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by Wendell Garrett
|Between the revolution and the Civil War a generation of uncompromising
dreamers emerged in America, most of them utopians or millennialists. They organized a great variety of socialist, voluntary communities that lived apart from the rest of society. Some were insistently and narrowly religious; others were secular and permissive. Some were extremely democratic; others extremely autocratic. Some were peopled by visionaries who did not know one end of a saw from the other -- others distinguished themselves by their craftsmanship.
Looking at Shaker chairs and barns today, it is evident that the Shakers made their heavenly ideals a working part of their everyday life. One good example is a sewing desk made for one of the individual Sisters by the Shaker Brethren, on exhibition at the Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire.
A song cherished by the Shakers captures the spirit of those who undertook pilgrimages in the paths of the utopians:
'Tis the gift to be simple,
The shops of the Shaker joiner and cooper, blacksmith and tinsmith, wheelwright and tanner, tailor, weaver and dyer turned out an amazing variety of products, both for sale and for use by the community. All reflected "the gift to be simple." The lack of adornment bespoke the Shakers' determination to not let anything unnecessary stand between the believer and his God. Order, harmony and utility were the objectives of good workmanship. It has a recognizable look, not "factory-like" as some have described their buildings, nor austere and "grim" as Charles Dickens once called their furniture, but rather, like its users -- dispassionate, reliable and unworldly.
Between 1787 and 1826, 19 Shaker communities were established in America. A surprising number of people joined -- some 6,000 between 1830 and 1850. The Shaker communities were one of the American marvels, visited by many foreigners, including Dickens. Notwithstanding, the Shakers' community houses, workshops and meeting houses are legendary for their cleanliness, orderliness and efficiency. Their inhabitants' wants of life were fully, even abundantly, supplied and their manufactures were both austere and enduringly graceful.
Living the perfect life was the Shaker religion. And they achieved an integrated way of life that offered completely alternative form of social organization. They outlawed the last vestige of the traditional family when they began living what they called the "gospel order," where parents were completely detached from their own children. Shaker communities honored the concepts of celibacy and shared property; stressed the equality of the sexes; advocated experimental education, communal decision-making, improved working conditions and more equitable access to material goods.
It is not unreasonable to conclude that the Shakers were doomed to failure from the start. Traditionally, religious movements that attempt to live apart from the rest of society do not survive for any length of time -- particularly if they adopt the tenet of celibacy. And the nation's economic demands and uncertainties ultimately contributed to the decline of the Shaker order. Industrialization during the second half of the 19th century afforded opportunities that the Shakers could neither match nor replicate in their far simpler world of handicrafts and agrarianism. After the Civil War, not enough of the younger generation considered the sheltered world of the Shakers appealing and the sect slowly died out.
It is to the credit of the members that the Shakers lasted for more than two centuries. Indeed, after the last decline, the movement would outlive itself through the world's enduring appreciation of the artifacts the Shakers created through their "gift to be simple."
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.