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Minimalism - Of Limits and Possibilities

Words:

Edd Norval
April 13, 2020

Minimalism in art is about space, light and its utilitarian usage, more so than overtly dramatic or emotional sensations. Coming to the fore in post-WWII, minimalism stood against the deeply emotive and chaotic abstract expressionism or the decadence and politicisation of pop art. Minimalism was defined as much by what it wouldn't tolerate as what it would.

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Balance is one of minimalism's key properties, in sculptural, painting and musical form. Seeking further geometric abstraction, shapes and patterns are often distilled into a monochromatic palette with subtle visible shifts, its power being derived from the wholeness as opposed to individual themes and techniques.


A logical heir to modernism’s lineage, pictorial form is almost entirely absent and in its absence we are best equipped to think of minimalism which, rather than being defined by certain traits, is better conceived for what it doesn’t have. Namely, this was self-expression - one of its foundational tenets being that it was ‘objective’.


Shapes - cubes usually - with sharp edges and clean lines, made of similarly ‘pure’ materials, dissolved any metaphor or story, best understood through minimalism in architecture and sculpture, largely due to the aesthetic and philosophical shift towards the literal.

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Artists that could be classed as part of the minimalist movement would often eschew the label as something faddish or transient. Labelling themselves as part of another school, minimalist was more of an epoch in post-WWII art rather than a cohesive way of thinking.


Seeking to reject the superfluity of art, sublimating it to its very rawest elements, minimalism caught on more as a way of living, rather than art. Through its emergence in art, it became a part of the public’s own rejection of superfluity, particularly of the 80s overindulgence.


Occurring later than its artistic forebear, the shift in behaviour and thinking embraced by ‘minimalists’ particularly took off in the 00s with the proliferation of information on the internet and increased ease by which knowledge could be accessed. In minimalist living, the use of light and space is predominantly a spiritual tool in reshaping the environment to best facilitate good intention.

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What you buy becomes what you are and the act of intentionality starts out with how you decorate your house, both in style and substance. The philosophical element begins to, theoretically, become incorporated into one’s own psyche. By getting rid of possessions, we are able to become more intimate with what and who we have and where we are.


Minimalism, a restrictive (by definition) form of art and living, naturally, has restrictions in terms of how it can be adopted. Firstly, with the value being put on the experiential, low-income families and communities could simply reject their immediate surroundings as somewhere that isn’t conducive to healthy living. Becoming more present in such an environment can only exacerbate certain negative psychological elements.


One of the freeing elements experienced by a great deal of people, rightly or wrongly, is owning possessions as an escape. If you grew up with very little, possessions can now mean a great deal. Scaling that down could be perceived by the individual as a move towards frugality - something that can be at the root of a great deal of anxiety, particularly re other's perceptions. As such, it is widely regarded as a wealthy and middle-class pursuit.

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In art, minimalism is also about the experience, about coaxing out the emotions of the audience whilst simultaneously masking those of the artist. For many critics, this experience has simply been - ‘is this it?’ Although it works on a conceptual level, the execution can be very similar for many different artists. They might provoke questions, but often the wrong ones. Every artistic movement is with its critics, but for minimalism, it seems particularly easy to interrogate.


That art has certain aesthetic qualities that minimalist art often lacked led it to be seen as a particularly elitist and, in more brutal criticism, type of art that could struggle to be seen as art at all - considering the object's similarity to everyday ones. The impact of minimalist art, as opposed to the modernist or abstract expressionist art that came before, was seen as limited. How long would you remember something so stark and ‘unmemorable’?


As an idea, minimalism arguably thrives as an Occidental interpretation of Eastern spirituality and Zen - a way of living and of viewing the world, more so than one directly translated into art. Still, very few will forget the day John Cage’s 4’33’’ made it to Christmas Number One - a complete rejection of the overproduced and synthetic pop music that would usually take the title. It was here, in the glory of silence, that minimalism, years after its emergence and heyday, truly reached its peak in contemporary discourse.

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