A history of minimalism and its false promises

Among the universe of personality types, I am certainly a collector. I do not mean a “hoarder,” which implies keeping a bunch of random junk that is neither cherished nor useful for the sheer compulsion of keeping stuff. I mean a collector – someone who is always searching for things with a specific sort of intrinsic value.

I collect plants and construct elaborate gardens. I read every day and have amassed a collection of thousands of books. I have a collection of antique silver, china, and crystal. I collect art. It’s a lot of stuff to display, but I love it all.

Beyond that, we have a very home-centered life. We work from home. We homeschool our daughter. Both of these circumstances are the ultimate luxury in modern society. To be able to hike in the morning instead of navigate commutes or car lines and all of the cranky, impatient people they entail. But it also means we have a very lived-in house. It’s not a house that sits cold and clean all day in all its pristine, micromanaged HGTV glory.

I have tried keeping a very formal house, large enough to have a place for everything and everything in its place. Walls painted whatever neutral color was trendy at the time. I learned all about greige. And I really did not like living like that. It removed the serendipity from free time. Where you find a book you bought a long time ago and never put away, so you end up spending an afternoon reading about plant hunters or quantum mechanics just because.

It is deeply weird to me to spend life surrounded by things in grey scale. One of the easiest ways to brighten your mood is to brighten your surroundings. We painted our Florida house using bright Caribbean colors, and it really makes a difference how a space feels when things are turquoise and yellow instead of greige and white. There’s a reason Disney theme parks aren’t greige. Neutrals are not colors that make you happy.

In many ways, I am sympathetic to critiques of materialism in our culture. People aren’t painting their houses greige because they like greige. They are painting their houses greige because Joanna Gaines told them to, and Joanna Gaines is only telling them to because she wants to sell them meaningless shit and get rich. That is the objective every person trying to peddle a “lifestyle.”

But the antidote to that is not minimalism, the new trend. The only way to be a minimalist is to have no interests. And that definitely is not a path to happiness either. To be interested in things involves clutter. To have a family with a rich family life involves clutter. Your kid wants their art projects on display. They want Lion Guard wrapping paper at Christmas, not a black-and-white tree with matching packages.

Anyway, I greatly enjoyed this essay in The Guardian, The empty promises of Marie Kondo and the craze for minimalism. It is a long read, but worth it. An excerpt:

The great recession of 2008 also seemed to usher in a larger minimalist moment. An aesthetic of necessity emerged as the economy came to a standstill. Shopping at thrift stores became cool. So did a certain style of rustic simplicity. Brooklyn and Shoreditch were filled with faux-lumberjacks drinking out of mason jars. Conspicuous consumption, the ostentation of the previous decades, was not just distasteful, it was unreachable. This faux blue-collar hipsterism preceded the turn to high-gloss consumer minimalism that happened once the economic recovery kicked in, preparing the ground for its popularity.

Dissatisfaction with materialism and the usual rewards of society is not new, but minimalism is not an idea with a straightforward chronological history. It is more like a feeling that repeats in different times and places around the world. It is defined by the sense that the surrounding civilisation is excessive, and has thus lost some kind of original authenticity, which must be regained. The material world holds less meaning in these moments, and so accumulating more stuff loses its appeal.

I began thinking of this universal feeling as the longing for less. It is an abstract, almost nostalgic desire – a pull toward a different, simpler world. Not past or future, neither utopian nor dystopian, this more authentic world is always just beyond our current existence, in a place we can never quite reach. Perhaps the longing for less is the constant shadow of humanity’s self-doubt: what if we were better off without everything we have gained in modern society? If the trappings of civilisation leave us so dissatisfied, then maybe their absence is preferable and we should abandon them in order to seek some deeper truth. The longing for less is neither an illness nor a cure. Minimalism is just one way of thinking about what makes a good life ….

The literature of the minimalist lifestyle is an exercise in banality. It is saccharine and predigested, presented as self-help as much as a practical how-to guide. Each book contains an easy structure of epiphany and aftermath, recounting the crisis that leads its author to minimalism, the minimalist metamorphosis and then the positive ways the author’s life changed. The books are often broken up into subheadings, and important phrases are bolded like a high-school textbook. Each one offers more or less the same vision as the others: “I don’t need to own all this stuff,” as Becker writes. Minimalism’s rewards are more money, more generosity, more freedom, less stress, less distraction, less environmental impact, higher-quality belongings and more contentment, as Becker reels off in a series of bullet points. The books’ sameness of content is matched by a shared design of visual serenity. Their covers are all soft colours and soothing typefaces, suitable for Instagramming – even if you don’t read them, they can still be inspiring. The serene covers of these books are just one example of how minimalism’s visual appeal makes its doctrine of sacrifice easier to swallow. Its aesthetic of fashionable austerity is like a brand logo. It is identifiable anywhere, and serves to remind us of the air of moral purity associated with simplicity, even if the minimalist product to be consumed has no moral content whatsoever.

The KonMari Method and minimalist self-help as a whole works because it is a simple, almost one-step procedure, as memorable as a marketing slogan. It is a shock treatment demonstrating that you do not need to depend on possessions for an identity; you still exist even when they are gone. But as Kondo conceives it, it is also a one-size-fits-all process that has a way of homogenising homes and erasing traces of personality or quirkiness, like the sprawling collection of Christmas decorations that one woman on the Netflix show was forced to decimate over the course of an episode. The overflow of nutcrackers and tinsel was a clear problem (as was her husband’s piles of baseball cards), but with their absence the home was sanitised and homogenised. Minimalist cleanliness is the state of acceptable normalcy that everyone must adhere to, no matter how boring it looks.

He also spends a lot of time talking about Steve Jobs and the Apple vision of design (also meant to sell less for more).

4 thoughts on “A history of minimalism and its false promises

  1. OH YAY!!!!!! I am so glad to hear I am not the only one. I love “my stuff”, particularly my books, my cookbooks, or course and things that were handmade for me or given to me by special people, or my eclectic collection of ornaments from around the world.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s