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TheOppressiveGospelof
Minimalism
FirstWords
ByKYLECHAYKA

JULY26,2016

Ithasbecomeanostentatiousritualofconsumeristselfsacrificepeople
whohaveitallnowseemtopreferhavingnothingatall.And,aswith
watchingbirdsorgoingPaleo,talkingaboutthematerialpurgeisjustas
importantasactuallydoingit.Sothereareblogpostsinwhichyoucan
seeminimalismscandooptimismcurdleintosomethingtyrannical.
Arecentaccount,calledHowMinimalismBroughtMeFreedomand
Joy,isemblematicofthebuddinggenre,fromitsauthor(awealthyserial
entrepreneur,JamesAltucher)toitsthesis(ownfewerthings,mostly
gadgets)toitsonesentenceparagraphs.Altucherexplainsthathegaveup
hispermanenthome,lifegoalsandnegativeemotions.Hethrewawayhis
collegediploma,whichhadbeengatheringdustinstorage.(Idonthold
ontoallthethingssocietytellsmetoholdonto.)Henowcarriesnothing
butabagofclothesandabackpackcontainingacomputer,aniPadanda
smartphone.Ihavezerootherpossessions,hewrites,andthankstothis,
hehasfoundpeaceasawanderingtechnoasceticSiliconValleysversion
ofZenmonkhood.
Despiteitsconnotationsofabsence,minimalismhasbeenpopping
upeverywherelately,likeabrightalgaebloominthemurkofpostrecession

America.Fromtinyhousestomicroapartmentstomonochromaticclothing
tointeriordecoratingtrendspicturewhitewallsinterruptedonlyby
succulentslessnowgoesfurtherthanever.Itseasytofeeloverwhelmed
bytheminimalismglut,asthewordcanbeappliedtojustaboutanything.
Thenearlyfourmillionimagestagged#minimalismonInstagraminclude
whitesneakers,clouds,theworksofMondrian,neonsigns,crumblingbrick
wallsandgrassyfields.Solongasitsstylishlyaustere,itseems,its
minimalist.
Partpopphilosophyandpartaesthetic,minimalismpresentsacureall
foracertainsenseofcapitalistoverindulgence.Maybewehaveahangover
fromprerecessionexcessMcMansions,S.U.V.s,neoncocktails,fusion
cuisineandminimalismisthesalutarytonic.Orperhapsitsamethodof
copingwithrecessioninducedausterity,acollectivespiritualandcultural
cleansebecausewevebeenforcedtoconsumelessanyway.Butasan
outgrowthofapeculiarlyAmerican(thatistosay,paradoxicalandself
defeating)brandofPuritanicalasceticism,thisnewminimalistlifestyle
alwaysseemstoendinenablingnewmodesofconsumption,averitable
excessofless.Itsnotreallyminimalatall.
Thewordsmeaningwasntentirelyliteralwhenitfirstcameinto
beingminimalismwaspopularizedin1965asaninsult.Inanessayfor
ArtsMagazine,theBritishphilosopherRichardWollheimuseditto
describeagroupofartistswhoseworkwascharacterizedbyminimalart
contentthatis,alackofart.Arrangingbricksonagalleryfloor(asCarl
Andredid)ormanufacturingmetalboxes(DonaldJudd)orfluorescent
lightfixtures(DanFlavin)simplywasnt,inWollheimsestimation,enough
tomakeanobjectworthyofthetitle.Forgoodreason,theartistssingled
outintheessaydidntidentifywithWollheimsappellation.Theyused
industrialmaterialstoremovethemselvesfromtheirwork,intentionally.In
theireyes,thisformalfrugalitywasanecessarycorrectiontotheheroic
individualismofNewYorkSchoolAbstractExpressionism.(Aftersome
time,whatcanyouseeinaPollockbutPollockhimself?)Butthename
stuck.

Still,theartistsweremaximalistsofasort:Theausterityoftheir
objectsfreedtheviewertoexperiencetheworkinanywaytheywished.
Minimalismcanreturnyoutothisbasicstatewhereyoureperceiving
purely,saysDavidRaskin,aprofessorofcontemporaryarthistoryatthe
SchooloftheArtInstituteofChicago.Lessismorebecauseyoustripaway
thefamiliar,openinganopportunitytoseetheworldwithout
preconceptions.Theobjectsmightlookmundane,butratherthantheplain
metalboxonthefloor,itsthestarksensoryexperiencetheobjectincites
thatistheart,nopreviousknowledgenecessary.Theartistopensaradical
infinityofpossibilities.Minimalisminthe1960swasverymuchalongthe
linesoftakingLSD,saysMigueldeBaca,anassociateprofessorofart
historyatLakeForestCollege.
Minimalismwaseventuallycanonizedasanarthistoricalmovement,
butthenamecametomeansomethingdifferentasitwasadoptedinto
consumercultureandturnedintoaclasssignifier.Whatwasonceaway
artistsshockedviewersbecameoverthedecadesastyleasdelimitedand
consumableasanyMarthaStewarttablescape.Thewordwasdefanged,no
longeracriticalinsultandnolongeraviablestrategywithinartthoughit
neverquitegaveupitsveneerofprovocation.Evenausteritycanbemade
decadent:Towealthypractitioners,minimalismisnowlittlemorethana
slightlyintriguingperversion,likedrinkingatbreakfast.Oneofthereal
problemswithdesignworldminimalismisthatitsjustbecomeasignifier
oftheglobalelite,Raskinsays.Thericheryouare,thelessyouhave.
Theminimalistsaestheticofrawmaterialsandaggressivesimplicityleaked
intofashion,designandarchitecture,whereitbecamealuxuryproduct,
helpedalongattimesbytheartiststhemselves.JuddsSoHoloftbuildingis
nowaniconofsanitizedminimalism,opentotourists.HisChinati
Foundation,apermanentinstallationofconcreteandmetalboxesinand
aroundadecommissionedmilitarybaseinMarfa,Tex.,isasiteofhipster
pilgrimage.ItevenappearsinBenLerners10:04,anovelredolentof
latecapitalistanxiety.Theprotagonistvisitsthetownonanartists
residency,wherehewandersthedesertlandscape,partieswithyoung
peopleandaccidentallyingestsketaminebutitsJuddsinstallationthat

