An understandingly critical look into what minimalism is, what it wanted to be and what it can be.
125 Highlights | 3 Notes
What the bloggers collectively called “minimalism” amounted to a kind of enlightened simplicity, a moral message combined with a particularly austere visual style.
I had been tracking the rise of this minimalist movement and the style that it produced in my work as a journalist, but its momentum still surprised me.
It was a new social attitude that took its name from what was originally an avant-garde art movement that started in 1960s New York City.
It’s unclear just how less becomes more, however. Minimalism’s process of reduction was implicit: You cut down, throw out, make a conscious selection. And then what? Does the empty space left behind provide room for something different to take its place?
“Digital minimalism” became a term for avoiding the overwhelming information deluge of the internet and trying to not check your phone as much.
On the other was the unhappiness at the root of it all, caused by a society that tells you more is always better. Every advertisement for a new product implied that you should dislike what you already had. It took Andersen a long time to understand the lesson: “There was really nothing wrong with our lives at all.”
The minimalist lifestyle seems like a conscientious way of approaching the world now that we’ve realized the buildup of human materialism, accelerating since the industrial revolution, is literally destroying the planet.
We should indeed be reconsidering every new thing we buy because if it’s not absolutely necessary, it makes life worse in the long run for all of us.
On an economic level it was a commandment to live safely within your means versus pursuing dreamy aspirations or taking a leap of faith—not a particularly inspiring doctrine. As the architect Pier Vittorio Aureli writes, the “less is more” attitude can be a form of capitalist exploitation, encouraging workers to produce more while getting by with less, creating more profit for their bosses at the cost of their own quality of life.
To make matters worse, the greatest wealth now comes from the accumulation of invisible capital, not physical stuff: start-up equity, stock shares, and offshore bank accounts opened to avoid taxes. As the French economist Thomas Piketty points out, these immaterial possessions grow in value much faster than salaries do.
Crisis following crisis; flexibility and mobility now feel safer than being static, another reason that owning less looks more and more attractive.
That severe aesthetic could also be found in architecture, with the hard edges and immaculate spaces of Bauhaus modernism, so different from the wood siding and carpets of my childhood home. Minimalist art presented a new, unexpected way of seeing and being in the world, beyond just living with fewer possessions.
It makes sense that millennials embrace minimalism. My generation has never had a healthy relationship with material stability. There are always too few resources at hand or too much competition for what’s left, a scenario that’s engulfing not just one age group but a wider swath of people every year.
Stability is no longer the default.
I wanted to uncover a minimalism of ideas rather than things, not obsess over possessions or the lack thereof but challenge our day-to-day experience of being in the world.
Note: What does "challenge our day-to-day experience of being in the world" mean?
it’s more of a feeling that repeats in different times and places around the world. It’s defined by the sense that the surrounding civilization is excessive—physically or psychologically too much—and has thus lost some kind of original authenticity that must be regained. The material world holds less meaning in these moments, and so accumulating more loses its appeal in favor of giving things up and isolating yourself, whether literally—becoming a hermit or nomad—or through art.
I began thinking of this universal feeling as the longing for less.
It’s an abstract, almost nostalgic desire, a pull toward a different, simpler world. Not past nor future, neither utopian nor dystopian, this more authentic world is always just beyond our current existence in a place we can never quite reach. Maybe the longing for less is the constant shadow of humanity’s self-doubt: What if we were better off without everything we’ve gained in modern society?
The longing for less is neither an illness nor a cure. Minimalism is just one way of thinking about what makes a good life,
The longing for less is best captured in the texture of the lives of those who pursued it, and what they created that was inspired by it. Each person in this book seeks their own version of the idea, succeeding in some ways and failing in others. By observing the differences and similarities we can chart our own paths through the idea of minimalism.
The first of these common qualities is reduction, the pursuit of simplicity through throwing things out and moving apart,
The second is emptiness, the austere visual style of Philip Johnson’s American modernist architecture and Minimalist art like Donald Judd’s, which inspired the current minimalist decorating fads but also have more powerful ideas about the control of space.
