Culture Trips

Have we got minimalism all wrong?

Kyle Chayka is the author of The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism. With a background in art criticism, Chayka, who lives in New York, sees minimalism as having a deeper meaning and history than is generally recognised – one from the art world that signifies new beginnings, not necessarily a void of less. His 2020 book focuses on these origins and the 1960s cultural figures from which the movement takes its name: “Minimalism with a capital M”, as he puts it. Fine artists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Agnes Martin; musical composers such as John Cage, Philip Glass and Julius Eastman; and the designers, writers, architects and artists to whom the label has been applied. 

“Where minimalism started in the art world was about finding beauty in unexpected things, such as in industrial materials, something that was previously ignored, and finding worth in them – not creating something that was totally blank and empty,” Chayka tells BBC Culture. “Throwing out all your stuff and earning less might seem to be a rebellion against consumerism, but it also becomes an orthodoxy again [when you have to] buy the right new things and follow the right austere aesthetic.”

He is unhappy about “this style some people have embraced of having just nothing and white walls and floors, it just becomes oppressive… like a new orthodoxy of total emptiness”. He adds: “That concept of overlooked things is a big part of minimalism, which doesn’t often happen now –  it’s ‘Oh, I want to buy this Instagram sweater because it’s minimalist’… that’s not about looking at anything differently.” Instagram is a big driver in minimalism’s increasing popularity, he says: “The way it presents images and the blank white space is well suited to minimalist aesthetics.” His next book, on “digital minimalism”, will explore these ideas further.

Being and nothingness

Modern minimalism may have begun in the 20th Century, but the philosophy’s roots reach far further back, some 2,500 years, and a self-determined figure called Diogenes; “the original nonconformist“, according to William Stephens, professor emeritus of philosophy at Creighton University in the US. Diogenes was born around 412BC, and travelled from what is now Turkey to Athens, and, deciding he didn’t need a house, lived in a felled rainwater pipe. All he possessed was a cloak, a walking stick and a leather pouch (nobody knows what he kept in it, given he had no money). Having “discovered happiness through self-mastery and self-sufficiency”, Stephens says, Diogenes refused to conform to society’s values of “accumulating possessions, and social status… so he was the original minimalist”.

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