They discuss the evolution of these specific traditions, but by restricting the quilts on display to the period from 1880 to 1940, they have trapped the Amish in the past, before the widespread use of synthetic fabrics or the "discovery" of Amish quilts by the art market.
Suggesting that historical specificity doesn't apply to the timeless Amish, the large blow-up photographs throughout the exhibit of Amish children playing and Amish men building barns freeze the Amish in a different past. The photographs date from the 1980s, before the disappearance of affordable farmland sent young Amish men into factories, and before the Amish brand was tainted by meth-fueled megaparties of Amish kids on rumspringa and reality TV shows about corrupting "the innocent."
Since the 1930s, the major function of the Amish, for Americans in general, has been to represent an innocence the rest of us have supposedly lost. America, like the Amish, is imagined to have once been peaceful, rural, white, and untroubled by introspection. But surrounded by the bold colors and intricate stitching of "Amish Abstractions," it is easy to imagine that the Amish women who created them were secret sensualists or feminist mystics. If I didn't know better, I'd guess they were created by revolutionary cells, possibly lesbians, who drank mushroom tea and let their hair out of their bonnets while their men were out working the fields.
But I do know better. My Amish grandmother was a young woman in Ohio during the 1930s, and so it is possible, although not likely, that she had a hand in one or two of the quilts on display. She left behind a written record of her life, condensed from diaries, a litany marked by births, weddings, and deaths, barns struck by lightning ("There was nothing to do but let it burn ..."), accidents and near-accidents, bedbugs and prayer, dead children and epidemics of diptheria, influenza, whooping cough, measles, and delirium. This record is more than 100 pages long, and at times incredibly detailed about trips taken, people visited, and beets canned. Yet three years pass in a single paragraph which begins, "In the summer of 1945 I had a nervous breakdown." My father remembered little about his mother's "nervous breakdown," but he thought she had probably been given some tranquilizers.
For the Amish, what a person might feel or want is never removed from what the community demands, from the work to be done, and from theological doctrine. Whether this constitutes spiritual calm and mutually beneficial self-denial or deeply oppressive self-abnegation is another question.
AMISH ABSTRACTIONS: QUILTS FROM THE COLLECTION OF FAITH AND STEPHEN BROWN
Through June 6, 2010
de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
Golden Gate Park, SF