Minimal Success | Public Books


Scrolling through social media feeds, one is likely, at some point, to stumble upon #minimalism. As a lifestyle form, #minimalism describes the effort to possess fewer things; or, rather, the effort to possess just the right things; or, even better still, the desire to present this effort effortlessly to one’s followers. The aim of designing a lifestyle, #minimalism or any other, is, at least according to “organizing consultant” and author Marie Kondo, happiness. (Does our stuff “spark joy”?)

In his first book, The Longing for Less, the writer and critic Kyle Chayka wants to figure out how the term “minimalism” migrated from the rarefied sphere of 20th-century art criticism to the popular realm of 21st-century social influence. More precisely, he wants to figure out how lifestyle #minimalism compares to Minimalism. In this more academic usage, “Minimalism” designates a fairly heterogenous movement within the fine arts, music, and literature of the 1960s and early 1970s. Minimalist artworks dispensed with earlier formal conventions of complexity or illusionism in order to intensify the viewer’s experience of a work, text, or score as an object apprehended in real space and time. Though Minimalist works were formally spare, the range of experiences that one might expect in their presence was seemingly without limit. As the Minimalist artist Donald Judd alleged, “A work can be as powerful as it can be thought to be.” Unlike earlier art movements, Minimalism did not aim—at least, if one follows Judd—to be good or beautiful, or even particularly meaningful. Instead, Minimalist works were meant to be interesting.

Is there any more than a nominal connection between Kondo’s desire to spark joy and Judd’s desire to generate interest? Most academic art historians would probably answer no and move on. At least, that would have been my own inclination.

But for Chayka—who is much more attuned to the wide-reaching impacts of the influencer economy and the genre of self-help—the answer is yes and no. On the one hand, he criticizes lifestyle #minimalism as a culture industry–induced debasement of artistic Minimalism’s deeper significance. (This is a familiar critical stance, Chayka’s version of Clement Greenberg lite.) On the other hand, however, The Longing for Less insists that lifestyle #minimalism and Minimalism in the arts both fit within a longer-standing history of humans’ desire to recalibrate their relationship to the material world. The name that Chayka provides for this more generic “thought that less could be better than more—in possessions, in aesthetics, in sensory perception, and in the philosophy with which we approach our lives,” is still, somewhat audaciously, “minimalism.”

Under Chayka’s expansive redescription, minimalism now no longer represents that avant-garde movement, nor the “new social attitude that took its name from what was originally an avant-garde movement.” Instead, Chayka’s book attempts to trace the history of minimalism well beyond and prior to the term’s actual usage. In other words, he can claim that there were minimalists before there was Minimalism, and that there are minimalists in spirit, though not name.

Still, if The Longing for Less begins with a not necessarily interesting question of semantic drift—How did “minimalism” go from a term used in the space of art galleries to one used in the space of our closets?—it swells into an ambitious history of ideas and feelings. Chayka asserts that “chronological history is too causal an approach for minimalism,” which means that he ends up tracing origins, in the plural, for distinguishable, oftentimes incommensurate forms of less-ness. The result is a sprawling survey of philosophies (Stoicism, Catholic asceticism, transcendentalism) and figures (Saint Francis of Assisi, Karl Marx, Charles and Ray Eames, Kakuzo Okakura), all of which seem—to Chayka, at least—to relate to some central themes (reduction, emptiness, silence, shadow) and people (Donald Judd, John Cage, Marie Kondo) associated with either Minimalism or #minimalism.

While Chayka clearly appreciates minimalism’s philosophical and aesthetic appeal (though he never unreservedly champions it), his book upholds a maximalist approach to content. Occasionally, his critical daring pays off, leading to suggestive connections between seemingly far-flung materials and figures. Far too frequently, however, his efforts to rejigger our popular preconceptions about minimalism result in interpretative overreach.

