21 Jan 2013

Minimalism is Simple

Whilst wandering around the internet recently, I came across this comic by Grant Snider. I liked it instantly, clipped it, and then found myself going back to it frequently enough that it became obvious I had to write something about it.

I’ve been interested in minimalism, in its various forms, for quite a while: I find my interests leaning that way when it comes to design and architectural aesthetics; I wrote my Masters thesis on the history of literary minimalism. Personally — and this was something that Snider’s comic really brought home — my interest in minimalism is caught up with my interest in Buddhism. As I found myself thinking about the elements Snider had set out, I kept seeing parallels with Buddhist thought, and with my own practice.

Get Rid of the Unnecessary

This is the core of it really, and it can be as prosaic or as profound as you like. Realising the difference between what is necessary and what is unnecessary is surpassingly difficult, and can easily equate to a lifetime’s work. It’s fascinating, as you get older, to discover how your attitudes to different elements of your life change — how things that once seemed so vital lose their pull, and that which you once wouldn’t have given a second thought, takes on new importance. What is ‘necessary’ is a shifting thing, and it should be. The valuable skill is tuning into what you honestly find to be important in the moment, and understanding your reasons. In that respect, minimalism emphasises focus.

Create Structure

Minimalism is also concerned with balance. As well as removing the extraneous, it’s important to be mindful of how that which remains is arranged. Understanding the relationships between a structure’s components is a central ideal of minimalism, whether it’s the clean through-line of a short story, or the thoughtful arrangement of a room’s furniture.

Structure can also be constraining if employed too heavy-handedly, and I think there’s a real difference between being aware of structure, and trying to impose it too strictly; if an organic structure works best, there’s room for that too.

Stop Searching for Hidden Meaning

It’s easy to misread this one as a call for the acceptance of surfaces, and the surrender of one’s exploratory impulse. I prefer to think of it in terms of spending less energy wondering about — or worrying about — the invisible, the possible, the elusive. For me it goes hand-in-hand with the next point…

Embrace What is Solid

Which is to say: be mindful of the present moment. One of the Buddhist principles I find most helpful, and yet most difficult to practice in daily life, is exactly this engagement with the moment itself. We’re so used to looking forward and backward, and to thinking of things (and ourselves) in terms of our history and future. The minimalist call to stop looking for hidden meaning, and to embrace what’s solid, is very similar to the Buddhist ideal of expending less energy on magical thinking, and more on the only real thing there is: the present moment.

Lose Yourself in Patterns

There is a reason my first blog (more or less a decade ago!) was titled andthenpatterns. Yes, most directly it was named after the Four Tet track, but it’s also down to how compelling I’ve always found even the idea of patterns. Pretty much the only thing I took away from AS-Level maths was a glimpse at how numbers could produce some beautiful things. The application of that discipline was beyond me, but I took on a love of geometry that stays with me. This also speaks to the above points about structure and necessity; there can be nothing extraneous in a tessellation.

Patterns also cropped up when I studied psychology, in relation to models of human cognition and memory. I’ve always been fascinated by the extent to which patterns over which we have no control, dictate our experiences. In that regard, I like even more the specific manner in which this point is phrased: ‘lose yourself in patterns’.

Don’t Fear Empty Space

In terms of minimalist aesthetics, this can be read as a reminder that absence can be active. Whether it’s the architecture of a physical space, the design of a webpage or printed document, or the form of a statue, this is a reminder that space can be just as important as content. Minimalism pushes back against the impulses to complicate and to fill every gap. I read this in conjunction with the first item: remove what isn’t needed, and make the space which is created an integral part of the whole.