providesanepiphany.Thesculptures,hewrites,combinedtocollapsemy
senseofinsideandoutside.Juddsworkhaditselfcometocontainthe
world.
Todaysminimalism,bycontrast,isvisuallyoppressiveitcomeswith
aninherentpressuretoconformtoitsprecepts.Whiteness,inaliteral
sense,isgood.Mess,heterogeneity,isbadtheoppositeimpulseof
artisticminimalism.Itisanxietyinducinginamannerindistinguishable
fromotherformsofconsumerism,notrevolutionaryatall.DoIownthe
rightthings?HaveIjettisonedenoughofthewrongones?Inarecent
interviewwithApartamentomagazinesetagainstinteriorshotsofhisall
whitehomeinRockaway,Queens,thetastemakeranddirectorofMoMA
PS1KlausBiesenbachexplained,Idontaimtoownthings.
Minimalismisnowconflatedwithselfoptimization,thetrendthatalso
resultedinfitnesstrackersandSoylent(trulyaminimalistfooditlooks
likenothing,butinspiresthoughtsofeverythingelse).Oftendrivenby
technology,thisoptimizationisexpensiveandexclusivelybrandedbyand
fortheelite.InSiliconValley,theminimalismfetishcanperhapsbetraced
backtoSteveJobssfamouslyaustere1980sapartment(hesatonthefloor)
andtheattendantsimplicityofAppleproducts.Paredown,andyou,too,
couldruna$700billioncompany.AthrivingRedditforumonminimalism
debatestheworthofMujiproductsandwhichhobbiescountasminimalist
appropriate,inacommunalattempttolivethemosteffective,ifperhaps
notthemostjoyful,life.
Theseminimalistarrivistespresentitasalogicalendtolifestyle,
cultureandevenmorality:Ifweattainonlytherightthings,theperfect
things,andforsakeallelse,thenwewillbefreefromthetyrannyofour
desires.Buttimeoftenprovesaestheticpermanence,aswellasmoralhigh
ground,tobeillusory.Andalready,thependulumisswingingback.
WritinginTheAtlanticinMarch,ArielleBernsteindescribed
minimalismsbanonclutterasaprivilegethatrunscountertothevalue
ascribedtoanabundanceofobjectsbythosewhohavesufferedfromalack

ofthemlessempoweredpeoplelikerefugeesorimmigrants.The
movement,suchasitis,isledinlargepartbyagroupofmenwhogleefully
ditchtheirpossessionsasiftodisavowtheadvantagesbywhichthey
obtainedthem.Butittakesalottobeminimalist:socialcapital,asafetynet
andaccesstotheinternet.Thetechnologywecallminimalistmightfitin
ourpockets,butitdependsonavastinfrastructureofgrim,airconditioned
serverfarmsandevengrimmerChinesefactories.AsLernersprotagonist
observesin10:04,evenadullconveniencelikeacanofinstantcoffee
groundsreacheshimthankstoafragileandtremendouslywastefulnetwork
ofglobalconnections,alogisticschainthatdefiesalllogic,oneundergirded
byexploitedlaborersandvastenvironmentaldegradation.
Theresanarrogancetotodaysminimalismthatpresumesitprovides
ananswerratherthan,asoriginallyintended,aquestion:Whatother
perspectivesarepossiblewhenyoulookattheworldinadifferentway?The
fetishizedausterityandperformativeasceticismofminimalismisakindof
ongoingculturalsickness.Wemisinterpretmaterialrenunciation,austere
aestheticsandblank,emptiedspacesassymbolsofcapitalistabsolution,
whenthesetrendsreallyjustprovideuswithfurtherwaystoserveour
impulsetoconsumemore,notless.

KyleChaykaisawriterlivinginBrooklyn.
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AversionofthisarticleappearsinprintonJuly31,2016,onpageMM13oftheSunday
Magazinewiththeheadline:AusterityMeasures.

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