Quakers have long cultivated an aesthetic of minimalism, having sought during their prominence in eighteenth-century colonial America to weed out superfluity and excess of all kinds. This involved a general prohibition on music, sports, painting, coat collars, alcohol consumption, theater, and fiction, as well as various boycotts of goods produced by slave labor, including cotton, sugar, and rum. Some of this exacting asceticism was driven by an impulse to remove what John Woolman described as the seeds of wars in these our possessions, and some of it was driven by a peculiar aesthetic. Even so, it was said that the finest silks imported into Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were of the color gray, to appeal to Quaker buyers, who, having not much else to spend their money on, enjoyed fabrics that were not tainted by slave labor. Their decision to purchase high-quality luxury goods suggests that the peculiar Quaker aesthetic was not motivated by asceticism per se.
Quakers have long cultivated an aesthetic of minimalism, having sought during their prominence in eighteenth-century colonial America to weed out superfluity and excess of all kinds.
The Quaker aesthetic was grounded in a biblical sensibility that is largely lacking today. The biblical prohibition on graven images was a central theme in Reformation disputes between Protestants and Catholics in central Europe and between Puritans and Anglicans in England. Quakers adopted much of the culture of Puritans while rejecting key elements of Puritan theology, such as election and predestination. On cultural matters, Quakers and Puritans concurred in rejecting graven imagery in places of worship; elaborate decor; and the liturgical calendar, including the observance of Christmas. However, this practice was not primarily aesthetic; it reflected a particular understanding of biblical texts that were held in high esteem by both groups.
The central biblical prohibition against visual art is found in the second commandment, recorded in Exodus 20:4–6. From the Geneva translation, which would have been most readily accessible for English Puritans, comes the following:
Thou shalt make thee no graven image, neither any similitude of things that are in heaven above, neither that are in the earth beneath, nor that are in the waters under the earth.
Thou shalt not bow down to them, neither serve them: for I am the Lord thy God, a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third generation and upon the fourth of them that hate me:
And showing mercy unto thousands to them that love me, and keep my commandments.
While an aversion to graven images recurs throughout the Hebrew Bible, the second commandment provides a detailed presentation of this peculiar Hebrew attitude. It is the longest commandment of the Ten Commandments, and it contains five separate components:
- You shall not construct graven images.
- You shall not bow down to them.
- Neither shall you serve them.
- There should be no representations of anything in sky, water, or on land.
- It contains a prophecy, for God’s favor will endure for a thousand human generations who observe this commandment. (Be aware that fewer than 200 generations have passed since the time of Moses.)
It should be immediately clear that our current society is completely at odds with the second commandment, no matter how many courthouses ostentatiously display the Ten Commandments. We are constantly deluged with images of living things—movie actors, sports teams, and animations—which fill magazine ads and computer, television, and movie screens. We would be hard-pressed to imagine life without them. Our largest cities would be economically devastated if we stopped constructing, serving, and bowing down to these visual images.
It is reasonable to ask whether the second commandment actually concerns these fixtures of modern life. At the bare minimum, it forbids the depiction of a deity and/or anything that might elicit worship. For the Puritans of the seventeenth century and the Calvinists of the sixteenth century, the commandment certainly applied to any visual representation of God, say in the Sistine Chapel or on a crucifix. Such representations were viewed as overt idolatry. Quakers appear to have accepted this position without much comment or elaboration, this dispute having been largely settled among English dissenters before the advent of the Quaker era.
However, the question for us today is whether the “similitude of things,” whether above or below, generates an attitude equivalent to worship. Does it captivate our attention? Does it demand our time, labor, and money, and does it lead us astray? If so, that would constitute the essence of idolatry. And I think that an impartial inquiry would discover that yes, modern movies, television, and photography produce a concentrated mental state akin to worship—albeit a misplaced worship—which (often) leads us astray.
The chief question we can reasonably ask, then, is whether this visual bombardment in the modern world is salutary or destructive. And it would be difficult to answer that question without experiencing the absence of visual images, whether they are considered art, advertising, pornography, or propaganda. This would require a commitment that few would undertake, but it is something that many Quakers of the past three-and-a-half centuries considered normal and something that they personally cultivated and often achieved.
Is it even possible, in this era, to be Quakers if our minds are filled with alluring images, stupendous special effects, captivating melodies, and artificial desires?
However, one contemporary approximation might be the condition of Eastern Europe circa 1990, when advertising was still at a minimum. Visitors there have noted their own calmness of attention in the absence of visual advertising. Visitors could observe and interact with people themselves when there was less “similitude” of people in print media. They often found that interactions were more personal and less hectic.
Does art provide compensatory value that outweighs the risks of idolatry and false worship? If so, other articles in this issue of Friends Journal will attest to them. Even so, we should consider whether early Quakers lacked art or whether their lack of art was itself an art form, which few are prepared to recognize and appreciate. If so, then by contrast, we are the ones whose lives are hampered, harried, and constrained due to the proliferation of visual imagery, which the biblical writers were exercised to prohibit. Is it even possible, in this era, to be Quakers if our minds are filled with alluring images, stupendous special effects, captivating melodies, and artificial desires? If we wish to preserve the Quaker heritage, we should search out the seeds of idolatry in these our fascinations, so that we can worship in Spirit and in Truth.