Shining Tree of Life


"Weary old faiths make art while hot young sects make only trouble. Insincerity, or at least familiarity, seems to be a precondition of a great religious art—the wheezing and worldly Renaissance Papacy produced the Sistine ceiling, while the young Apostolic Church left only a few scratched graffiti in the catacombs. In America, certainly, very little art has attached itself directly to our own dazzling variety of sects and cults, perhaps because true belief is too busy with eternity to worry about the décor. The great exception is the Shakers, who managed, throughout the hundred or so years of their flourishing, to make objects so magically austere that they continue to astonish our eyes and our sense of form long after the last Shakers stopped shaking. Everything that they touched is breathtaking in its beauty and simplicity. It is not a negative simplicity, either, a simplicity of gewgaws eliminated and ornament excised, which, like that of a distressed object found in a barn, appeals by accident to modern eyes trained already in the joys of minimalism. No, their objects show a knowing, creative, shaping simplicity, and to look at a single Shaker box is to see an attenuated asymmetry, a slender, bending eccentricity, which truly anticipates and rivals the bending organic sleekness of Brancusi’s “Bird in Flight” or the algorithmic logic of Bauhaus spoons and forks. Shaker objects don’t look simple; they look specifically Shaker.

Yet what the Shakers thought they were doing when they made their boxes and ladders and clocks, and why we think what they did was so lovely, remains something of a mystery, despite a booming market and the books to go with it. How did a sect so small make objects so sublime? Did they know what they were doing when they did what they did? Or were they doing something else, and doing this other, better thing on their way there?…"

"Shining Tree of Life"
What the Shakers did.

The New Yorker