Our dependency on the author’s own interpretations eventually proves troublesome, because Chayka turns out to be an unreliable reader. The Longing for Less is riddled with misrepresentations of its so-called minimalists. By forswearing chronological history and adopting a usage of the term “minimalism” that is so much broader than any of its prior usages, Chayka often provides readers with no firmer proof that his various constellations of people, works, and ideas actually make sense beyond his own breezy assertions that they do.

Take Karl Marx, for instance, whom Chayka recruits to the minimalist cause because he interprets the social theorist’s concept of alienation as a critique of excessive consumerism. Here is Chayka quoting Marx: “‘The less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have,’ Marx argued, ‘the greater is your alienated life, the greater is the store of your estranged being.’ Stuff is therefore the enemy of happiness, and not just because it’s crowding your apartment, because it’s part of this larger alienating system.” Chayka’s conclusion will only make sense if you read the “more” in Marx’s “the more you have” as referring to consumer goods. It doesn’t. Here is Marx’s quoted sentence in its original context:

Thus political economy—despite its worldly and voluptuous appearance—is a true moral science, the most moral of all the sciences. Self-renunciation, the renunciation of life and of all human needs, is its principal thesis. The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save—the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour—your capital. The less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have, i.e., the greater is your alienated life, the greater is the store of your estranged being.

Marx is, therefore, not referring to the stuff that clutters your apartment because he is not referring to tangible stuff at all, but rather to the money that you would save by becoming “the ascetic but extortionate miser and the ascetic but productive slave.” Both hoarders (anti-#minimalists) and misers (#minimalists) are alienated because both are, ultimately, hoarders (one of commodities and the other of their value form, which is to say, money).

As Chayka tells us, many lifestyle #minimalists don’t just discard the objects that no longer “spark joy.” Instead, these influencers—marketing professionals or students of marketing professionals—sell their unwanted objects on eBay. Some #minimalists may be genuinely scandalized by capitalist excess, but this doesn’t mean that minimalism ever—even before the ascent of influencers—counted as a critique of social relations.

Chayka insists that lifestyle #minimalism and Minimalism in the arts both fit within a longer-standing history of humans’ desire to recalibrate their relationship to the material world.

Poetry fares no better than social theory in The Longing for Less. In a chapter devoted to the “negative perfection” of architect Phillip Johnson’s austere Glass House from 1949, Chayka swerves to consider the origins of the expression “less is more.”

The phrase first appeared in Robert Browning’s 1855 poem, “Andrea del Sarto,” which takes the form of a monologue spoken by the Renaissance artist to his wife. When del Sarto declares, “Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged,” he is using “less” to refer to a painter’s facility. This means that the original usage of the expression “less is more” has little to do with its later meaning in the context of Modernist architecture, in which case “less” refers to design or stuff, not skill. More important, in Browning’s poem, the speaker of “less is more” does not identify his own work with his mantra. As Chayka recognizes, del Sarto actually uses “less is more” to refer to less talented painters whose “works drop groundward,” which is to say painters whose works will likely not ascend into the canon of great Renaissance art as del Sarto’s has.

It is, therefore, incoherent to claim, as Chayka goes on to suggest, that del Sarto represents a historical antecedent for Johnson’s architectural minimalism, since while both men may have been control freaks, only the architect’s work ever fulfilled some credo of “less is more.” If anything, del Sarto considers himself ill suited to uphold the credo that Johnson knowingly embraced. Following Chayka’s logic, the Minimalist architect Johnson resembles an artist who recognizes neither himself nor his works in the central tenet of minimalist design philosophy.

Looking for an idea’s origins, Chayka turns to an instance of prior usage, and in so doing loses the thread. He also misses an opportunity to examine a poem in which less-ness figures precisely as an object of longing—which, of course, is the title of his own book.