The third is silence, the desire to buffer our senses from the chaotic world but also the radical possibilities of sound
The final chapter is about what I call “shadow,” the acceptance of ambiguity and the randomness of life or fate that emerges from Buddhist philosophy and Japanese aesthetics,
Contemporary minimalism often gets mentioned alongside the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism.
The Stoic can accept that society has flaws and expectations as long as she can avoid contaminating herself unduly with them.
Stoicism has no doctrine but a process of active judgment and self-awareness: It must be chosen moment to moment. You can’t just convert in an instant. Even back then Seneca argued for not mistaking the appearance of austerity for commitment to its ideals: “We should not believe the lack of silver and gold to be proof of the simple life.”
Marcus Aurelius offered a perfect manifesto for minimalist hedonism in his Meditations, a lifelong diary of Stoic aphorisms: “That which is really beautiful4 has no need of anything.
The United States has its own secular saint of asceticism in Henry David Thoreau, who famously retreated into the woods from 1845 to 1847 in order to find the joy of simplicity.
What the Stoics, Francis, and Thoreau have in common is a strategy of avoidance, especially in moments when society feels chaotic or catastrophic. It’s a coping mechanism for those who want to fix or improve the status quo instead of overturning it. Its orientation is toward survival. The minimalist is committed to the protective cultivation of the self in difficult situations
The minimalist is ultimately a pragmatist who has to reconcile the desire for a better, cleaner world with the limits of what one person can influence. It’s often an internal, individualized process rather than an external one: Your bedroom might be cleaner, but the world stays bad.
Minimalism is thus a kind of last resort. When we can’t control our material security or life path, the only possibility left is to lower our expectations to the point where they’re easier to achieve, which could mean living in a train car, or a camper van.
This is a superficial solution to a much deeper structural problem. It wouldn’t do anything for access to healthcare or legal protection, and yet we hear the same narrative today: If only the poor would earn more and spend less money, then they wouldn’t be so poor.
is the state of capitalism itself. Consumerism causes a kind of alienation, in the Marxist sense: When workers are separated from the products of their labor and compensated by an hourly wage, they can’t find satisfaction in their jobs or the remainder of family life. Thus they turn to acquiring capital as the only form of self-fulfillment. We work only to accumulate stuff and in turn the accumulated stuff dominates us, further distancing us from non-commodified things like relationships, joy, and community. Labor “is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying needs external to it,” Karl Marx wrote in 1844.
Kondo promises the illusion of choice. You decide what stays in your house but she tells you exactly how it should be folded, stored, and displayed—in other words, how you should relate to it.
Readers trade the orthodoxy of consumerism for the orthodoxy of tidiness.
Minimalist cleanliness is the state of acceptable normalcy that everyone must adhere to, no matter how boring it looks or how oppressive it feels.
In order to succeed, all of these types of places need to make multiple groups of people feel comfortable at the same time. Minimalism is a perfect fit because it allows for just enough character to make a space interesting but not too much. The rest gets smoothed over into blankness.
When a word or style spreads everywhere, it tends to lose its original meaning.
Minimalist imagery has only a few discrete subjects or focal points, often centered. The style seems adapted for the internet and social media, where every image must either compete with or match the vacuum of white website backgrounds. It looks good on the screens that contain so much of our visual experience because the abundance of blank space makes otherwise subtle qualities stand out.
It takes a lot of money to look this simple.
Jobs might be the most famous proponent of minimalism as a life hack.
” the American architect Louis Sullivan introduced his famous dictum that “form ever follows function,”
Sullivan meant that the external appearance of an object or building should reflect the way that it works and how it’s constructed.
Dieter Rams, one of Ive’s inspirations, had another saying: “Good design is as little design as possible,” meaning that the designer ought to stay out of the way of their materials and avoid needless complexity.
