What We Might Get Wrong About Minimalism

Minimalism is a conflated term these days. Once used to describe an era of chiefly American art in the sixties, the term has now taken on a new – decidedly more constrained- meaning. Thanks to popular Netflix shows like “Tiny Houses” and “The Minimalists” popular culture has redefined minimalism to primarily describe a life of living with less. However, in his new book The Longing For less, Living With Minimalism, Kyle Chayka attempts to shift the modern narrative and makes a strong case for rethinking what we think about minimalism.

Kyle Chakra's Book on minimalism art history

How Do We Think About Minimalism?

The term minimalism may bring to mind a plethora of images that proudly pronounce the use of blank space or paired-down design. For millennials, the term may trigger thoughts of a certain IG feed that is limited to a neutral color palette. Or maybe images of an airy industrial loft come to mind, sparsely decorated with a few impersonal objects. Alternatively, the term may bring a uniform sense of personal style to mind: one that doesn’t vary beyond a few select colors or pieces.

Kyle Chakra's Book on minimalism modern

If any of these images come to mind, they wouldn’t necessarily be misguided. However, Chayka points out what we might get wrong about minimalism is that it’s not about simplicity for the sake of order, control, and uniformity. Rather, as an art form, it’s about stripping away subjective expression in order to objectively view the essential. And when you realize there’s no story there, you are free to create your own.

Minimalist Art

Characterized by extreme simplicity of form and a literal approach, it was the view of minimalist artists that a work of art should not refer to anything but itself: a large departure from view of abstract expressionists that preceded them. For minimalist artists, the purpose of reduction was to explore the essential –without reference to the subjective expression of the artist. Thus, rejecting any emotional projection of the artist and returning the experience of art to the audience.

Judy Chicago, Rainbow Picket, Minimalist Art,
Rainbow Pickett, 1964 (Recreated 2004), Judy Chicagp

For a minimalist artist, there was no meaning, subjective reality, or story behind the colors chosen, shapes presented, or materials used. There was simply the end result of a visual object that the audience would experience in the space it was presented.  

Modern Minimalism As A Lifestyle

In a more modern view of the term, minimalism refers to the art of living with less. For example, living in a tiny-space with relatively few modern amenities. At its most basic level, it references to the art of “tidying up” or spaces that are decidedly free from clutter: I.e. taking pride in well-organized spaces and pristine countertops.

According to Joshua Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, self-proclaimed “Minimalists”, Minimalism is a constant Q&A of value added: what do I own that adds value to my life, and what can I get rid of that doesn’t? According to their ‘elevator pitch’, once you are able to remove the ‘clutter’ from your life, you’re free to focus on the non-material aspects of living. In their words, the path towards minimalism leads you to “a life with more time, more money, and more freedom to live a meaningful life”.

What We Might Get Wrong About Minimalism

While making a conscious effort to downsize your material possessions is certainly a worth-while pursuit, does modern minimalism get it all wrong?  Is a well-curated closet the end all be all of a happy life or is really just the beginning of the story? At the darker end of the spectrum, is modern minimalism somewhat oppressive and obsessed with illusions of order and control?

As Chayka points out in his book, modern minimalism borrowed its label from a decade in art history focused primarily on new beginnings and objective visual experiences. So when exactly did it become about restriction and anti-consumerism?

Chayka recently told Vanity Fair that he wants readers of his book:

“to think about what minimalism could be as a deeper idea and how it could change the way you fundamentally see the world, and that goes way beyond organizing your sock drawer. To me, minimalism should be a radical idea. It should help you kind of start from scratch and look at reality around you without preconceptions or something.”

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