I could post every thought-provoking part of this New York Times article, but I’d end up copying & pasting the entire piece. So I’ll just stick to the portions that relate to art or are broad enough that they can apply to the arts.
Kyle Chayka, the article’s author, traces the term “minimalism” back to its roots as an insult that British philosopher Richard Wollheim levied against “a group of artists whose work was characterized by ‘minimal art content’ – that is, a lack of art” in 1965. These works included industrial objects such as bricks and plain metal boxes laid out on a gallery floor.
Yet those artists and future scholars extolled the virtues of minimalism:
The austerity of their objects freed the viewer to experience the work in any way they wished. “Minimalism can return you to this basic state where you’re perceiving purely,” says David Raskin, a professor of contemporary art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Less is more because you strip away the familiar,” opening an opportunity to see the world without preconceptions. The objects might look mundane, but rather than the plain metal box on the floor, it’s the stark sensory experience the object incites that is the art, no previous knowledge necessary. The artist opens a radical infinity of possibilities. “Minimalism in the 1960s was very much along the lines of taking LSD,” says Miguel de Baca, an associate professor of art history at Lake Forest College.
From there, the term was adopted into consumer culture and became a signifier of class – a symbol of decadence. “To wealthy practitioners,” Chayka says, “minimalism is now little more than a slightly intriguing perversion, like drinking at breakfast.”
Reassuringly, attitudes are often cyclical. As Chayka points out, “already, the pendulum is swinging back,” and he is by no means the first to return the serve. Only now, the term “minimalism” is swinging back as an even more loaded insult, having gained momentum from its broader application to fashion, design, and architecture.
Returning to his main point – regarding the present classist dimension of minimalism – Chayka refers to cultural critic Arielle Bernstein:
Writing in The Atlantic in March, Arielle Bernstein described minimalism’s ban on clutter as a “privilege” that runs counter to the value ascribed to an abundance of objects by those who have suffered from a lack of them — less-empowered people like refugees or immigrants.
Having grown up on welfare in an immigrant family, I can vouch for this attachment to material things. When you are without, you’re driven to accumulate because you never want to go back to being without. But the opposite is often true too: you’re satisfied with having less because you’re used to having less. To this day, I still oscillate dramatically between both mindsets. Most often, I incline towards acquiring and hoarding because I always have a slightly irrational concern that all of my assets will suddenly disappear one day. But I also have bouts of debating the logical worth – the practicality – of owning stuff. What’s the value in being weighed down by or concerned about material things? Every time I think I’ve lost my phone, I get angry at myself for how worked up I become over that sense of potential loss. “I’d be so much less stressed if I had less stuff. I’d save so much more money if I downsized to a smaller apartment.” Informed conjecture. Wish and wonder.
Chayka succinctly summarizes minimalism’s shift in function and value:
There’s an arrogance to today’s minimalism that presumes it provides an answer rather than, as originally intended, a question: What other perspectives are possible when you look at the world in a different way?
I often balk at the pretentiousness of contemporary minimalist art, but framed this way, I suppose minimalist art does still have a purpose. At least minimalism hasn’t been reduced to pure aesthetics yet.