What We Get Wrong About Minimalism

What We Get Wrong About Minimalism
It’s not about empty walls or avoiding your phone — it’s about finding beauty in our surroundings, whatever they may look like.

Jan. 24, 2020
Credit…Lucy Jones

By Kyle Chayka

Mr. Chayka is the author of “The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism.”

For a word that suggests as little as possible, so many different things fall under the label of “minimalism” at the moment. A home interior might be described as minimalist if there’s nothing hung on its white walls. A dress is minimalist if it’s simple and functional, or monochrome and expensive. Cleaning out your closet and choosing to consume less is minimalist, but there are also plenty of products you can buy that are “minimalist”: hundreds of lamps, wallets and posters available on Amazon. Avoiding using your phone, checking your email or updating social media is “digital minimalism.” Everything on Instagram seems to be minimalist.

I wrote my book, “The Longing for Less,” to solve the mystery of why minimalism was applied to all these various objects, styles and ideas. I wanted to understand where the word came from as well as what it means to us now and why it’s so popular. Through my research and travel, from rural Texas to Kyoto, Japan, I found that the current mania for minimalism is actually a distortion of the movement’s origins. All the cleaning and careful arrangement, the prepackaged solutions of minimalist furniture and storage boxes, are actually a misunderstanding of its intentions. Minimalism has become another form of consumerism.

In the obsession with objects (owning either less or more) we’ve lost the basic ideas of minimalism. It might appear simple but it’s also a philosophical challenge, not to find exactly the right stuff to buy but to rethink our relationship to the world around us, from the ground up. Rather than the single generically blank style that’s now noticeable everywhere, minimalism is fundamentally about a diversity of visions.

It starts with the word itself. “Minimalism” was kicked off by the British art theorist Richard Wollheim in a 1965 essay called “Minimal Art.” Wollheim was trying to understand a group of artists who made work that wasn’t readily identifiable as art. It looked more like industrial manufacturing. At the time, the artist Donald Judd was building plain wooden boxes that he installed on gallery floors, Dan Flavin affixed colored fluorescent light fixtures to walls and Yayoi Kusama (now better known for her Infinity Rooms) covered everyday furniture like a couch and armchair with phallic fabric protrusions, which made them unrecognizable and unusable.

This art was shocking, as Wollheim observed, because it didn’t fit our usual idea of what art was: It had “minimal art content.” Earlier forms of art were all about self-expression and communication of emotions or narratives. With its mundane materials, minimalism was a return to the basics of sensory perception. It was about creating an excess of sensation through a “demand that we should look at single objects for and in themselves,” Wollheim wrote. As Frank Stella put it, “What you see is what you see.”

In fact, the artists who were associated with minimalism largely hated the term and its connotations of lack. They didn’t feel that anything had been lessened. (“There isn’t any such thing as minimalism,” Judd wrote in a letter to The Village Voice in 1981.) Minimalism didn’t mean cleanliness; it got in the way. It wasn’t monochrome, elegant or well suited to home décor. It was difficult and strange, forcing the viewer to understand that our traditional ideas of beauty didn’t apply anymore. In fact, in 1990 the art historian Anna Chave wrote that minimalism could be “domineering” and “brutal,” not so far from authoritarian.

One has only to visit the homes Donald Judd designed for himself, a SoHo warehouse building in Manhattan and clutches of industrial complexes in Marfa, Tex., to realize that he wouldn’t be interested in the emptiness that’s popular today. His spaces are crowded with stuff: Native American rugs, cassette tapes of bagpipe music, wooden sake cups. The long tables he designed for his Marfa library are piled with books held down by rocks and shells. He built daybeds and installed one in every room so he’d have places to lie down and think.

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Minimalism, to me, is more about attention than anything else. It advocates seeing the world not as a series of products to consume, but sensory experiences to have on your own terms. A stand mixer can be as beautiful as the Mona Lisa. Historically, minimalism tells us to focus on what doesn’t at first seem pleasant or beautiful and turn it into art instead of creating a worldview based only on what we already like.

Another often misunderstood minimalist artwork is the composer John Cage’s “4’33”,” his famous silent piece. Cage created a length of time with no sound in it; a piano player does nothing but turn the score pages and periodically open and close the keyboard lid for the 4 minutes 33 seconds of the title. Yet this wasn’t silence in the manner of noise-canceling headphones, a vacuum of sensation. At its debut in a semi-outdoor concert hall in rural upstate New York in 1952, the listeners were restless as the pianist David Tudor did nothing. They knocked around, chattered and eventually abandoned the performance to start their cars and drive away.

This awkwardness is exactly what made Cage’s performance important. “4’33” ” reframes the ambient sound around us as beautiful music that’s worthy of attention, whatever it is, even the sound of people grumbling or the leaves rustling overhead. It’s similar to how Judd makes us appreciate the plain quality of his boxes. Cage said he performed “4’33” ” by himself throughout his life, just listening for the designated length of time. As I wrote the book, I also started hearing things differently, the chaotic soundscape of cities transforming into a randomized composition. “The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all,” Cage wrote.

Too often, trendy minimalism is a way of numbing ourselves to reality and maintaining a comfortable, solid barrier through which nothing unpleasant intrudes. I want to expand its definition to include the possibility of dwelling in discomfort, even the awareness of death.

My ideal concept comes from Japan, which has developed its philosophy of absence for more than a millennium, via Japanese Buddhism. “Mono-no-aware” is a term that means something like “the beauty of things passing”; it can be found in thousand-year-old texts like Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji,” in which characters take particular pleasure in everything that is transient: blooming flowers, decrepit wooden mansions, fire embers on a cold night.

So often minimalism portends to be permanent, a fixed end state, instead of flux and change. Minimalism is a process that has to be kept up and refreshed day to day. I’m always inspired by this quote from a 1933 essay called “In Praise of Shadows,” by the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki: “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.”

Minimalism as a static style will inevitably end, as all trends do, and we’ll turn against the empty walls, skeletal furniture and soft textures. We’ll embrace bright colors and loud patterns and call them the next new thing. But minimalism’s fundamental ideas will remain as long as human civilization, because we never quite learn its lesson: What already exists immediately around us is more important than all of our anxieties about what’s not there yet. The imperfection of reality is perfect.

Kyle Chayka (@chaykak) is a journalist living in Washington, D.C., and the author of “The Longing for Less.”.

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