In the wisdom of a small, furniture-obsessed religious sect founded in the 18th century, we may find a way to start moving forward.
Reading the post-election commentary from my vintage-furnished stop in the Acela bubble this week, I have felt a kind of nausea and dread that I had not experienced since I nearly lost my stepfather, who worked in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001. He survived, but none of us has ever been the same. I knew then that I would devote my life and abilities to the community I love: people who make things, people who enrich others’ lives by teaching and mentoring, people who shine light on injustice through their artwork, who help us find connection with each other. I didn’t know then what shape this would take (or even which graduate school I would apply to), but I knew that the shortness of our time here made it imperative that I lead with my heart and gut, even when my brain tried to exert executive orders.
People who make things have always given shape to the spirit of their times; we teach students of design history to look for those associations. We find reverence for an imagined form of medieval purity in 19th-century Gothic architecture and furniture. The steely, tough-minded geometry of Neoclassicism that furnished the corridors of power in the wake of the American and French Revolutions was meant to show a skeptical world that these new, fledgling republics were part of an ancient lineage of self-rule, and built to stand the test of time. During Reconstruction, in the decades-long aftermath of the American Civil War, Southern elites (my ancestors included) built gleaming monuments to glorify the heroes of what they referred to as the “lost cause” of the Confederacy; we still cannot decide what should become of these divisive works of public art, over a century since their creation. The leaders of the earliest incarnation of the Bauhaus in Germany envisioned a world where the mechanized horrors of World War I could be humanized and tamed through a revival of skilled handicraft and its integration with all of the arts. In one sense, they were proven heartbreakingly and uncomprehendingly wrong by the destruction and genocide of World War II; yet their beliefs and ideas gave creative life to a generation of American design giants, who, in turn, helped fashion the look of our own 20th century.
We now find ourselves led by a President-elect whose favored aesthetic makes Napoleon’s fondness for gilt bronze look positively understated, and who is accused of things like bilking contractors and other small business owners out of their agreed-upon wages. We find that facts appear to be optional. Garish displays of a caricatured form of “wealth” are meant to signify worth, but have they any value? I don’t know what comes next, but I do have a suggestion for making a start at moving forward.
It’s rooted in the eccentric wisdom of a small, furniture-obsessed religious sect founded in the 18th century that has all but disappeared, apart from its immortalization in a Ken Burns documentary and prominence in museum collections. The Shakers are not plentiful today; their rejection of marriage and procreation probably didn’t help matters in that regard. But they have left behind a legacy that is about much more than the restrained, humble beauty of their tools, ingenious rural architecture, and furniture. There is a Shaker expression from which Ken Burns drew inspiration for the title of his 1984 film, one which has always come to my mind when times get tough: “Hands to work, hearts to god.” The outpouring of political awakening, the desire to heal and connect, protect our democracy, and support one another has astonished and inspired me since Tuesday. I see it all, and I can’t stop thinking of this phrase.
Which brings me to the question of what craft can do. When I use this word, like the word “god,” I don’t mean it in a literalist or fundamentalist way. I don’t insist that craft is a certain type of object or a particular way of doing things. “Craft” is not an object in a museum per se, but a manifestation of generations of skill and knowledge that give an object its shape, standing in for the life of the culture and community from which it came, even after an individual maker has long since died.
We in the educated corridors of the craft world — critics and collectors, the staff of museums and university departments — are by and large the sorts of Americans who didn’t think they knew any Trump supporters. I think I speak for many of us when I say that, like the pundits, we didn’t see this result coming by a long shot. But our community has something up its sleeve: the practices we hold dear, the ones we devote ourselves to critiquing and analyzing, are as old as humankind itself. Quilts, clothing, furniture, sign painting, and the crafts of the building trades all cross political lines, much like food. They also connect deeply to a battered vision of American identity that is in desperate need of a better angel right now. If we’re looking for a way to reach our fellow Americans, to have honest conversations with them about equality and dignity, craft can be a place to begin.
This brings me back to the Shakers. Craft brings us joy; it creates a tangible record of who we are and where we come from. Craft connects us, but only if we participate fully. In Shaker furniture, we find not just an elegance that seems to eerily presage Modernism by about a century, but a commitment to skill, sturdiness, and plain utility that tells the user they are valued and deserving of care. We deserve the solidly built and thoughtfully designed, not the shoddy and flimsy. We must do our work, be it making furniture, practicing law, or running for office, with integrity. “Put your hands to work and give your hearts to God” — these words from Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers’ founder, are not a rallying cry for a particular kind of maker or a particular kind of religious person. They are an invitation and, I believe, a mandate for each of us to do the work that is needed, with respect and all of our best efforts, while knowing that in doing so, we are giving shape to a better, as-yet-unseen world.