… thy mind/ Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms …
The Lesser Half says I have a vicious streak. She’s not wrong. My next wall decoration may well be — I’m quite tempted — a gigantic floor-to-ceiling blowup of the cover of Walter Benjamin’s Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. How mean can you get?
But I digress — and before I’ve even begun.
So here’s the question. Is minimalism a statement or is it a state of being? Philosophers of ethics sometimes distinguish between intrinsic value and instrumental value. Freedom of speech, for example, can be advocated simply for its being free (intrinsic) or for what it accomplishes (instrumental). On the present point, such a dichotomy — and that question — could be expressed like so: is minimalism its own reward or does its virtue (if any) lie in what it procures — tranquility, say, or ease of maintenance?
Not long ago, two Danish friends of mine, on their first trip to America noted — one with informed discerning, the other mere bafflement — that our homes are crammed to the rafters. With stuff, I think they said. Or did they say with crap?
When we walked into one house to which we had been invited for dinner, a lovely mid-60s Beverley Thorne (reminiscent of the cantilevered digs that Thorne had designed a few years earlier for pianist Dave Brubeck), I saw its interior through my visitors’ eyes: within a structure no less austere than a Jacobsen or a Knud Holscher, every square inch was adorned with — or in some way deferred to — embellishment. Walls bore smartly chosen paintings, textiles, and gallery-quality prints of famous photographs. On table tops were arranged unusual, expensive-looking tchotchkes. Magnetic figurines, postcards, and mementos swarmed the fridge. In the living room two built-in book cases, lit tastefully by recessed LEDs, displayed a collection of important if, I suspect, unread classics. Seeing a framed exhibition poster from Louisiana, that extraordinary museum north of Copenhagen on the Øresund shore, the merely baffled visitor exclaimed to our hostess, “Cool, you saw the Warhol exhibit we had up there!” No, alas, she had not. “Really? Then why do you have the poster?” (This reaction was both utterly guileless and typically Danish for its lack of irony).
Thing is, before that evening I would probably have labeled “minimalist” an interior like our hostess’s. To be sure, far fewer decorative items were on display than you’d normally see in American residences. By conventional, or at least familiar, standards real restraint was in evidence, as was a judicious sense of harmonious volumes and of complementary negative space surrounding each piece or object. But it was a self-conscious, pedantic rigor (of a piece with the stagey fetishism that critic David Balzer lampoons with his viciously delightful portmanteau “curationism”). Here lies sensibility, one might have assessed, conveniently forgetting — or never realizing in the first place — that “sensibility” entered the language as a put-down, indicating not refinement or learning but a weakness of judgment based on emotions. Perhaps to the owner’s credit, you would never have found in these rooms cheap reproductions of Monet’s Nymphéas. Even if you had, they wouldn’t have been hung, uselessly, three feet above your eye-line. Yet to execute a little epoché, viewing that household from an alien and disinterested perspective, was to come face to face with a startling truth: even so-called minimalist environments, particularly in the States where starkness tends to be an expression of entitlement and an emblem of pretentiousness, prove to be absolutely packed with talismanic privilege. Showing (or showing off) just a few choice trinkets is indeed making “a statement.” It’s making a statement about having the social wherewithal — which these days means the finances — not to need to hoard. (Because the ability to acquire is itself a kind of meta-commodity, and nothing better represents that ability than conspicuous deferral. In second grade you knew this child, holding off on his or her birthday cupcake until everyone else in the classroom was finished: power was expressed as absence of need.) That restraint, then, starts to look something like a sneer, if not an outright threat. You see tribal masks from cultures we’ve destroyed or pillaged; spot-lit Giacomettis from the MoMA gift shop; exquisitely arrayed collections of Depression-era Coke bottle caps or Union Hardware roller skates.
In these instances it’s as if minimalism has nothing to do with comfort or functionality or even aesthetics in any genuine — that is, ingenuous — way but instead parades a self-conscious assertion about American profligacy. If it’s an assertion worth making, and I wouldn’t disagree, then we have to accept a defining subordinate paradox: paying gobs of money in order make that assertion cancels and debases its sober insight.
Not that I’d feel inclined to assail clutter per se anyway. Charles and Ray Eames, two avatars of a great mid-century assault on the pervasive Victorian gingerbread and Colonial aesthetics that had lingered well past their shelf-dates, were certifiable packrats. Looking at photographs of their own home, Case Study No. 8 in the Palisades, especially if snapped during the years when they were living in it, you feel tempted to avert your eyes — briefly. No corner, no wall, no surface was free of knick-knackery. The couple were famous scavengers of quirky gadgets, folk crafts, toys, signage graphics, and repurposed industrial junk. But it’s a vibrant and strangely peaceful living space. The clutter works. Their eye never failed them because their interest in these items was never cynical: an object, even something plainly decorative and without function, like the wooden bird in the photo above, wasn’t placed in that room in order to look like something placed in a room.
