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The March of the Machines

Just about any manufactured item can be described as Functional Art. Designed not only to do what it is supposed to do, but to look appealing also.

If you are choosing between two similar priced items of similar quality, you are most likely going to pick the one that looks cool, all other things being equal.

When I built bicycle frames in England during the 1970s my customers were almost exclusively racing cyclists. They bought my bikes mainly because they rode and handled well, and were reasonably priced. A few file marks showing under the paint showed it was a handmade item.

On moving to the US in 1979 I saw that American framebuilders paid a great deal of attention to detail and paint finish of the product, because their customers were swayed by aesthetics as much as what was beneath the paint.

However, aesthetics and function must go hand in hand, hence the term Functional Art. If someone made a musical instrument that looked beautiful but sounded awful, what use would it be apart from something to hang on the wall and look at? The beauty of a well-crafted bicycle is in the way it rides and handles.

How did these qualities get into the bicycle frame other than through the builder? Through design and skill, there is a part of the builder in every frame he makes. Also when he practices a skill long enough it becomes second nature, automatic without conscious thought.

This is not a new notion, the Native American called this “Hand Magic.” Nature bringing something into creation through the artist’s hands. When an ant colony builds an ant hill, is this any different from man building his cities and roadways? Just on a different scale.

The Native American sees mankind as part of Nature, not separate from it. There is nothing in Nature that is not beautiful, the only ugliness is manmade.

Man builds a barn in a field and paints it red. It is an eyesore, a blight on the environment. Given time the barn becomes derelict. Nature takes over and the barn becomes a thing of beauty. Photographers come to photograph it, artists come to capture it on canvas.

If the artist is connected to the creative source in the first place then his creation will be beautiful to begin with. It is not even necessary for the artist to be aware of this. Had anyone put forward this point of view to me some thirty years ago, I would have said they were full of crap.

It was only towards the end of my framebuilding career in the early 1990s did I realize that all creativity or art comes from one source only, be it music, painting, or even bicycle frames.

You can still find handcrafted bicycle frames, but the majority are designed and manufactured like everything else. That is not to say they are inferior from a functional standpoint, they may even perform better. And as for aesthetics, well they are smooth and shiny, what more can you ask for, or expect.

Looking back, it seems to me that what the customer demands of the craftsman making a hand built item, is a look of perfection. As if it came out of a mold, or was made by machine. When the craftsman attains this, the machines are not only ready to take over, the customer is ready to accept the machine made item.

Automobiles were once built by hand, and yet the finest craftsman, hand beating an auto body panel, could never produce a modern body panel. One that is stamped by a die that was machined by a computer controlled piece of equipment.

As for function, the modern robot built automobile will outperform its hand built counterpart of yesteryear. The robots are of course built by skilled engineers, but once built work for a lot less, and produce more than individual craftsmen.

Items still have to be initially designed by someone creative, an artist. However, with the computer being the modern day design tool of choice, and from there going to the programmer of the machines and robots. I'm not sure where the "Hand Magic" comes into the equation.

It appears the hand of the craftsman has been bypassed completely, in the name of progress. The march of the machines.

The problem is in time will humankind lose contact with the creative source, his contact with Nature? As I said earlier, it is not necessary for the artist to be aware that he is connected to the creative source, but it is necessary that he at least continue to create.


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Reader Comments (5)

I see a world where the standardization and mass production of most items (even artistic ones) has actually lead to a renewed appreciation of craftsmanship.
Maybe I am in a minority (specially as an engineer) but almost everything that I own has to have a combination of visual (or physical) appeal along with a high level of functionality.
My wife and I have a joke, paraphrased from the label on a leather sofa that I apply to a lot of item in life," The variations in color and finish are an indication of the natural source of this product and are not be to be considered defects".
I like the file marks, they remind of the skill that went into my pleasant ride.

March 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteredstainless

Are we better bicycle riders today than 60 years ago?
The Craftsman is an endangered species; his art has been split, broken apart and dispersed. Now several people do what he did, and yet none can do what he does. Why? Because labor is cheaper, and potential production greater. And the learning curve is very short.
Gotta get all these new revisions, upgrades, and releases to market Now!
So are people better drivers as a result of all the “safety” and “advancement” engineered into cars? I see more crashes daily than ever (most never make the news feeds).
Seems to me, I go the same speed on my bike today as 30 years ago (I don’t see bikes making riders faster). But I do see and hear about more riders, and racers, touching wheels, and crashing than ever, even in the Tour.
Seems whatever Natural connection we had to bikes, and cars,has been short-circuited by innovation.
Is that Progress?

March 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

The capitalIsts seek maximum profitability for the products or services they sell. These are usually achieved with modern technologies and are sometimes described using superlative terms like 'state of the art', top-quality, innovative, creative... Oftentimes, these items end up in the scrapyard, probably faster than the time it took to make them.

The artists seek perfection in the work they do. These are usually achieved with relentless dedication, and are sometimes described as stubborn, foolish, outdated... Sometimes, their work end up in the hands of people that appreciate their values, probably outliving their creators.

The rest of the people are in between.

It's indisputable that technology have brought about many advances and conveniences. However, there are still countless things that they have yet to replace, or even come close to doing that, and may never do that. It's astonishing that many look at it as the be all and end all

March 28, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterfreeloader

I went to Moseley School of Art for 3 yrs, then an apprentice to the Brum sculptor William Bloye, Worked on many statues and coats of arms around Birmingham, England, went into the RAF for my two years, Lost interest in it, became a musician and left for the USA in 1957 to find fame and fortune in the USA. It became obivous to me that that unless your are execptional in what you do, in way of any form of art you will never make a living donig it. Great shame but that is just the way it is, I use the carve BY HAND now it all done by motors! Just like building bike frames, very few if any hand built anymore, Craftsmen replaced by robots, The only thing that matters now is the money, what is the cheapest way of doing it. People just dont care anymore, Sad Sad.

March 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

Aesthetics is in the eye of the beholder.

File marks appeal to some, the smooth finish admirers like something else.

And paint colors?

There's no accounting for taste.
Popularity is the taste of the times.

March 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterA person of interest
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