Charlie's Blog: The Cowardice of the Minimalist Aesthetic


The Cowardice of the Minimalist Aesthetic

I will not subscribe to the argument that ornament increases the pleasure of the life of a cultivated person, or the argument which covers itself with the words: “But if the ornament is beautiful! ...” To me, and to all the cultivated people, ornament does not increase the pleasures of life. If I want to eat a piece of gingerbread I will choose one that is completely plain and not a piece which represents a baby in arms of a horserider, a piece which is covered over and over with decoration. The man of the fifteenth century would not understand me. But modern people will. The supporter of ornament believes that the urge for simplicity is equivalent to self-denial. No, dear professor from the College of Applied Arts, I am not denying myself! To me, it tastes better this way.
Ornament and Crime

There is a show on HGTV where a couple flips houses for a living. They take old houses in states of decay and ruin and remodel them to sell for a profit. Naturally, the remodel of an old home into a newer home requires aesthetic judgments, and those judgments tend to be on the safe side. Walls are always painted white. New appliances tend to be gray stainless steel. Wallpaper is a no-no. The aim of these aesthetic choices isn't to make a home the most beautiful it can be but to give the least offense to the prospective buyer. When buyers look at a home, they tend to complain of a "dated" look and a preference for a "modern" look. But what is modern? And when did this become an aesthetic? And why does it matter?

The stupidity of minimalism came to a head for me when Apple decided to produce an iPhone in white. Stop the presses! A white iPhone?! What boldness!! What courage! Now, you could express yourself in either black or white. It seems people forgot the existence of those candy colored Macbooks.

Apple used to make fun products before they started making cold gray boxes. They brought back color for their iPods when they stopped selling so well. But you're never going to see a woodgrain Apple product. Anything regarding personalization and expression are relegated to after market accessories for your Apple products. People don't like the minimalist aesthetic. They have an insatiable need to decorate and personalize everything they own. This impulse seems hardwired in the psyche of the human being. Even cave men were interior decorators.

The modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was miffed when residents of his minimalist Lake Shore Apartments hung curtains in the windows. This variety could not be tolerated. The chief virtue in minimalist design is uniformity. The expression of humanity and individualism is forbidden. Variety is the enemy. Ornament is a crime.

The minimalist aesthetic is an anti-human aesthetic. It is a hatred of humanity and individuality. Adolf Loos expressed this clearly in his landmark essay, "Ornament and Crime." The common man loves ornament and variety. The modern man loves the absence of these things. The modern man wants smooth lines and the absence of decoration. His color palette gets reduced to white, black, and gray. The modern man wishes for the timeless quality that is achieved when all ornament and decoration are removed. The minimalist aesthetic is never dated. It is always new.

Loos would make the argument that this sort of minimalism was more productive. By eliminating ornament, the production of utilitarian objects would take less time to build or make and could be offered at a reduced price. The argument seems to make sense from a purely rational viewpoint except that minimalist objects devoid of ornament almost always cost more than those with decoration. In addition, industrial designers like Apple's Jonathan Ive will spend considerable time and resources to achieve the perfection of drab in their products. Who knew that boring required so much effort? As Mokokoma Mokhonoana put it, "A minimalist does not charge you for what he did. He charges you for what he did not do." Basically, minimalist designers are like the tailors of the emperor's new clothes. They make nothing and get paid and celebrated for it. But minimalism does not come cheap. A Barcelona chair will cost you more than a caned rocking chair that took many hours to complete.

Another argument that Loos made was that the absence of ornament would remove the dated aspect of things making them timeless and never needing replacement except for wear and tear. Minimalism is immune to fashion. An aesthetic like Art Nouveau is married to a time and place. The minimalist aesthetic is wedded to nothing. Of course, this argument is also nonsense as people who buy minimalist objects are always upgrading to something simpler and more refined. The iPhone is already on its sixth incarnation, and Apple fans will no doubt eat up the iPhone 7 which will have only a minimal difference in design.

So, if Loos's original arguments don't hold water, why do people opt for this minimalist aesthetic? The answer goes back to our house flipping couple. The minimalist option is the safe option. It is the least offensive of aesthetics, so it should have the broadest appeal. No one ever complains that their toilet paper is too white. It is better to be boring than to be ugly.

Any aesthetic commits you to a worldview. When you decorate something, you are making a choice. Choices are dictated by values, and values are determined by worldviews. This is why the punk rocker looks decidedly different in contrast to the suited businessman. The workman chooses his tools according to function and utility instead of color. The homemaker chooses her decor to appeal to the desires for comfort and warmth. The rich man will choose things that highlight his wealth like a gold watch while the poor man will choose something that lasts long or costs little. Minimalism attempts to be valueless. The same iPhone the poor man carries is the same as the rich man. It is one size fits all. There is no worldview represented by minimalism. It is a blank, a void, a zero.

When minimalist aesthetics become problematic is when its austere emptiness becomes equated with beauty and perfection. It's like believing the best book ever written is a notebook with blank pages, and writing in those notebooks will make them worthless. Blank space is a good place to start, but minimalism makes it the finish. There is no room for humanity in the minimalist aesthetic. The human becomes a blight on the platonic perfection. You can tell in Mies van der Rohe's madness that he would have preferred that no humans actually live in his structures. The problem is that people rarely pay architects to make buildings with no function. When they do, lawsuits happen.

Who does the minimalist fear? The minimalist fears the critic both now and in the future. Like the unprofitable servant who buried his talent in the ground out of fear, the minimalist refuses to gamble by making a commitment to a choice of values. The minimalist refuses to convey beauty but prefers the blank page and the blank canvas. Maybe someone else will put something in that blank space, but the responsibility will be all theirs. Minimalism is creation done by the CYA method.

Emptiness is not beauty. Austerity is not functional. Minimalism is not courageous. Art and design always requires a commitment to something, and minimalism is the refusal to make the commitment. As one minimalist put it, "What you see is what you see." Any minimalist who disagrees with this assessment will have moved away from their minimalism in their disagreement. Minimalism is cowardice. It is a retreat to a neutral zone of nothing. The result is a lot of cold looking buildings people don't mind seeing torn down and a lot of timeless products nobody ends up caring much about.