’s what Colmcille had to say around 1050 AD after many hours of copying longhand:

“My hand is cramped from penwork.
My quill has a tapered point.
Its bird-mouth issues a blue-dark
Beetle-spark of ink.
Wisdom keeps welling in streams
From my fine-drawn, sallow hand:
Riverrun on the vellum
of ink from green-skinned holly.
My small runny pen keeps going
Through books, through thick and thin
To enrich the scholars’ holdings:
penwork that cramps my hand.”1

In looking at art keep in mind that an artist and his tool are one; wherever his instrument is, is the artist. 


1. “Colum Cille Cecinit” in Seamus Heaney, Human Chain (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 2010

Reader Comments

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Wilber Danley
27 Sep 2015

That’s very kind, Wilber. Thank you.

30 Sep 2015

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