Still, it’s interesting to consider the phenomenon of clutter, or lack thereof, at a kind of forensic remove. (That epoché again.) Denmark, to draw on an obvious — I refer to the nationality of my companions — and salient comparison, is a very small parcel of geography into which have been shoehorned approximately four times our population density. In every direction, its horizons are filled in with buildings and people and history, as they have been for a thousand years. With little exploitable real estate, it’s a place in which residential dwellings, regardless of income, tend to be much, much smaller* than those typically found here. Presumably my Danish friends must simply feel the pressure of boundaries as we would not. Their clutter being external, the workaround is to halt it at the front door. What we on the other hand have felt — owing in part to our still vast, undeveloped tracts of wilderness and arable farm-belts — is a near-opposite anxiety: emptiness. (It’s always a bit of a shock to hover tens of thousands of feet above our chunk of the continent. You can fly for an hour without discerning so much as a crossroads.) For us, emptiness is the threat; that’s what we’re trying to stop from getting inside.†
As for myself, minimalism has come gradually. It’s an acquired predilection. I now realize that many of — maybe most of — the gewgaws I had formerly gathered round me served a dubious purpose: to impress. If a book, for example, once read, was replaced upon shelves among other previously read books, this was almost never for the convenience of future perusals but rather to signal to others my literary poshness. (And of course this is a kind of Bad Faith that works thrillingly: people would pull down this or that obscure volume, Hydriotaphia, maybe, or Roy Fuller’s Owls and Artificers: Oxford Lectures on Poetry, and make ridiculous declarations: “Ah, you know, I’ve always wanted to read Roy Fuller’s lectures!”) So the books are basically gone now — sold off, passed on, tossed out. What few odds and ends remain — Fowler’s English Usage (nice paper weight), Liddell and Scott’s Classical Greek Lexicon (bomber doorstop), along with a smattering of cookbooks — have been vetted to the nerve. For many months after we moved into our current lodgings, the first thing out of the mouths of new neighborhood acquaintances was generally something like, “Dude, when’s your stuff coming?” Our stuff had come. They were looking at it.
Nor is my minimalism — if the term can be legitimately applied to me — extreme by any means. I love things. Even ornamentation to a degree. I would never be the poster child for that hygienic monasticism favored in the magazines. It’s just that there’s much less of the anodyne, space-filling junk that in one’s febrile youth one would have felt obligated to put up and scatter about. So it’s pared down, I guess. Many walls are completely blank; others not. But the old-school “salon-hang” — scads of paintings crammed into every available square-inch — is definitely gone. What artworks remain were mainly done by people we know. On our dining table stand a pair of candlesticks and a vase of flowers, same as in anyone else’s house. Decorations for the sake of décor — OK, not so many. If you tallied them up on Mickey Mouse’s fingers, you’d have plenty of digits left over for requisite gestures of derision.
I realize that this sounds like a point of pride. If on occasion I have felt secretly pleased to hear that “It must be so calming to live this way,” the fact is that few behaviors are as off-putting as the pose of serenity. Nothing in my personality (frenetic?) or manner (voluble?) answers to this description anyway. That huge swaths of flooring may be navigated in pitch-darkness without fear of stubbing toes or clocking shins presents no commentary on ambivalence, alienation, and disorder. It’s just a floor, easier to mop than most, with a little more landing-room for a gin-soaked jeté when leaping from the living area to the kitchen. This relative starkness may indeed reflect tenacity on our part. What it does not reflect is purity or earnestness. Empty space is not a moral category. At the same time I’ll concede that for most Americans simplicity — anything that suggests tranquility of affect — is unbearable, even terrifying.
Speaking of which: watching Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring the other night (a gang of serial teens ransacks the walk-in closets of Bel-Air), I was fascinated by the deranged consumerism titivating some of these celebrity piles. Paris Hilton’s, most prominently. At what point do you realize, if you are young Paris, that you’ve elected to inhabit quarters resembling a suburban shopping mall? In addition to its warehouse-sized inventory of size-11 Louboutin mules, Ms Hilton’s humble abode features dual-potty restrooms, an indoor petting zoo, and a private discotheque complete with stripper’s pole. Surely, I thought, her personal international food court must be just down the hallway or located in a different wing. It’s all a bleak confirmation of the irony of her having been named for a chain hotel in the one city in which there is no word for “duh.” (This is perhaps not the place to comment on the hilarity of Lindsay Lohan’s having decorated her daft interior with a neon sign declaring LINDSAY — as if, after one of those infamous fender-bending benders, the act of identifying not only her location but even her own name might present a challenge.)
In my own country pile, one bedroom — our putative guest room — is indeed mercilessly spartan. Double bed, chair, four white walls. It’s possibly my favorite room in the joint. A few weeks back, when my Lesser Half got sick with ‘flu, I temporarily relocated to this room. The first night there, I snuggled under the comforter having forgotten to bring with me the Patricia Highsmith — A Suspension of Mercy — I was then in the middle of. Too lazy and tired to shout for help, let alone cross the house to fetch it, I instead lay back, eyes barely open, and recited Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. Mumbling its final lines amid moonlight raking in through the room’s single, east-facing window, I drifted off in a blur of steep woods, lofty cliffs, and green pastoral landscapes.
* Which brings to mind a saying among Danes, who have adapted their class politics to this limitation on interior space: “The bigger the house, the farther apart the people.”
† I recognize that both ends of this argument are a bit facile. Great Britain’s population density is twice that of Denmark’s, yet households and interiors in the UK often seem to be even more cluttered than in the US. Clearly other forces are at play. Denmark’s Lutheranism, aesthetically minimalist, leaning toward the austere, may continue to resonate within secular culture there. And historically it’s a life influenced by harsh weather and a paucity of resources. You couldn’t waste things. Whatever you constructed had to hold up to the elements if it was used outside, and if inside, couldn’t be fussy or get in your way. Moreover none of it could be replaced easily. These factors may have led to a generalized, heightened interest in simple, durable designs and at the same time to a kind of ethnic revulsion toward excess and ornamentation. Lastly, for whatever reason Danish democratization is the effect of a very strong psychic momentum for hundreds of years. It comes naturally to them, whereas for us in the States it never feels like much more than a practical solution — to the extent that it works at all — to highly conflicted, fractious self-interest within communities and in the nation as a whole. Denmark is one of the very few places I’ve ever been in which you observe very little aesthetic difference between haves and haves-not: on the contrary, the well-to-do are at some pains not to display their good fortune or to announce, in a visible way, that they are above the common people.