The last few decades have witnessed the development of a profoundly influential philosophical movement that is tantamount to perceptions of the modern world, but was conceived over a hundred years ago. It has its roots in primitivism, but now reaches into canopy of culture. Although the term “Minimalism“ was first used in 1913 to describe Malevich’s composition of a black square on a white background, this new form of expression— explored by such artists as Duchamp and Picasso— was quickly cut off and subsequently stalled by two World Wars. It wasn’t until the 60s that Minimalism attained a solidified momentum among painters and sculptors in post-war America.
What these artists had tapped into was soon embodied in the works of architects and industrial designers. Gaudy Victorianism fell out of favor for the cleanliness and crispness of Frank Lloyd Wright. The transparency, colors, and paraphernalia of early electronic devices were left behind for the honed necessity and usability of Johnny Ive. Influential German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe expressed his approach to design with the now famous saying, “Less is more.” Industrial designer Dieter Rams, known for the timelessness of his work, echoed a similar sentiment with “Less, but better.“
There was an impulse for such works as Black Square, a reason for their creation at a time when the transcendence of flight, illumination of incandescent light, speed of the telegram and telephone, and the power of the internal combustion engine profoundly changed the capabilities of humanity. In an age of unprecedented intellectual progress, long-held conventions became transient, and a need arose for new forms of expression that reflected these developments. A driving force behind Minimalism at this time was a desire to move away from the referentiality of established shapes, forms, and subjects of Realism, which Futurists felt were trapped in the language of the old.
Instead of an attempt to approximate the detail of reality which contains an inseparable narrative of the object portrayed, Minimalism at this time involved the conveying of an essence, without an apparent referent to lock meaning into place. For example, In Airplane Flying, rather than depicting the form of a plane, the object becomes less important as the essence of a plane is conveyed through formal features and technique. Artists such Malevich held that painting the object got artists nowhere and that good artists were able to masterfully convey an essence through deliberate selection and distillation.
In the last few decades, the influence of these ideas has moved beyond galleries and drawing boards. A defining characteristic of modern cuisine is now the use of a small number of ingredients, allowing more room for the palate to experience the flavors and complexities of each ingredient. Fashion has recently traversed the loudness of the 80s and the grunge of the 90s to arrive at the refined cleanness of the current decade. Most recently, the same developments have occurred in music.
Now, many independent and mainstream artists embrace simple chord progressions and repetition, use a small number of sounds in their compositions, and manipulate the dynamic range of their recordings. These characteristics result in music that is cleaner, crisper, more exposed, and articulated. Such songs are less imposing on their individual components, in that their composition brings out the individual pieces of a song rather than creating a surface that is evened and conventional.
This conventional approach can be enticing, but there is a need to break from tradition to experience deeper understanding and emotion, to become acutely aware of the pieces that make up the whole rather than the whole that suppresses and masks the pieces. By breaking the surface of convention, minimalistic music dares the listener to consider individual components of a song to ascertain their meanings— this leads to being drawn into the music, rather than a straightforward recognition and awareness of the whole that barely skims a song’s surface. Furthermore, these minimalist pieces are able to convey sentiment beyond themselves. For example, such songs often feature mysteriously ambiguous lyrics, as artists choose words for their audible tactility rather than their semantic purpose; meaning becomes more individual, and awareness more introspective.
In the modern world, we are more educated, inundated with information, and exposed to psychological stress at unprecedented levels. These stresses increase demand for that which is refined, clean, and crisp. In the same way that the cold increases desire for warmth, solitude for social interaction, work for leisure, and boredom for risk, this cultural shift towards simplicity is a reaction to the complicated conditions of modern existence. Certain aspects of life are here to stay and only continue to grow in their impact, but the arts, design, and culture are malleable as our needs for balance and symmetry are pursued.
However, Minimalism today is more than a reaction to modern circumstances; it is a movement away from naive fascination. In the 80s and 90s, electronics were being used in revolutionary ways to create new sounds and distortions— but as the dirty, chaotic, and often unbalanced sound of such bands as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Def Leppard, and Guns N’ Roses indicates, this era demonstrated more of an exhibition and a fascination with these tools.
A parallel can also be drawn between music of the 80s and 90s and the fascination of technological complexity in an era when designers exposed the internal intricacies of products through the use of transparent cases (i.e. Apple’s first iMac). Now, the pride that Apple takes in its clean minimalism can be seen in the distinctly flat and simple aesthetics that debuted last year with iOS 7 and Yosemite. The hard detail of older cars against the smooth clarity of Tesla’s Model S provides yet another illustration.
A striking example of changes in tastes towards Minimalism is the portrayal of design in futuristic films. Many sci-fi films provide a unique insight: an exaggeration of our current conception of cutting-edge design and a projection of what the future of design will be, as determined by current positions on what is desirable. The shift from complicated technicality to Minimalist elegance can be seen in the different representations of futuristic settings, such as those in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Her, and Ex Machina. It is interesting that the future, a time assumed to contain unprecedented resources and technology, is currently portrayed as being so sterile, clean, and streamlined. Imagining our future in a minimalist space is demonstrative of our desire for architectural, technological, and scientific mastery.
Minimalism, at its core, is indicative of mastery. Rather than using what is available simply because of its availability, Minimalism involves making deliberate, calculated, and knowledgeable decisions to distill ideas and functions into a pure essence. It is easier to approximate, cover with noise that which is exposed, and convey a message with explicit loudness than it is to sublimate the principle of an object, idea, or purpose. Not only does the Minimalistic approach require more skill and understanding, it is necessary reflection of the location of our society. Minimalism in everyday life is both a way for us to create a modern world and serves as a means cope with it.