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The Irony of Minimalism

January 14, 2011

A few months ago at the Design Museum in London, the English designer John Pawson opened his exhibit Plain Space attempting to display a sort of collective anthology of minimalist art and design. He is a rather controversial artist for it is sometimes up for question as to whether he is, in fact, an artist. After all, Pawson is responsible for both an austere Cistercian monastery in the Czech Republic and a Calvin Klein store in New York City. This has lead some commentators, such as Stephen Bayley, to conclude that this may be the end of minimalism as art because essentially, it no longer maintains its throne as the arch-snob of the art world. And yet, is that a fair characterization? Certainly, minimalism relaxes in the exclusive lounges of our highest social brows, but as I write this, I stare at the screen of a MacBook that is charging an iPod: two artifacts of a thoroughly populist impulse of unadornment.

All of this highlights the peculiarly dual nature of minimalism in that it dismantles the wall between art and style while simultaneously inhabiting both realms. It is doubtful that this ability of minimalism can be underestimated for I believe that it rests upon the unique position that we the observers hold in our perception of minimalist art and design, that of both subject and object. It might be difficult to flesh this out in the brevity of this article, however, this characteristic is perhaps unprecedented in the history of art where individuals have always been merely the subjects that perceive art forms; I (the subject) view the Mona Lisa (the object). Though that assertion may seem a bit banal, it is not accidental that this dichotomy has remained firmly established until now. It has ensured that art and style are never conflated for art is a representation of the physical world whereas style is a representation of individuals’ self-aware and introspective constructs.

The moment that an artist paints or sculpts an image of something, he or she is, intentionally or not, asserting a belief in the objective and intrinsic meaning of the physical world, a belief that we can passively receive forms therefrom via our senses. This belief, in turn, rests upon a notion that a personal God is responsible for this universe and necessarily imbued it with meaning, with form, by virtue of his creation.  Prior to that, the first chapter of Genesis tells us that the first condition of the earth was “without form and void” and consequently, speaking in aesthetic terms, God existed as both the subject and the object of the cosmos as its only “form-giver.”

Therefore, all art that represents the physical world, even in an otherworldly manner, honors the inherent hierarchy embedded into Creation, offering a tribute to the Imago Dei that we all possess. Once this hierarchy has been lost, the distinction between art and style ultimately collapses and there is no reason to represent the physical world because there is no longer really isn’t anything to represent, all that is left to serve as the objects of art are the subjective judgments of individuals to confer onto it. And what art genre receives all the judgments of individuals better than minimalism?

Could it perhaps be the ultimate irony that the final consequence of the absence of the divine from modern art is a return to the pre-Creation cosmos wherein everything was formless and void?  I am not, of course, indicting the whole of minimalism under an accusation of intrinsic rebellion, for it is certainly the case that visual silence can be a great aid in contemplation and meditation.  However, it is curious that while the wonder and complexity of Creation has only intensified as we’ve explored it deeper, our art that has accompanied the progression has descended further into neutrality and blank austerity.

Caleb Roberts is a recent graduate of Oklahoma State University and lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma with his wife Julie where he directs his moonlighting interest of embodied theology into either his blog genu(re)flection or a bright red cast iron pot.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Travis permalink
    January 14, 2011 10:17 am

    Caleb,

    Thanks for this post. I specially appreciate the points that ‘The moment that an artist paints or sculpts an image of something, he or she is, intentionally or not, asserting a belief in the objective and intrinsic meaning of the physical world, a belief that we can passively receive forms therefrom via our senses. This belief, in turn, rests upon a notion that a personal God is responsible for this universe and necessarily imbued it with meaning, with form, by virtue of his creation’ as well as your statement that ‘all art that represents the physical world, even in an otherworldly manner, honors the inherent hierarchy embedded into Creation, offering a tribute to the Imago Dei that we all possess’.

    Meaning, if it is to be anything other than a hopelessly subjective phantom projection onto the external world, must come from something or somewhere outside ourselves, an absolute and objective to ground and frame our lives and our making. And human making or subcreation (even the genre, and perhaps especially so, of fantasy) expresses its debt to God’s creation on every level (either through direct borrowing, dependence, or influence). I think these are necessary a prioris to the discussion of artistic meaning and interpretation that need to be articulated in a culture where not only they are no longer givens but are challenged or flatly denied.

  2. January 19, 2011 2:16 am

    An insightful analysis of contemporary art forms, if I may say so. It shouldn’t surprise me that there is a lot of continuity between the visual/plastic arts and poetry, which is my area of expertise. As in the arts, poetry has been plagued by antipathy to form and meaning, and while there are many very good poems that resist stable forms and meanings, the very act of “sub-creation” protests against chaos. However, there are some excellent “minimalist” poems (often going under the heading of “imagist” poetry, though haiku could be considered another, much older example of a “minimalist” genre) that do not necessarily reject form and meaning, and some can be highly formal, if we can admit a “formal minimalism” in poetry for the moment. Far from avoiding meaning, these poems can be profound at their best, and in execution they have to be be very carefully constructed, since even minor flaws stand out in a very short poem.

    Concerning the subject/object distinction that is so clear in the visual arts, poetry is quite different. When you read a poem, whether an old one or a new one, you can never be quite sure whether you are actually viewing it as an object (as you might view a picture as an object), or whether you are viewing some aspect of your own self (as you might view your own image in a mirror). Just what did the author mean by “. . .,” and did he mean what I think he means? Or am I just reading my own interests into an ambiguous statement? I would argue that a good poem should allow a reader to do both–it should reveal something about what it represents, but it should also reveal something about the reader to him or herself. Poetry should be like a window, through which you can get a unique view of something, but in which you can also see yourself more clearly. (Many misreadings occur when the reader mistakes one of these visions for the other.) In that way, poetry resists an easy subject/object distinction in the way that other arts do not.

    I have gotten a lot of guidance in this area from a book called _The Dyer’s Hand_ by the 20th century Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden. It’s long, but its first few chapters contain some remarkable insights on the nature of poetry as an art form.

    – Steve S.

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