The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism’

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Illustration by Javier Jaén

By KYLE CHAYKA

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It has become an ostentatious ritual of consumerist self-sacrifice; people who have it all now seem to prefer having nothing at all. And, as with watching birds or going Paleo, talking about the material purge is just as important as actually doing it. So there are blog posts — in which you can see minimalism’s can-do optimism curdle into something tyrannical.

A recent account, called “How Minimalism Brought Me Freedom and Joy,” is emblematic of the budding genre, from its author (a wealthy serial entrepreneur, James Altucher) to its thesis (own fewer things, mostly gadgets) to its one-sentence paragraphs. Altucher explains that he gave up his permanent home, life goals and negative emotions. He threw away his college diploma, which had been gathering dust in storage. (“I don’t hold onto all the things society tells me to hold onto.”) He now carries nothing but a bag of clothes and a backpack containing a computer, an iPad and a smartphone. “I have zero other possessions,” he writes, and thanks to this, he has found peace as a wandering techno-ascetic — Silicon Valley’s version of Zen monkhood.

Despite its connotations of absence, “minimalism” has been popping up everywhere lately, like a bright algae bloom in the murk of postrecession America. From tiny houses to microapartments to monochromatic clothing to interior-decorating trends — picture white walls interrupted only by succulents — less now goes further than ever. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the minimalism glut, as the word can be applied to just about anything. The nearly four million images tagged #minimalism on Instagram include white sneakers, clouds, the works of Mondrian, neon signs, crumbling brick walls and grassy fields. So long as it’s stylishly austere, it seems, it’s minimalist.

Part pop philosophy and part aesthetic, minimalism presents a cure-all for a certain sense of capitalist overindulgence. Maybe we have a hangover from pre-recession excess — McMansions, S.U.V.s, neon cocktails, fusion cuisine — and minimalism is the salutary tonic. Or perhaps it’s a method of coping with recession-induced austerity, a collective spiritual and cultural cleanse because we’ve been forced to consume less anyway. But as an outgrowth of a peculiarly American (that is to say, paradoxical and self-defeating) brand of Puritanical asceticism, this new minimalist lifestyle always seems to end in enabling new modes of consumption, a veritable excess of less. It’s not really minimal at all.

The word’s meaning wasn’t entirely literal when it first came into being; “minimalism” was popularized in 1965 as an insult. In an essay for Arts Magazine, the British philosopher Richard Wollheim used it to describe a group of artists whose work was characterized by “minimal art content” — that is, a lack of art. Arranging bricks on a gallery floor (as Carl Andre did) or manufacturing metal boxes (Donald Judd) or fluorescent light fixtures (Dan Flavin) simply wasn’t, in Wollheim’s estimation, enough to make an object worthy of the title. For good reason, the artists singled out in the essay didn’t identify with Wollheim’s appellation. They used industrial materials to remove themselves from their work, intentionally. In their eyes, this formal frugality was a necessary correction to the heroic individualism of New York School Abstract Expressionism. (After some time, what can you see in a Pollock but Pollock himself?) But the name stuck.

Still, the artists were maximalists of a sort: The austerity of their objects freed the viewer to experience the work in any way they wished. “Minimalism can return you to this basic state where you’re perceiving purely,” says David Raskin, a professor of contemporary art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Less is more because you strip away the familiar,” opening an opportunity to see the world without preconceptions. The objects might look mundane, but rather than the plain metal box on the floor, it’s the stark sensory experience the object incites that is the art, no previous knowledge necessary. The artist opens a radical infinity of possibilities. “Minimalism in the 1960s was very much along the lines of taking LSD,” says Miguel de Baca, an associate professor of art history at Lake Forest College.

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