This point also brings us right back to Buddhism again, where the concept of emptiness is key. To the extent that Buddhist practice is goal-oriented (and that’s a whole other can of worms), one of the things it is working towards is the realisation that everything is empty. That sounds super-depressing until you begin to realise its implications. In part, that begins with the above points about the relationship between the solid, the moment, and literally everything else. Buddhists are big on causality — or dependent origination if you want to be fancy, — and the endgame is the realisation that emptiness and continuum are inescapable truths, and solidity is an illusion. If you’re thinking that conflicts with the invocation to ‘embrace the solid’ that’s probably smart; I think that’s a facet of the problem that Buddhism is engaged with.

Stay Clean

This is just good advice in general, but in terms of minimalist aesthetics it is probably best thought of (as with the patterns and the empty space above) with respect to the arrangement of elements. Removing the unnecessary is dependant on an understanding of what is necessary, and part of that is understanding the elements’ relationships, one to another. In the visual arts you often hear people say things about ‘clean lines’; what that has always boiled down to for me, is an artist with a clear idea of how their work functions. Clarity is perhaps, overall, a more useful concept than cleanliness, but minimalism’s rejection of needless complexity often makes the two synonymous.

Be Bold and Colourful

I like this one because it speaks out against the misconception of minimalism as overly subtle or reductionist. That might be true in some cases, but I don’t believe it’s inherent to minimalism as a style or as a concept. There’s nothing subtle about work like Kasimir Malevich’s ‘Black Cross’, or Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawings — these are undiluted artistic statements. Minimalism, in all its forms, can be enormously impactful by virtue of having cut away complicating factors. A minimalist work isn’t engaged in too-clever obfuscation; it’s asking to be engaged with by someone who is willing to ‘stop looking for hidden meaning’ and ‘embrace the solid’. There’s something inspiring in that plainness, as there is in the level of conviction that minimalism requires: it’s a form without room for equivocation.

Don’t Be Too Expressive

This is something that comes up a lot in reference to literary minimalism: the accusation (and the manner in which it’s raised is almost always accusatory) that the language employed by writers like Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel et al is flat, disengaged, and emotionally barren.

What is it about minimalism that shies away from the direct conveyance of emotion? The mistake that is often made is to suggest that this property of minimalism is resultant of fear of emotionality. This line of thinking holds that minimalism is dehumanising, and that it rejects emotions as too messy and unpredictable. Such an argument, however, assumes the prominence of emotionality in every sphere of our lives, and proceeds under the understanding that this is an unassailable state of affairs. Isn’t there something to be said then for the minimalist model’s placing emotion aside? By removing the unnecessary and giving emptiness its due, minimalism often (though not always) seeks to give us some room, and one important aspect of this room is to encourage reflection. For example, examination of one’s response to a work of art can be an important manner of engagement. Avoidance of emotionality can be a high barrier for entry when approaching minimalism in the visual arts — and it is certainly a criticism favoured by those who deride literary minimalism — but I think there is something to be said for art that doesn’t prescribe an emotional reaction.

At the same time, much as I love minimalism, it would be myopic to suggest that it is universally appropriate. Minimalist artworks can be beautiful and meaningful, but there are places they cannot go. Similarly, minimalist music can be intricate and mesmerising, but you can’t listen to Philip Glass all the time — you also need The White Stripes and Miles Davis, because, as messy as they are, they do things minimalism isn’t interested in.

Less is More… But Less is More Difficult than it Looks

Read: this stuff is hard. Second only to the idea that it is reductionist, the next most common misconception of minimalism is that it is easy. Going right back up to the top, minimalism requires an understanding of what is necessary and what is not. It also necessitates a true understanding of the remaining parts’ interoperability. You can’t fake that, and attempts to do so are easily found out. True minimalism in any form is a pretty rigorous discipline.

And, returning to a theme that has run throughout here, Buddhist practice can be the same. As the proverb goes: if you think doing nothing is easy, try it some time. Seriously, silent meditation is a great leveller, simply because it presents you with nothing but space for reflection — learning just to sit with yourself can be a really tough challenge, but that’s the space from which everything else proceeds. Kind of like De Niro in his prime, you just have to learn to do nothing really well.