It’s easy to feel like a minimalist when you can order food, summon a car, or rent a room using a single brick of steel and silicon. But in reality it’s the opposite. We’re taking advantage of a maximalist assemblage. Just because something looks simple doesn’t mean it is; the aesthetics of simplicity cloak artifice or even unsustainable excess.
What they all offer is a kind of mythical just-rightness, the promise that if you just consume this one perfect thing, then you won’t need to buy anything else in the future.
architect Christopher Alexander called the “quality without a name” in 1979.
This nebulous, nigh-mystical concept is a kind of Eamesian just-rightness that arises organically from series of patterns and activities set by nature that are allowed to generate structures of their own.
Looking past the verbosity, it’s not just about form following function but an intimacy of cause and effect, design and purpose: everything at a human scale, integrated into one graspable system.
the quality-without-a-name, or the spirit of minimalism,
Where Jobs’s décor is both sparse and elitist the Eameses’ is crowded and haphazardly curated. Nothing matches but everything goes together.
It’s an eclectic symphony of sights and reference points, a perfect imperfection where plenty of humanity is allowed. Just because it’s crowded doesn’t mean it can’t be minimalist.
products. I want to find the fundamental, essential quality that imbues the Eames house with life: the appreciation of things for and in themselves, and the removal of barriers between the self and the world. Such is my working definition of a deeper minimalism.
The practitioners of minimalism who most interest me work hard against orthodoxy, against setting or following strict rules in favor of charting their own path, however meandering it may be.
I discovered that the principles of minimalism could be found in the entire life stories of my subjects in the ways that they sought their own identities through study, travel, writing, and homemaking.
nor fond of strict boundaries, except those she put around herself.
Martin wasn’t concerned with reaching an enlightened state but the process of seeking it, fighting not to lose her glimpses of it.
interpreting an artist or designer’s work on a deeper level can often be found in their daily habits and the people and objects they intentionally surrounded themselves with.
The possibility of light and space in a crowded city is nice, but homes are usually meant to keep the rest of the world out, preserving some personal space.
But he was less of an inventor and more of a tastemaker, importing the artifacts and aesthetics of modernism that had emerged in Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Note: That's a valid one - tastemaker
But the other side of modernist emptiness is control, the ability to judge and then exclude anything that you consider distasteful, as in Johnson’s Glass House or that blank, personality-less Brooklyn condo.
Minimalism can be oppressive. The style can make you feel like you don’t belong in a space unless you conform to it, as in upscale cafés or severe hotel lobbies.
Yet, Wollheim continued, there actually was a form of labor to Minimalism. It was just more curatorial than physical.
Less can be more, as long as you have more of the less part.
“Minimalism in the 1960s19 was very much along the lines of taking LSD.” Just because it looks simple doesn’t mean its effect is. “It isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate,” Judd wrote in 1964. “The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting.”
Accepting the lack of resolution is core to Minimalism’s philosophy, and Dilworth is adept at it.
It might sound deathly boring, more math problem than artwork, but wandering through the installation is a constant affirmation of the simple possibility of sensation, all the ways that the human eye can perceive shifts of light and space and the ways that an artist can intentionally shape that perception.
Minimalism is a reminder of our ultimate autonomy, that the next second is an unforeseeable future in which we might do anything, or anything might happen to us. Feeling comfortable within that freedom is the challenge that Minimalism poses.
It’s easy enough to notice the excess stuff surrounding you and decide to throw out old items of clothing or expose the bare floor or empty walls of an apartment. Reducing is a physical solution with tangible results and a clear before-and-after transformation, like a plastic surgery advertisement.
I couldn’t resist the pull of my iPhone and the latest social media updates or messages from friends. More than news I just craved random stimuli: the latest picture, sound, or text. This craving was simultaneously boring and overwhelming. The constant baseline of noise created an addiction for more that was fundamentally unsatisfying to feed, much like eating potato chips.
