We are not worlds, no, nor infinity …
— Stephen Spender
It’s both interesting and appealing that the topic of minimalism, particularly with respect to the minimalist project in architecture and interior design, provokes in so many people a heightened sense of interpretation and theory. Broach the word: you’re in the debate. Get rid of the crap in your house or flat: you’ve somehow declared war on those who haven’t. I can’t quite figure out why. And this theorizing — is it a matter of playful curiosity or something baser, like anxiety?
This was not always so. To have said in the early 18th Century that your taste in architecture tended toward neo-Palladianism — among the first conspicuous movements in what we might now recognize as minimalist aesthetics — was to endorse an unambiguous doctrine. That doctrine was plain-spoken. It entailed certain fixed proportions of mass and void, nameable relational volumes, clarity of line and angle, restraint of ornamentation. Indeed the great theoretical treatise of that movement wasn’t especially theoretical at all. Colin Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus (1715), scarcely touching on the movement’s philosophical criteria, is mainly a catalogue of actual buildings, gardens, and landscaping details — things that could be seen, things that could be counted or measured, quite literally, on the ground.
Yet nowadays minimalism sparks discourse of a curiously exalted tone. As if we were speaking not of real buildings but of ivory towers. The preponderance of opinion, too, is the sort that precludes physical description. A tangible world barely enters the argument, which on the contrary privileges abstraction and (for lack of a less offensive word) spirituality.
I guess I don’t understand that. When I use that word, minimalism, I really am referring to an objective physical environment, not to an essence, or some ghastly “mindset.” Least of all to an ethical position. I’m referring to stuff — objects and shapes that you can point to or lean against or throw across a room; things that can be counted. Moreover, if the math requires more than ten fingers, you’re talking about something else — not necessarily late Baroque rococo but certainly not minimalism. To surround yourself with lots of objects, to prefer a busy environment crammed with, whatever, antimacassars and fleurs-de-lys — that’s perfectly fine with me. Seriously, I pose no threat to your preference. At the same time I’d argue strongly that no relativistic evaluation of that preference can casually re-define it as minimalism. A room can be empty or full. A room can be almost empty or almost full. There will come a point — as we gravitate from either extreme toward the center — at which “empty” and “full” cease to be useful descriptors. In any event, how you think about qualities like emptiness and fulness, in abstract terms, in platonic terms, makes no difference. Or it doesn’t to me.
My claim to an opinion of my own, such as I’ve previously expressed in various articles and editorials appearing here and there, remains tied to experience and tactility. For me minimalism is something different from mere self-denial, which to my mind sounds like self-regard. (I feel utterly irritated by the pious vacuity — or maybe I mean vacuuming — of campaigns like KonMari’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.) So it’s not simply a denuding of ornamentation. Or, more stupidly, a disavowal of beautiful things. In fact, I’d assert that it’s the opposite, that minimalism is the very essence of materialism: reality and sensuality pushing back at consumerist bad faith. (I suppose that’s my contribution to the theoretical battle.) When I use the term minimalism — and it’s a term that, given its quality of jargon and pushy entitlement, I reach for only reluctantly and when forced into a corner, even a messy corner — I’m not talking about drab pseudo-moralities. What I’m talking about is pleasure, some portion of which, to be sure, is the sheer relief that results from denouncing — and then physically removing — accretions of scarcely regarded baubles and their false memories.
But also, since nothing in my frustrated, volatile, angst-ridden mentality is likely to change regardless, at least when I do want to throw something across the room I’m going to be able to locate it quickly.