Tis the Gift To Be Simple
How to get to the New World (without blowing any more shit up)
[originally published in LA WEEKLY Sept 19 2001]
Last Tuesday when I got up, I was uncharacteristically organized due to the fact that I had to catch a noon plane to Dallas to participate in a roundtable discussion on the influential art schools of Los Angeles. Of course I never made it, and, having cleared my schedule for a couple of days, spent a therapeutic afternoon chopping firewood for the coming nuclear winter. When the smoke cleared, it seemed the Weekly ’s "Best of L.A." issue had been postponed and my column was back on schedule for today, so I had to find something to write about. It’s hard to come up with anything that doesn’t seem frivolous or disrespectful. A hypothetical précis of the canceled discussion on the influential art schools of Los Angeles? A roundup of the current bout of gallery gewgaws that mark the new L.A. art-world season? It’s hard enough, at the best of times, to make believe that my opinions are more important than anyone else’s. An aesthetic analysis of the World Trade Center destruction as a brilliantly choreographed appropriation of John Carpenter–esque B-movie cliché? No thanks, I can live without the death threats.
Instead, I thought I could finally visit the show of 150-year-old drawings by Shakers at the UCLA Hammer. To my surprise, the Hammer was open Wednesday, in spite of its proximity to the heavily fortified Federal Building. The museum was pretty much empty, and the dreamlike sense of unreality hanging everywhere hung here as well, offering an eerily appropriate prelude to the exhibit. I knew a bit about the Shakers, mostly because of my interest in glossolalia and related ecstatic religious experience — the 1977 Rounder Records LP Early Shaker Spirituals , consisting of a handful of the thousands of trance-channeled folk hymns in the Shaker tradition, had been in heavy rotation on my college radio show in the ’80s. And, of course, I had seen plenty of the exquisitely designed proto-Modernist architecture, furniture and household objects for which the sect is best known. What I didn’t know was that many of the transcribed songs had originally appeared in the form of elaborate and fanciful calligraphy — part of a brief flurry of divinely inspired art-making that swept through the ranks of the Shaker communities near the height of their prominence in the mid–19th century.
The Shakers, a.k.a. the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, were (and remain, barely) a strange and strangely progressive offshoot of the Society of Friends, a.k.a. the Quakers. The spinoff group originated in working-class, mid-18th-century northern England, and immigrated to America shortly before the Revolution in the form of the movement’s messiah figure, textile factory worker gone ornery Ann Lee. The Shakers retained many of the characteristics of the Quakers — the near-anarchist emphasis on direct inner spiritual experience, the silent, nonverbal communion with Spirit, the radical recognition of women’s equality and distaste for slavery, and the refusal to bear arms.
The Shakers further emphasized the irrational physicality of numinous experience by entering trance-dance states — wherein they would spin, stagger and swoop in the meeting hall — as well as convulsing in ecstasy, communing with the spirits of the dead and speaking in tongues. And abstaining from all sexual activity. Which gave them plenty of energy for crafts and the like. Organizing themselves in self-sufficient utopian communes, the Shakers tried to live out a philosophy that rewrote Judeo-Christian tradition to make God a sensuous, immanent androgyne, whose intoxicating “heavenly juice” could be tapped by surrendering the rational mind and motor controls to His/Her possession. Rock & roll! (Except for the no-sex part.)
Due to the Shakers’ loosely hierarchical structure, their prevailing doctrines were highly mutable. One passing and almost-forgotten phase was the Era of Manifestations or Mother’s Work, when for about a quarter- century the drawings, scores and soundtrack songs (the same Rounder LP!) in the Hammer/Drawing Center’s latest fruitful collaboration (entitled “Heavenly Visions: Shaker Gift Drawings and Gift Songs”) were produced. Gift drawings and songs were received in trance states by “instruments” — often adolescent girls excused from their chores to channel the words and images of biblical prophets, dead relatives, Native American and African-American spirits, celebrities such as George Washington and Christopher Columbus, and the bisexual manifestations of godhead, Jesus and Ann Lee. The works are a revelation. Composed of about half the known extant works from the Era of Manifestations, the hundred or so manuscripts here display breathtaking graphic spontaneity, invention and elegance.
In spite of their general folkishness and antiquity, I could have sworn that some of the works had been made during the early-1970s heyday of experimental text — specifically the recently rediscovered traditions of concrete poetry and abstract graphic narrative and animation. The anonymous Sacred Roll (1840–43) is startlingly prescient of Francis Picabia’s Dadaist word-paintings. This be de roll that de great Holy Mother did tell her recording Angel to write (1840–43) looks like a sketchbook page by Saul Steinberg from his Millbrook days. Other works defy comparisons, such as the anonymous 1843 rebus Spirit Message with its exquisite, enigmatic sequence of hand gestures, clock faces and experimental typography. I can honestly say I’ve seen few drawings as funny and beautiful as the pink-and-black Page of a Native Spirit Letter from 1842, made entirely of tightly woven, indecipherable calligraphic flourishes laid out in standard business-letter form. Other works on paper recall the designs of Amish quilts, Kabbalist diagrams or Islamic calligraphy, combining a love of simple geometry with a fractal, egoless, visual flamboyance held in quivering check by attentions sharpened by continuous spiritual practice.
Given that their policy of sexual abstinence precluded procreation, the Shakers relied on recruitment and adoption of orphans to grow. Given that their policy of sexual abstinence precluded achieving orgasm, numbers dwindled predictably after the Civil War and through the 20th century until the church stopped accepting new members in 1965. The gift drawings, which had fallen out of memory a century ago, were rediscovered only recently over a gradual course that has culminated in “Heavenly Visions.” The exhibit is timely for a number of reasons. Just one example: In an era when Pollock’s “I am Nature” is held to be the height of hubris, the self-effacing genius of these artworks testifies to a working model of the extremely unfashionable artist-as-cosmic-antenna theory, one that circumvents ego, undermining conventional Western ideas of self rather than glorifying priestly personality.
As I drove home, the car radio repeated its litany about “waking up to a new world” and the endless phallic posturings of allegedly elected representatives. This Protestant craving for apocalyptic transformation and dualistic mythological depth didn’t seem so far from the Shakers’ millenarian yearnings. The difference lies in the means and can be summed up as voluntary simplicity and pacifism(not to mention overcoming alienation from the physical without resorting to neurotic authoritarian sexual fetishism). As no one should have to bother pointing out, the terrorist attacks on U.S. landmarks, as devastating as they are to those directly touched by the trauma, are cut from the same cloth as the wide-scale systematic terrorism imposed by global capitalism in the name of preserving “our” way of life.
The Shakers believed that the only way to conquer violence is through cultivating peace in our own hearts and forgoing vengeance. The gift drawings, so formally beautiful and filled with humor and life, weren’t created in any context we would consider “art,” but were part and parcel with an all-encompassing spiritual and political engagement with the world, an engagement that attempted to realize God’s New Kingdom by eschewing private property, consumerist materialism, artistic pride and all acts of violence. Where is the art of today that is as intricately interconnected an expression of a world-view rooted in nonviolence? Contemporary art-making is one of the few remaining vestigial remnants of the tradition of handmade artifacts that the Shakers’ work epitomizes, but it prospers only if and when it finds its market niche. The Shaker philosophy may have failed to precipitate the New World, but their strategy still seems sounder than bombing Kabul into the Stone Age to fluff the Dow Jones’ withering chubby and keep the sneakers flowing.
HEAVENLY VISIONS: SHAKER GIFT DRAWINGS AND GIFT SONGS | UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood | Through October 21