Minimalism & simplicity

Minimalism is often confused with simplicity. Minimalism is negative, a cutting away. Simplicity is positive, a selection and assembling. Minimalism is conscious after the fact, simplicity before.

Minimalism is usually reduced to modern experiments in aesthetics, to architecture lacking ornament, or to art works reduced to mathematical exactness — while ignoring the equally exact fractals in nature. Because they have things “taken out,” works of minimalism are supposed to be more functional, more logical, more efficient, or more aesthetically pleasing. But the difference between minimalism and simplicity is really between modernism and those minimal works that transcend mere modernism.

Simplicity does not mean lacking in knowledge or depth. Anymore than minimalism means apprehension of the essential and discarding of all the rest. A haiku is structurally minimalist, but that is a structual criterion. Is it simple? Only those inspired by past masters will be.

Simplicity involves removal of complexities and superfluities, but it begins from the ground up. Minimalism suggests a baroque extravagance followed by a purgative. Simplicity stops before the first bite, the first brushstroke, the first line of poetry. A Japanese Zen calligraphy student struggled to paint an enso, always failing at the point of completion. All the while, his instructor lingered over his shoulder. Then the instructor stepped out a moment. The student seized the moment and drew a perfect enso. The instructor returned, expressing approval. He had left the room, intentionally, at the right moment. Sometimes we need to be alone to figure out beauty and perfection. What was taken out (the instructor’s overbearing presence) minimized the scene, but what was created from scratch (the enso) was a profound simplicity.

Our first obligation is to recognize what our task entails: they is much to get rid of, but that alone will not make for creativity. Both minimalism and simplicity are inadequate to the point of our human project when we miss the criteria that makes for psychological and aesthetic satisfaction, namely the fulfillment of harmony with nature.

Nature here means not the picturesque world of flora and fauna but that pattern of existence that predominates in an overarching way the activities of human beings (and everything else, though humans can identify with their our species’ dilemmas more readily). Without evidence of the connection of human imagination and sentiment to larger issues of proportion, function, and flow in nature, the product — be it an art work or a life style — is not genuine and is merely a cerebral contrivance, as so much minimalist art and architecture is, and so much simplicity is in the pages of advice books and glossy magazines.

Everything is necessarily contrived, but art is intended to minimize this obvious contrivance and shape the object and ideas into something that harmonizes with ourselves, creating an art form that is what used to be called — somewhat ambitiously — “universal.” Thus we sense the wider applications of minimalism and simplicity. We need not be artists, writers, composers, etc. Rather we are crafting the art of living every day.

So there is every possibility of making things that project a universal quality, and making our lives as close to that quality as possible because of the harmony it will bestow upon us. Our universalism will be small, local and modest, in keeping with the character of nature in a given time and place. Everything must be where it is supposed to be. Everything that is in contradiction to nature is not where it is supposed to be. It can be cut down (minimalism) but ultimately must be redone (simplicity).

A true minimalism would be simplicity. Making a living or making one’s clothes may be a minimalism if executed with anger or resentment, chopping or cutting our way through life and money. But they may be a simplification if we rethink our direction in life, make priorities, stake out our purpose more carefully. A work of music, a cottage, a painting, a routine of exercise, can all be approached with this dichotomous purpose and difference of mindset: cut after the fact or create before the fact.

Economy and efficiency are not achieved by cutting out from a faulty grandiose plan. Better to have begun with modest ends that harmonize with the modesty of nature, and our human nature. We learn more from applying the simplicity about which we may read to that which is naturally simple rather than works of human contrivance: a night sky, a bird in flight, the colors of a vegetable garden, the cleanliness of a snowfall.

Whether we have exceeded the natural and must cut back, or we are venturing on a new path of interest and can afford to begin simply, our methods always have a wider social context. Our lives are patterned after larger social and cultural patterns. We are not autonomous little experiments all our own. We are bundles of cultural and environmental inheritance: our language, habits, preferences, fears. We must make friends with them and not abhor what we are. Then we can selectively decide what to cut, what to nurture.

Modern society takes advantage of our interconnectedness to culture and the world around us by playing up the grandiose from which we can only retreat with great pain from the cutting and bleeding. Modern society encourages consumption, compulsion, acquisition, satiation, social networking — an inevitable clash of spirit with nature, harmony, health, and self. The prospect of anything less than relentless power smacks to some of renunciation, sacrifice, and asceticism. Yet these are historical forms of creating, in simple fashion, personal strength; they become painless efficiencies from which larger projects can be founded.

The stranglehold of modern society on the self is built not on individual empowerment but parasitism, wherein each self is rendered an object to feed a grand organism. It is the opposite of host-parasite relationship because it is the opposite of nature. We deal more with these human abstractions and contrivances than we do with fellow-humans.

Minimalism may be a necessary tool because so much must be knocked away to save the very structure. But the structures of society and culture are not eternal. They were assembled as controls. They will not survive. Individuals do, but not structures, which are only the projection of humans. We must give up things in minimalist style, but ultimately pare down that which obstructs a view of the self, of the spirit. At that point can we begin again, but from principles of simplicity. Simplicity is a component not of art but of life style. No structure is simple.

Simplicity is a disengagement from the furor of the world, from the social mileau that ultimately cannot be knocked down from without. Rather we must walk away or dispel it, like the ancient Chinese recluses. Whether we minimize painfully or begin modestly to create from little, a philosophy of eremitism can provide a versatile philosophical tool for slashing brambles or pruning vines. How we work our gardens is how we work life itself.