I came across an article entitled ‘The Oppressive Gospel of Minimalism’ on the New York Times Magazine recently. Like the real Gospels, too much preaching will turn the choir, or prevent it being formed in the first instance. As Kyle Chayka (article author) writes:
It has become an ostentatious ritual of consumerist self-sacrifice; people who have it all now seem to prefer having nothing at all. And, as with watching birds or going Paleo, talking about the material purge is just as important as actually doing it.
Minimalism is a choice of a way of life made for all sorts of reasons, many of them noble and altruistic. Sometimes it is not a choice, but dictated by life’s circumstances. Indeed writing or talking about it is important; it carries at its heart an powerful message that must form part of the present and our future’s relationship with material possessions – namely fewer of them, generalised reusability, greater quality, and more sharing.
I have great sympathy with Kyle Chayka’s point of view though, and the article made me smile.
Today’s minimalism, by contrast, is visually oppressive; it comes with an inherent pressure to conform to its precepts. Whiteness, in a literal sense, is good. Mess, heterogeneity, is bad — the opposite impulse of artistic minimalism.
Minimalism can become a by-word for a kind of emptiness, a clutching at a kind of faux-austerity that is as bankrupt as materialistic excess. Emptiness in the fullest sense of its meaning. Picture all those beautifully symmetrical machine-cut tables on whitewash backgrounds punctuated with marbleized widgets and chrome-glass surfaces. Suffering amidst all the boredom of their mono-functional plainness.
Where are all the projects? The sense of living? The humans? The humanness?
Google ‘minimalism’ and take a look at some of the images of the above delights. It’s all so trendy and cool. ‘Minimalism’ is a catchy word, like anything catchy it can be made fashionable, consumable, and a bit of a cause du jour.
I’m not a minimalist (packing for moving out of home recently confirmed that) but think that deliberate, conscious simplification of materialistic life holds a key to personal satisfaction and fulfillment that is as elusive as it is subtle. It is something that is practiced, not bought. Minimalism is one among many siblings.
The subtlety exists on a thread and as the vibration of that thread grows stronger through practice, it reduces the noise around it. Given time, I expect that vibration becomes the dominant oscillation that informs daily life. Ultimately that is what simple living is about. Deliberately structuring life to your own vibration. Maybe my vibration is different to that of a bustling city or the tune of a consumption-driven culture. Lots of peoples’ are, but modern society gives us all the tools to speed up, and very few to slow down.
Living simply takes time, especially if the transition required is a slow disentanglement from things which no longer serve. The disentanglement takes on social, physical, mental, and financial dimensions. There can be a real element of alienation too. It’s a bit like a break up.
Having decided recently that doing things compulsively without joy, was most definitely not a good idea, trying to live simply comes from a place of gratitude. Gratitude comes from knowing that we have more than enough, and knowing that if you have the choice to make that decision, you are lucky. From gratitude comes joy and from there we can try to act out our best impulses.
The article writer then goes on to state:
The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness.
Yet reducing minimalism to arguments of asceticism and privileged choice ignores that its deeper motivations lie in much broader social themes. These themes and their origins are many, and almost as unique as the individuals involved. They are united on a thread that affects us all – the heating of the planet and the changing climate.
To some, the idea of minimalism may be relatively extreme, yet it is a fundamentally sensible reaction to the strait-jacket circumstances we are slowly wading ourselves into on this planet. That we seem incapable of acting on or diverting the course of action in any meaningful way is the cultural sickness. Not the offshoot reactions like minimalism, simple living, environmentalism etc.
Watch that empty space.