This conscious withdrawal from information overload and retreat from the social media platforms that have demanded so much of our energy in the 2010s is often described as “digital minimalism.”1 Digital minimalism means admitting to screen addiction, committing to checking your email less often or deleting your Facebook account.
I was suddenly desperate for silence. The thought of feeling nothing—an absolute vacation from the outside world—was deeply appealing. Sensory deprivation offered the opposite of overstimulation.
The artificiality of the situation began to bother me. I was consuming industrialized silence as a luxury, paying an hourly rate for an on-demand product. In the face of too much twenty-first-century stimulation I closed myself into a Stone Age cave in order to deal with it—the ultimate regression.
But minimalism can also point the way toward other forms of silence, ones that, instead of erecting a barrier and closing us off, open us up to new ways of listening.
Maybe we manufacture safe silences because we want to avoid confrontation with whatever is beyond us. We’re not accustomed to the awe that it can inspire anymore. The new form of silence is devoted to commercial productivity, not transcendent contemplation.
I was worried about being too distracted from the experience that I was there for, but what would I be distracted from? I could tune back in in ten minutes and it would be more or less the same.
You don’t listen directly to ambient sound; you use it as a tool to enhance your focus on other things.
The therapists had all clustered on the second floor of one loft building, maybe for its cheap rent on their one-person spaces. Every door in the long hallway had its own white noise machine running at full blast outside on the floor. I’ve never heard such an aggressive artificial silence.
In an ambient world, nothing demands your attention, yet nothing is worth devoting your full attention to.
They contribute to a state in which “people are always, and never, at home,”18 Augé wrote in his 1992 Non-Places.
To escape the ambience—to feel anything—we have to be willing to risk hearing something unpleasant and being taken out of our familiar comfort zones. We need to recapture the awe and the surprise of silence.
that Cage is still invisibly conducting. His music is a kind of conditioning for heightened awareness: These sounds are going on all around you, all the time, but only with the help of art are you able to register them beyond your own conveniently numbed perception. Instead of masking details, Cage’s music highlights them.
The Minimalist work of art leaves room for multiple paths through it, or for no path. One doesn’t even need to listen to, look at, or read it (the way a book left closed on the desk still exerts its influence).
Cage said he listened to his silent piece throughout his life, just pausing to focus on whatever ambient noise happened to be around him at the moment—the opposite of wearing noise-canceling headphones. I wanted to do a reenactment, so I set a timer on my phone for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and left it on a fence post to count down.
In the 1980s, the composer Pauline Oliveros coined the concept of “Deep Listening,”
Oliveros pointed out the difference between hearing and listening: The ear is constantly receiving outside stimuli in the form of soundwaves, but to actually listen is “to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically,” she wrote. Deep Listening means “learning to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space-time continuum of sound—encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible.” For Oliveros that meant meditating on the organic sounds of nature and experiencing the resonance of unique spaces like caves, cathedrals, or wells. Such intense listening is meant to inspire compassion and understanding, a kind of acceptance that goes beyond the noisy concerns of the current moment that usually crowd our consciousness.
Silence is a state of receptivity as much as a lack of noise: “Conversation strives toward silence,”23 Walter Benjamin wrote, “and the listener is really the silent partner.
In her essay on the aesthetics of silence, Susan Sontag observed that every avant-garde style eventually becomes acceptable to its audience and is integrated into the cultural tastes of the moment in turn.
Minimalism as it appears in the West is inherently oppositional, posing itself against something, as a departure from a current state—cleanliness against mess, absence against presence, and silence against noise.
Judd’s “specific” would be a good word to sum it all up: a careful appreciation of the ideal qualities innate to a certain category of thing—food, drink, space, style.
The Buddhism at the root of this aesthetic was about accepting the fact that life is ephemeral, that every material thing will inevitably drift away and all that remains is whatever joy we can take in the midst in this process of emptying.
Zen koans are fractures in language. They don’t require answers, only attention; they are tools of perception meant to break down dualism, the belief that anything can be separated from anything else.