Were we to overlook Chayka’s recourse to Browning and return to his chapter’s primary interest in so-called minimalist architecture, the very same confusion about minimalism’s meanings would persist. Chayka argues that Johnson’s carefully controlled interior arrangement in his New Canaan Glass House represents an imperious, inhuman strain of minimalist design. As a contrast to Johnson’s theatrical sparseness, Chayka identifies the homey clutter found inside Ray and Charles Eames’s Los Angeles abode, their Case Study House No. 8 (1949), as exemplifying his book’s “working definition of a deeper minimalism.”

This designation will likely trouble architecture-and-design historians, or anyone familiar with the Eames’s other designs or multimedia works. Case Study House No. 8 is more formally elaborate in its structural composition and articulation of exterior surfaces than the Glass House, and its designers were known to create interiors positively brimming with stuff, which is why the architect Robert Venturi compared their domestic spaces at one point to Victorian parlors. Chayka does acknowledge the Eames’s personal effects. But rather than treat these objects or the polychrome exterior of the Case Study House as reasons to qualify the duo’s relationship to minimalism, he opts to absorb minimalism’s seeming contrary—clutter—back into his definition of the term.

“Just because it’s crowded doesn’t mean it can’t be minimalist.” The other possibility is, of course, that just because a design looks simple doesn’t mean it is necessarily minimalist.

ultimately, the thesis of “The Longing for Less” is that minimalism is really a Lebensphilosophie—a philosophy of living.

The book’s pairings of works from art history produce additional interpretative confusions. According to Chayka, Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Pablo Picasso’s found-object sculpture Bull’s Head (1942) both count as prior instances of the minimalist reduction of art to objecthood. The problem here is not that these two pieces can’t be compared—of course they can—but rather that they differ precisely in their relationship to their objecthood, which is to say in their relationship to minimalism. Unlike Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, the bicycle seat and handlebars that make up Picasso’s Bull’s Head are meant to represent something other than what they actually are: namely, a bull’s head. In Picasso, what you see is and is not what you see.

And what about Chayka’s comparison of the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein and … a T-shirt? The philosopher’s statement about the limits of logical propositions (“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”) “reminds [Chayka] of a t-shirt that the musician Frank Ocean, whose work is all about reticence, wore during a 2017 concert that read, WHY BE RACIST, HOMOPHOBIC, OR TRANSPHOBIC WHEN U COULD JUST BE QUIET?” While Wittgenstein and Ocean are both committed to steering their readers away from talking nonsense, these cited sentences have little of substance in common. Wittgenstein’s aphoristic proposition concerns subjects that are logically unspeakable. (“What can’t be said, can’t be said.”) Ocean’s ethical, rhetorical question concerns, at least in part, a class of speech acts that are eminently, if also noxiously speakable but ought not be spoken. One is about what we can know through philosophy. The other is about how we ought to conduct ourselves. What both sentences really share is that neither necessarily belongs in a book about minimalism.

In one of the funnier passages of The Longing for Less, Chayka fesses up to the ill fit of one of the objects that he still manages to cram into his book about minimalism: a quote from a 1978 New Yorker review by George W. S. Trow, describing a restaurant interior. Chayka comments parenthetically: “Trow was referring to brown-velvet walls adorned with English hunting prints, which wouldn’t pass muster as elegant today—taste always moves on, as it will with minimalism in turn.”

Given that this outré restaurant interior is so remote from minimalism (in any of its uses), the reader may reasonably wonder what this quotation is doing in (or doing for) The Longing for Less. Riffing on the work of Roland Barthes, I suggest that we call this seemingly meaningless citation a “research effect,” or a signifier of a more serious research project that might really exist elsewhere.

To be sure, The Longing for Less does a lot more than simply gesture toward its author’s researches in the form of citations. Chayka also devotes pages to narrating his research experiences. His discoveries are, frankly, minimal, more often concerning “stuff” than furnishing support for fully fleshed-out analyses. He finds Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s book In Praise of Shadows in Donald Judd’s library. The takeaway? Judd was fascinated by people like Tanizaki, which, following Chayka, just means that Judd was fascinated by like-minded people.

