By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
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