Zen involves accepting a lack of control over the many problems in life, which are more or less universal
We look all around ourselves for instructions on how to live only to be confronted with the basic unknowability of the world. And so we turn to some new mode of control, such as minimalism, only to be infected with the suspicion that it, too, is unreal, a map to no territory.
One had to be ambivalent about civilization and yet care about it desperately at the same time.
(The Japanese language even devotes a word, komorebi, to the dappled pattern of light shining through leaves.)
On one side of the room was the tokonoma, a small recessed alcove. The feature emerged in the sixteenth century as a space devoted to art: Flower arrangements go on the raised dais on the floor and a solitary print, painting, or piece of calligraphy hangs on the interior wall—a miniature gallery for contemplation.
Objects in the tokonoma are framed by empty space, their presence intensified by the absence surrounding them like blank paper.
Tanizaki advocates appreciating what is there, letting your eyes adjust to a different wavelength.
Tanizaki was a quiet iconoclast. He reminds us that we are surrounded by particular regimes of taste created by history and politics but we can step outside of them if we so choose in order to enter a different space—his “world of shadows.”
Judd was fascinated by anyone who experienced the world, almost to the point of unreason, through their aesthetic sense.
While reading, he told me, “you’re essentially clearing your mind, coming into this space between light and dark, between noise and silence, and it is revelatory.”
Above all, the world of shadows is against absolutes—there is no one right way of looking or being.
an essay from 1930 by a Japanese philosopher whom I had never heard of, called “The Structure of Iki.”14
In the essay, the philosopher Shūzō Kuki deconstructs the Japanese idea of iki,
mono no aware, the beauty of ephemerality,
He was another person trying to figure out how to live without certainty or stability in the world that he was cast into, a world that was entering its own existential emergency at the time.
He didn’t know how to belong, here or there, West or East, intoxicated by both at once.
There is something and then nothing again. One must know one’s fate and then forget about it in order to keep living.
How do you find a way to live the life that you are born with and stake out a space for yourself in the tumultuous present?
A more difficult, perhaps more deeply satisfying method is to embrace contingency and randomness,
accepting that life is a compromise between what exists and what you want, and beauty is found not by imposition but through an absence of control. You capitulate to particular moments as they pass.
Kuki tried to put into universal language something that was incredibly personal to him.
what gives you a sense of ambivalent beauty, a pleasure inseparable from a hint of danger or unbridgeable distance.
Iki is important because it provides a space of reconciliation. Its sense of beauty is not about decluttering or cleanliness, absence as a vacuum driven to create more pressurized emptiness, but instead about arriving at a resting point, an acceptance of uncertainty.
the very qualities of openness, ephemerality, and tension that define iki.
today. It’s not about consuming the right things or throwing out the wrong; it’s about challenging your deepest beliefs in an attempt to engage with things as they are, to not shy away from reality or its lack of answers.
Zen provided an alternative to America’s postwar drive into suburbanization, consumerism, and the nuclear family
it showed an alternative, the possibility of a life built on the careful appreciation of life’s minor details and ephemerality over permanence.
The popular minimalist aesthetic is more a symptom of that anxiety, having less as a way of feeling a little more stable in precarious times, than a solution to it.
The art, music, architecture, and philosophy that I’ve described, however, isn’t concerned with perfect cleanliness or a specific style. It’s about seeking unmediated experiences, giving up control instead of imposing it, paying attention to what’s around you without barricading yourself, and accepting ambiguity, understanding that opposites can be part of the same whole.
Postimpressionism the colors and lines of its woodblock prints. “Each age sees what it is prepared to discover,”29 he wrote in an apt summary of aesthetic theory that applies to minimalism as well.
The important thing is that the meaning of the rock garden isn’t fixed. It isn’t confined to just transcendent emptiness or the three-dimensional equivalent of a landscape painting; it can be both at once, shifting between absence and presence.