The Tanizaki book is only one instance of Chayka’s casual approach to l’homme and l’oeuvre criticism, a 19th-century style of biographical criticism that aimed to represent authors and their works as integral wholes. As Chayka writes: “The keys to interpreting an artist or designer’s work on a deeper level can often be found in their daily habits and the people and objects they intentionally surrounded themselves with.”

In The Longing for Less, this typically means a swift disengagement from the substance of artists’ statements—particularly those of Donald Judd and Agnes Martin that reject the minimalist label—in order to advance his own speculations drawn from anecdotal evidence or felt in the presence of a subject’s personal effects—in essence, in the presence of their stuff. The result is always the same: more confirmation of a figure’s minimalist bona fides.

Chayka represents an ideal spectator of minimalism, one attuned to the presence of its objects and its ideas and to the world at large.

This makes sense, because ultimately the thesis of The Longing for Less is that minimalism is really a Lebensphilosophie—a philosophy of living—and not just a brandable lifestyle akin to #minimalism or even a singular art movement from the past known as Minimalism.

Chayka’s biographical method is particularly unfortunate for the abstract painter Agnes Martin, whom he believes lived her minimalism (her solitariness, her laconic interview presence) as much as she created it in her paintings. However, unlike Judd, who expressed outright hostility to the term “minimalism” (even if the art historical meanings attached to this -ism are hardly at odds with his intentions), Martin opined in 1976 that she actually wished she were a minimalist, even if she felt she wasn’t. “I rather regretted that I wasn’t really a minimalist. It’s possible to regret that you’re not something else.”

This longing makes Martin a crucial figure for Chayka’s story, even more than he lets on, because she stands out as the only person belonging to his canon of genuine minimalism (as opposed to mere #minimalism) for whom the longing for less was simultaneously a longing for minimalism. She idealized the minimalist work’s complete nonsubjectivity—its apparent expunging of all personal expression from its forms—but never fully succeeded in getting out of her own work’s way. In hindsight, given the critical admiration for her paintings’ vestigial expressivity (her insistent, yet faltering lines), Martin’s failure may count as her real achievement.

In the end, The Longing for Less gets a lot more right about minimalism than it gets wrong. Indeed, the book’s surprising amount of wrongness may itself be a genuine expression of just how well Chayka has comprehended the aesthetic implications of Minimalism, as he first learned of them in his art history coursework. Again, this was a minimalism that prompted a shift in criticism away from evaluations of determinate meanings and debatable interpretations and toward descriptions of individual experiences and sensations. This transformation was brought about in part because minimalists tended to treat the viewer’s experience of their art as an essential component for their work’s completion as a work, and inasmuch as no one person shares an identical experience of a given artwork with any other person, the art of criticism after minimalism could come to appear similarly unconstrained. Whereas many art critics turned to theory to provide their writings about minimalism with greater structural support, Chayka prefers, instead, to seize upon the subjective openness of his postminimalist situation.

Consider, for instance, his description of his emotional reaction to Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room, a SoHo apartment that the artist filled with dirt, which, somewhat ironically, appears in a chapter on emptiness. “The dense smell combined with the blankness of the surrounding white space offer the opportunity to free-associate, as if memory and thought could fill the piece’s visual void between earth and ceiling. The image that came to me was of the cul-de-sac in my childhood neighborhood.” The Longing for Less is a book-length exercise in precisely this form of free association, in which quasi-analytical statements are ultimately ratified not by reasons but by personal cul-de-sacs.

Chayka may be no minimalist in his writing style, but he doesn’t intend to be. Instead, he represents an ideal spectator of minimalism, one attuned to the presence of its objects and its ideas and to the world at large, all of which really will appear to relate to one another, at least if we agree to leave the author’s own perceptions unchallenged. In art criticism as in tidying, sometimes less really is better than more.

 

This article was commissioned by Stephen Best. icon

Featured image: Photograph by Mike Dorner / Unsplash



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