Thursday, February 16, 2006

"Imbuing the ordinary with a sense of the numinous"

In Shining Tree of Life: What the Shakers did, Adam Gopnik tells a very nice story about blurred boundaries between "goods and the good", and the complex roles of humanism in design:

"What distinguished the Shakers was their odd join between violent anti-worldliness and thoroughgoing commercial materialism...It is here, ironically, in the need to make things to sell to other people, that the first stirrings of a distinct style begin. This is not to say that the objects were made insincerely, or that Shakerism in design was a scam. The built-in cupboards and chairs and ladders constructed only for other Shakers, in Shaker communities, are made in the same spirit as the things for sale. The point is that no line was drawn the other way around, either: what was made for sale looked like what was made for sacred. The urge to make consumer goods is, after all, one of the keenest spiritual disciplines that an ascetic can face: it forces spirit to take form. An ascetic drinking tea from a cup decides not to care what kind of cup he’s drinking from; an ascetic forced to make a cup has to ask what kind of cup he ought to drink from...

[The] Shaker box...bends around, and each element has a logic to it—the copper tacks to prevent rust, the beautiful embracing swallowtail fingers to keep the box from cracking—but it has none of the 'that’s that' shortcut simplicity of folk objects; instead, a kind of underlying delirium infects it, an obsessive overcharge of finish, the sense of a will to perfection investing an otherwise humdrum object. 'Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle' was a Shaker motto. 'God is in the details'—but the details have to provide evidence of God...

Yet all these elements—the flat grid patterning, the acceptance of asymmetry, the tolerance for the drumbeat repetition of similar elements without an evident hierarchy of form—add up to a simple idea: Shaker design, while reaching toward an ideal of beauty, unconsciously rejects the human body as a primary source of form. To a degree that we hardly credit, everything in our built environment traditionally echoes our own shape...Once you have got rid of the body as a natural referent for design, and no longer think 'pictorially' about objects, grids and repeats begin to appear as alternative systems...

The love of asymmetry, which seems to us so sophisticated, involves a violation of the same taboo, since symmetry is the essence of human beauty. All Shaker design implies a liberation from 'humanism' of this kind. When we make objects that look like us, we unconsciously are flattering ourselves. The Shakers made objects that look like objects, and that follow a non-human law of design.

This doesn’t mean that the Shaker objects are 'inhuman' in the sense of being cold. They aren’t cold. The brooms and clocks and boxes create an atmosphere of serenity, loveliness, calm certainty. But these are monastic virtues rather than liberal ones. We miss the radical edge of Shaker art if we don’t see that it is not meant to be 'humanistic'."

2 Comments:

Anonymous Francois Lachance said...

It was the phrase "symmetry is the essence of human beauty" that made me pause when I first read Adam Gopnik's piece in the The New Yorker. I did read on and found the concluding remarks about the spiritual and the commercial to be nicely couched. I liked the image of communicating spheres of activity in this sentence: "In a commercial society, the membrane that separates spirit and store is always permeable" But that bit about the essence of human beauty being symmetry just doesn't sit well with years of observing the symmetry breaking features of so many many human faces. Still the excerpt brings to mind the work of Michael Leyton, Symmetry, Causality, Mind, where he argues for a relation between human perceptions of shape and time. Symmetry breaking would play a significant role in an aesthetics of temporality. A language of essence with its cargo of eternal unalterable form may not be the best for conveying a different sensibility: one where "commercial" is but one of type of overlapping constructions of society.

04:14  
Blogger Anne said...

Hmm. I would take the symmetrical ideal of beauty as a well entrenched aspect of Judeo-Christian-Muslim cultural expression. It is asymmetry that seems somehow awry. I can't help but think that Shakers themselves practice a sort of asymmetrical sociality in relation to surrounding non-Shakers. What struck me the most about this piece was how the author keeps trying to bring Shaker asymmetrical aesthetics into a symmetrical relation with capitalism and spirituality ;)

04:03  

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