Last month, Critical Studies faculty member Janet Sarbanes was named the winner of this year’s Battisti Award from the Society for Utopian Studies for her essay, “The Shaker ‘Gift’ Economy.” The paper appeared in the Winter 2009 volume of the Utopian Studies peer-reviewed academic journal.
Sarbanes, who teaches fiction writing in the MFA Writing Program and Cultural Studies in the BFA program at CalArts, has focused a lot of her research on the study of Utopian societies. For this particular essay, she explored the role that art and music had within the Shaker religious community.
From Sarbanes’ abstract:
This article considers the Shakers’ vibrant, expressive culture, which they referred to as “gifts” (“the gift of song,” “the dancing gift,” “the whirling gift,” and so on), as the source and sustenance of their charismatic communalism. Drawing on Max Weber’s discussion of charisma and institution, and Marcel Mauss’s famous description of the “gift economy,” I argue that Shaker society harbored a deep flexibility towards and admiration for creativity that allowed charismatic relations to co-exist alongside a strict top-down organization, and indeed, to take precedence at moments when the reinvigoration of social bonds was of crucial importance to the sect’s continuance.
“The Shakers were the longest-lasting Utopian community [in the United States],” said Sarbanes during a recent phone interview. The community lasted more than 100 years, which is a feat considering that the Shakers were strict believers in celibacy. They grew their numbers through a number of adoptions of orphaned children or conversions of people attracted to a lifestyle that placed emphasis on cleanliness, honesty, frugality and hard work. The Shakers were known fpr creating unadorned Shaker furniture, a plain style that is both functional and long-lasting. Song and dance also played an integral role in Shaker worship.
Here’s a short clip from a 1974 documentary Shaker movie (available streaming at www.folkstreams.net) that illustrates Shaker song and dance.
The most famous Shaker song is “Simple Gifts,” which Aaron Copland used in Appalachian Spring. Listen to the song in the video posted below: