Art has the power to communicate. Meaningful works can cross centuries and cultures to do so. The chairs, boxes, chests, samplers and clothing in “Simple Gifts: Shaker at the Met” give voice to the practices and beliefs of those who made them, while also imparting a simple yet profound message to a future society that needs to hear it.
Every culture finds ways to feed, shelter, inform, heal and entertain its people. Shakers made all of those part of something bigger. These works carry the message that life and all its myriad facets can be prayer — not lead to prayer or reflect prayer, but be prayer.
When visitors to upstate New York came upon the communities of The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing in the late 1700s, many commented that it felt as if they had entered a gathering of angels. The congregants sang and danced — in fact they shook with fervor. They became known as the Shakers. Shakers were committed to a short list of principles including self-sufficiency, communal life, pacifism, the equality of genders and races, and strict celibacy. Celibacy was their downfall. But equality and self-sufficiency never go out of style, and are part of what has drawn modern minds to them and their works.
Simple lines, clean forms, respect for materials and effortless functionality could be the playbook for any contemporary designer. For the Shakers, they were much more. An elder of Mount Lebanon, Frederick Evans, once said, “The divine man has no right to waste money upon what you call beauty in his house or his daily life, while there are people living in misery.” And yet, the objects in the exhibition are beautiful. Their classical lines, elegant proportions, and unadorned material probably furnished the dreams of designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright. They influenced the Bauhaus, modern Scandinavian design and Isamu Noguchi, whose set designs are present in a film of “Appalachian Spring” that’s included in the exhibition.
Simplicity is part of what makes these works special. But it’s not what makes them extraordinary. There were plenty of pine tables, ladder back chairs and wooden boxes in Colonial America. It was the desire to imbue a table with the ability to speak of God’s grace that made Shaker craftsmen and women strive and struggle to find just the right tapering for a table leg, or the cleanest, most esthetically elegant way to fasten a piece of wood. Ingenuity joined with earnestness. Reverence is reflected in every element — primarily for the Creator, but also for the material, the user, the crafter and the process. The journey is the aim. It’s an approach not unlike the Zen tea ceremony.
A full sense of Shaker style is found in the “North Family Retiring Room,” a reconstructed space down the hall from the exhibition. Hopefully, when you go it will be empty. The stillness of the room transports you to some sun-baked afternoon in farmland. You can almost smell the cut grass, hear the screech of a blue jay, and taste the baking bread. There’s so little in the room — a scrubbed pine floor, a mat, a bed, a basin, a chair, a stove — and yet, it’s enough. In fact, it’s perfect.
There are endless marvels to be found in the New York art world, and that’s wonderful. “Simple Gifts” is a kind of antidote to the blockbuster, and it’s wonderful too. With a few dozen objects spread through a few rooms in the American Wing, it’s a small, quiet, humble show — sort of like the Shakers, themselves. And like them, it invites us to consider the beauty in the ordinary, in appreciation, in contentment, in the simplicity and profundity of every moment.